James Lawton: Harrington's flourish the perfect trailer for drama's opening scene

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The Independent Online

When the wind dropped and the sun shone here with such perfect timing before the ceremonial opening of the 36th Ryder Cup it would have been pretty to report a leprechaun sighting in the glade which houses the ninth hole.

Instead, though, there was a flashpoint of flesh-and-blood Irish romance to launch the latest chapter of a golf story that for 79 years has been piling drama and grace and - from time to time - moments of tearing chauvinism one upon the other.

The exquisite excitement was provided by the sand-iron of Ireland's favourite son, Padraig Harrington, and when the ball rolled into the hole and a great tide of cheers rolled around these acres of Co Kildare, you knew that the old lure of this extraordinary tournament was already about its seductive work.

In one of Europe's key practice matches, Harrington holed a bunker shot which his playing partner, Colin Montgomerie, had declared "impossible". Monty and Harrington, who, when they face Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk at 8am this morning, will seek to deliver the same kind of shattering opening blow to the Americans that shaped, utterly, the tournament in Oakland Hills, Michigan, two years ago, contemplated the problem in the sand for an agonising time.

It is a fact that at stake was no more than the €300 (£210) waged against their opponents, Paul Casey and Robert Karlsson, but sometimes there is a difference between truth and mere accuracy.

You had to be beside that ninth green to weigh the surge of emotion that crossed the face of Harrington, a local hero who may just join a great tradition of vital Irish contributions to the battle for old Sam Ryder's pot, when the crowd roared and at least one hat was thrown in the air as though a good thing had come in at Punchestown or the Curragh.

When the real action begins, Harrington's flash of genius, his perfect understanding of what he had to do, will be as distant as a puff of smoke on one of the hills so regularly enveloped in cloud these last few days, but it is something a golfer can put in his bag when he goes out to face one of the great trials of his career.

Montgomerie-Harrington v Woods-Furyk surely comes into this category because this is a Ryder Cup exceptional even in the long roll call of glory that started in 1927 in Worcester, Massachusetts, when the United States beat Great Britain and Ireland 9 1/ 2 and to 2 1/ 2. It stands out because never before in the tournament has a great golfer, and certainly one who many believe may well be the greatest in history, at last publicly declared his need to make a significant impact.

The fact that Woods is expected to engulf Jack Nicklaus's all-time mark of 18 major tournament wins before the end of this decade, when he will be a mere 34 - against Nicklaus's 46 when he won his last major at Augusta - puts into desperate definition the Ryder Cup record which he insists will be dramatically improved here. In four appearances, he has seven wins, 11 losses and two ties. It is a harvest which leaves him scrabbling outside any list of significant US achievers. Billy Casper amassed 23 1/ 2 points, Arnold Palmer 23 and Jack Nicklaus 18 1/ 2. Jimmy Demaret has a 100 per record - six wins.

So can Monty and Harrington stand against the furies of a suddenly committed Tiger and his sidekick Furyk, men who are said to have formed a shoulder-to-shoulder competitive partnership which might just have been sealed in blood?

To see the suddenly avuncular Monty and the cool but passionate Harrington at work yesterday was surely one of the major causes of the optimism that carried Europe's captain, Ian Woosnam, into yesterday's ceremonials.

Woosnam has been assailed by all kinds of criticism, charged with bungling the announcement of his wild-card selections, but when it came to the moment of decision yesterday, when the envelopes which showed the troop dispositions for the first of the fourball matches, he had more than a little reason to believe that the momentum which has brought four European victories in the last five attempts will serve him well enough.

The United States captain, Tom Lehman, also insisted that he had good cause to believe in a good outcome, that the spirit of his team made him believe in the breaking of the pattern, restoring some of the old American belief that what old Sam Ryder intended as a amiable walk in the sunshine between players from either side of the Atlantic was really an invitation to expand the American golfing empire created by the likes of Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen.

Yes, he was happy that Woods and Furyk could drive a wedge into Europe, that Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco would be too strong for Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, fine players united in a friendship forged still stronger by the recent death of Clarke's wife, Heather. Lehman spoke of the "gratifying" reaction by players of both teams to the Clarke tragedy and he declared that the game would be played in the best of spirit - but played hard, and unremittingly so.

It was an invitation to remember the best and a little of the worst of an event which will take hold of the imagination of so much of the sports world this morning.

We can remember the charm of Nicklaus's concession of a putt to Tony Jacklin, granted in the belief that no golfer should have to live with the pain of losing the match for his team, and then the anguish of Bernhard Langer's missed putt in Kiawah Island when some of the American players mistook the Ryder Cup for the first Desert Storm.

More relevantly, now, we can recall the joy of men like Monty and Harrington when they crushed the old opponents on their own Michigan soil two years ago. Those were the images that flashed again on the ninth green yesterday. But then later there was another one, up on the stage where Tiger Woods stared into the middle distance as the Ryder Cup was declared officially under way. Tiger, too, was no doubt peering into the history of the Ryder Cup; even as he resolved to reshape it.

The Irish cheers were brave and joyful but they didn't drive away a strong suspicion. It is that this Ryder Cup is not for history but for one man's relentless ambition. This one, it is impossible not to say, may already belong to the Tiger.

J J who? The American rookies stepping into the unknown at the K Club this morning

J J Henry

Actual name is Ronald Henry III, but is always known as "J J". The 31-year-old Henry had played only three majors before this season. His maiden US Tour win came at the 177th attempt in the Buick Championship at the start of July. Ranked 190th in the world going into 2006.

Brett Wetterich

Turned professional in 1994 and came to prominence this season after surviving the US Tour qualifying school with nothing to spare last December. The 33-year-old won his first title in May and was second at Memorial. He was 294th in world at the start of the year.

Ryder rules: The essential guide

Today's timetable

Morning fourballs

8am C Montgomerie (Sco) & P Harrington (Irl) v T Woods & J Furyk

8.15am P Casey (Eng) & R Karlsson (Swe) v S Cink & J J Henry

8.30am S Garcia (Sp) & Jose Maria Olazabal v D Toms & B Wetterich

8.45am D Clarke (N Irl) & L Westwood (Eng) v P Mickelson & C DiMarco

12pm Deadline for captains to hand in pairings for afternoon foursomes

1.30pm Afternoon foursomes start (at 15-minute intervals)

One hour after the final match finishes the captains must have handed in their pairings for tomorrow morning's fourballs.

The format

Play will consist of four fourballs and four foursomes on each of the first two days, followed by 12 singles matches on Sunday.

What is a fourball?

The two players on the team each play their own ball throughout the round. The low score, or better ball, among the two on each hole is the team's score for that hole and is judged against the "better ball" of their opponents.

What is a foursome?

Two members of each team play alternate shots with one ball. So the first player tees off, the second player hits the second shot, the first player hits the third shot, and so on until the ball is holed. Players alternate hitting tee shots so that the same player does not hit every drive.

Scoring

All games are matchplay - that is, head-to-head competition - and are decided by holes won or lost. If one pair (or singles player), for instance, is five holes ahead of their opponents with four holes remaining they are declared winners by "five and four". All games are over 18 holes. If level at that stage, each team receives half a point. The half point is then added to the team's total. The first team to 14 1/2 points wins the Cup. If the match is tied at 14-14, Europe retain the Cup.

The envelope

Each captain will place into an envelope the name of one of their players who will stand down from the singles if a member of the opposition is unable to play. Each side will be awarded half a point in such a situation.

James Corrigan

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