Heaven or Hal: a prize to thrill and chill - Golf - Sport - The Independent

Heaven or Hal: a prize to thrill and chill

Hosts hungrier than ever to turn tide of European domination as high drama in Detroit beckons

Paul Casey has played in a Walker Cup and a Seve Trophy, as well as the four major championships, but the Ryder Cup is something else again. Casey found that out a few days ago even before stepping on the plane to go to Detroit tomorrow.

Paul Casey has played in a Walker Cup and a Seve Trophy, as well as the four major championships, but the Ryder Cup is something else again. Casey found that out a few days ago even before stepping on the plane to go to Detroit tomorrow.

"It suddenly dawned on me," said the young Englishman, "while I was being interviewed on a radio programme, what you are representing. Your team-mates are very important, but the daunting bit is the fact that you are representing the general public and everyone's hopes."

Daunting, maybe, but when everything goes right, as it did for Europe at The Belfry two years ago and as it has for this side of the Atlantic rather more often than their fair share over the past two decades, it is a joyous feeling.

As Paul McGinley related, a few days after holing the winning putt in the last match: "It's just so special, so much pleasure, excitement and happiness. I can't tell you how happy I feel. It's not a personal happiness. It's a happiness for everybody. It seems like everybody in the whole world feels it, whether it be the bellboy in the hotel or somebody on the course this morning, it's just been fantastic.

"The sheer volume of the congratulations, the sheer joy of everyone, that's what comes across strongly. Every single person I meet feels like they won the Cup."

This wider sense of involvement is, of course, why the Ryder Cup is a uniquely anticipated event on the golfing schedule and, equally, has the power to inspire or daunt. If recent history is anything to go by, it is the Europeans who have been inspired and the Americans daunted. It is Bernhard Langer's job to keep the chemistry of his team going, and Hal Sutton's to change his.

Said Langer: "I don't think my team need any more motivating. The Ryder Cup is the biggest thing in golf, certainly for Europeans. I just need to keep them happy and encourage them. I've played on 10 teams, been in 10 team rooms, and the chemistry has always been wonderful. I don't expect it to be any different this time."

"We need to turn the tide a bit here in my opinion," said Sutton. "We've only won three of the last nine. I think the Americans are hungry. Our mission is to play like gentlemen and to play like champions."

They will need to if a repeat of Brookline five years ago is to be avoided. It was a nasty atmosphere in Boston, quite in contrast to the partisan but respectful galleries both at The Belfry and at Oak Hill in 1995. For the first time in the States, alcohol sales will be restricted; alcoholic drinks will only be available in the tented village on the North course at Oakland Hills, which is across a road from the more famous South course.

Both captains agree there is a home advantage, and by the measures of collective world rankings and major champions - the US have five, the Europeans none for the first time since 1981 - America should once more start favourites. But a more pertinent rating is how many wins each side have this year, and on that score both teams have five winners in 2004, with 10 titles on the European team and seven for the US players.

Langer has the rare luxury of not being concerned about anyone's form or fitness, although David Howell had to rest after suffering a heavy cold at the start of last week. In fact, the Europeans could be in danger of losing their perennial underdogs status. "We don't want to build up our hopes too much," warned Darren Clarke. "But we are looking good, a good blend of youth and experience."

However, Phil Mickelson has tried to occupy the same ground. "Are we the underdogs? That's a good question, because if you look at the last nine Ryder Cups, six were won by the Europeans, and in the last four, they have won three and we had a great upset on Sunday to get that one win.

"I would say they bring out their best game in the event and we have not in years past. But I really have a gut feeling that this year is going to be different, that the US are going to come out really playing well on our home soil and we're going to play some of our best golf."

Mickelson added: "One of the things I've noticed is that our team has incredible putters. We have a great putting team, as well as a great core of guys who are all fun and easy to get along with."

The putting could be a key to the week. Oakland Hills is a traditional US Open-style venue but the greens are large and undulating. Sutton, who has played the course several times this summer, said: "It's not the monster it was, but you still have to drive the ball well because you need to keep your iron shots below the hole. Of course, you also have to be a good putter to close the deal."

Langer will prepare his side to expect the worst from the gallery, hoping it is not necessary, but will not be encouraging the sort of dirty tricks Ian Poulter talked about last week. "We will play to the rules and let our golf do the talking, as we have in the past," Langer said.

Langer knows who his players want to play with, and who they don't. He has told them everyone will play before the singles, but will not push anyone to play five times if they are not ready for it. "Last time, I sat out a session because I knew I had to get myself ready for Sunday," he said.

A motivational video is ready for the team room, one of the ideas Langer has plucked from one of his five previous captains. "I've incor-porated things from all of them but I can only do this job one way, and that is the Bernhard Langer way."

The battle of the captains will be fascinating, but not as much as the action on the course. What to make of Tiger Woods? Still searching for form, no longer the world No 1 or the dominant figure, given that Mickelson is the Masters champion, perhaps this is the time Woods will put more points on the board.

Colin Montgomerie's presence will be reassuring for the Europeans, but it might be better if a Sergio Garcia or a Padraig Harrington took over as the side's leading point- scorer. It is hard to imagine anything other than another classic contest which will come down, following the tension of the foursomes and the slowly drawn-out brilliance of the fourballs, to a rush of excitement in next Sunday's singles.

It could come down to one putt and, then, God help the putter, and the rest of us.

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