Europe primed for epic battle

The 35th Ryder Cup was formally launched on the magnificent Oakland Hills course, burnished by the vivid shades of the American fall

Walter Hagen, the father of professional golf, who said we should always take time to smell the flowers, might just have detected a whiff of cordite here yesterday when the 35th Ryder Cup was formally launched on this magnificent course burnished by the vivid shades of the American fall.

It could hardly have been otherwise in the martial spirit now gripping the nation and the fact that heading for the latest golfing battleground was the 41st president of the United States, George Bush Snr. His appearance as an official guest of the American PGA will be the familiar underpinning of a golf match that since the early Nineties has, apart from growing into a centrepiece of world sport at its most spectacular, increasingly become a barometer of middle America's self-regard.

Maybe that was not quite what Hagen, who led the United States to four victories between 1926 and 1937, or the founder, the amiable St Albans seed merchant Sam Ryder, had in mind, but the reality was implicitly accepted when the organisers extended their invitation to the former president. Bush Snr was a fanatical golf fan long before he ran the CIA and elected himself commander-in-chief of the first real-life Desert Storm in 1991 and both he and his son, president George W, have been closely associated with what some golf purists would categorise as an excessive descent into Ryder Cup partisanship on this side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, it is a matter of record that the current president, who was yesterday on election business in Minnesota, played a significant role in creating some of the competitive passion which may have contributed to those disfiguring scenes on the course and in the galleries when the Ryder Cup was last played on American soil in Boston five years ago.

George W, then governor of Texas, chose not to recall the benign sagacity of a Hagen or the great amateur Bobby Jones. No, he read the last written words of the commander of the Alamo before it was overrun by the Mexican army.

This week, Ben Crenshaw's successor as US captain, Hal Sutton, produced another American icon at his team meeting - the basketball legendMichael Jordan - when the fervent talk was of the pressing need to avenge the 15 1 / 2 -12 1 / 2 victory achieved by Europe at The Belfry two years ago.

Sutton, who as a playing member of the US team at Boston spent much of his time whipping up the crowd, has also said this week, while pointing to the American flag on the back of his shirt, "Anything I can summon up, that's what we're going to do."

All of this might seem a touch disturbing but for one single, shining, redeeming fact. No corner in all of sport has the capacity to move the spirit - and engage the sporting instinct - more upliftingly than the battle for this old golden trophy.

Back in Gleneagles in 1921, Sam Ryder thought he was initiating no more than a friendly contest which would enhance transatlantic golf relationships when JH Taylor led Great Britain and Ireland to a 9-3 victory over Emmett French's Americans. Instead he set in train a glorious, historic

engagement which, with the arrival of European superstars like Seve Ballesteros and the current captain Bernhard Langer alongside the likes of British major winners Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle, has explored every limit, mostly good, of the golfing instinct.

Boston five years ago was a blackspot, a betrayal, and no amount of American evasion can hide the fact, but despite some worrying hints of that doomsday version of sporting patriotism resurfacing these last few days, the proper outlook at the dawn of the action is surely optimism.

What it comes down to,perhaps, is a degree of faith in the essential character of men such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson on the American side, and Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington on Europe's, who have come to represent their team's best hopes of success here.

The sporting prayer must be that men such as these will rekindle the best of Ryder Cup history, as the embattled Montgomerie did at the The Belfry two years ago when he found in the team effort a glorious relief from the pressures of his own battle to remain a front-rank competitor.

Monty's success then has left the great Woods with his own need to exert powers that have come under increasing doubt for two years now, and were intensified this month by the loss of his No 1 world ranking to the remorseless Vijay Singh.

While Woods has been somewhat defensive of his Ryder Cup record, which at five wins, eight defeats, and two halves lags significantly behind that of Monty (16-7-5) he has declared this week: "It is very important for me to play well here and help America win this thing - and I'm very excited about my game at the moment."

Sutton probably provided the strongest surge of blood when he argued passionately the case for the Tiger finally emerging as one of the great figures of Ryder Cup history - someone to rank with Hagen, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan.

"It's not always Tiger's fault that his record is not as good as it might be," Sutton said. "I mean, this guy has been the best player in the world for 256 weeks, he just got knocked off, and the fact is that every golfer in the world rises to the occasion when Tiger is around. They want to say they beat Tiger Woods. They take their game to a level sometimes that they didn't know they had.

"In the Ryder Cup I've seen Tiger shoot 64 - and lose. Some of those losses on his record, well, I'll tell you, he didn't play badly. I feel very strongly that the Tiger is ready. I think y'all might see some of Tiger's greatest golf this week. So buckle your chin straps," Sutton added.

This surely would be the essence of the Ryder Cup, something that might just transcend the drum-beating and the flag-waving which have always seemed utterly out of place in a game which is supposed to be about a man's exploration of his own will - and respect for his opponent.

It is said that one American captain, the hard-playing, hard-drinking Sam Snead, found it hard to forgive Nicklaus for his generous granting of a putt to Tony Jacklin in the drawn match at Royal Birkdale in 1969. Snead suggested that Nicklaus patronised Jacklin. More seriously, it took away the chance of an American victory. But in that gesture we did see the beauty and perhaps even the point of golf. We saw the man who some still believe, and especially in the becalming of the Tiger, is the best golfer the world has ever known, say that in the end winning wasn't the only thing.

Nothing that happens in the next three days is likely to be more thrilling than that, though a European victory will of course be sweet enough. Langer, the ultimately quiet golfer who has two singles victories over his rival Sutton, has handled himself perfectly here. The suspicion is that he will win - along with golf.

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