Europe's big guns can call the shots

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The Independent Online

Paul Azinger will take his UnitedStates team to the Muhammad Ali Museum in Louisville on Monday night, and they will then be granted an audience with The Greatest. It can only be hoped that when Ali tells them about "rope-a-dope" they do not mishear it as "dopes inside the ropes". Otherwise Phil Mickelson and Co might believe he was referring to their previous two Ryder Cup performances.

A record fourth defeat in a row for the star-mangled banner and such cheap quips will be everywhere. Consider that before 1985 they had not been floored in 13 stagings of the biennial scrap. Of course, Europe's inclusion in 1979 has undoubtedly played a massive role in this staggering reversal of the fortunes, but even those pioneers of the early Eighties – Tony Jacklin, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and yes, Nick Faldo – could never have anticipated just what they were triggering. Some suggest their heroics may even have been the beginning of the end. Any more drubbings and there is a danger America will simply switch off.

They are two schools of thought on this subject, and Sam Torrance leads the way in the brigade that screech: "Absolute rubbish!", pointing out that until Europe started winning there was no live coverage Stateside of the Ryder Cup anyway. "The event is bigger than all that," says the 2002 captain. "It'll last forever."

Others are not so optimistic. Even Mickelson warns: "If the excitement of the Ryder Cup is to be maintained it is important the US starts winning."

Here it must be suggested that some of the excitement would return if the US were even to start competing. Azinger has been understandably loath to admit that it would be a success on his part if his side were to run Europe close. But that must be on the mind of the man who is fond of repeating "Hapless" Hal Sutton's observation – "It took a generation to get us in this mess, and it will take a generation to get us out of it" – when he scans down the respective line-ups. While the Yanks used to have most of the big names and the Euros most of the big characters, now the Euros have most of the big names and the Euros have most of the big characters. In the past, Tiger Woods has levelled up the contest on paper, but in his absence there is a huge minus column on the home half of the sheet whichever way you look at it.

For America to be in the hunt as the holes count down on Sunday evening, Azinger must rely on a few things. The first, most obvious, one will be his senior men turning around their recent Ryder form. Mickelson is the embodiment of dismal American failure, as his half-point out of five return at the K Club signified. He, Jim Furyk, Stewart Cink and even the returning Justin Leonard must go out strong and allow the rookies to pick up in their slipstream.

Boo Weekley, Anthony Kim and JB Holmes are certainly cap-able of doing so, and in the first-named Azinger has a quite marvellous personality who could bring a smile to their team room and a belly-roar to their crowd. Boo was born for the Ryder Cup, and if Azinger can find him a fun-loving partner (Hunter Mahan, anyone?) America could well have their inspiration. But that will be no easy task; none of Azinger's pairings will be. Some of Faldo's, meanwhile, fall offthe page (Westwood-Garcia,Stenson-Karlsson, Harrington-McDowell, Rose-Poulter).

Naturally, there is always home advantage to be considered, and Mickelson's provocative statement to Graeme McDowell recently – "These guys won't be golf fans, they will be Nascar fans. They're going to be drinking beer" – does suggest the Kentuckians might be imbued with a bit of the Brookline spirit. Azinger has no way of controlling that – if indeedhe wants to – but his decision to cut down the rough and widen the fairways met with a raise of the eyebrow from Padraig Harrington yesterday.

"That's the strangest thing of all," said the back-to-back major winner. "They have the longest hitter in Holmes, but we have the next four longest in Stenson, Karlsson, Westwood and Garcia.So for Azinger to make it a course for the big boys could backfire."

What surely will not backfire are the lightning-quick greens Azinger has demanded, and if Europe fall down anywhere it could be there. Or it could be the antics of Captain Faldo. Ian Poulter is adept enough to justify his "friend's" wild-card pick, though again Harrington was willing to stir the pot. "Darren Clarke will be missed both in the team room and on the course," he said.

Faldo cannot allow any resentment to fester. Or then, perhaps he should. The Ryder Cup needs fireworks from some direction, and it is unlikely to see many lit on the course. Europe by five.