James takes Europe into new era

ON FRIDAY, after two years, the talking will finally have to stop and one of sport's, let alone golf's, most compelling events will get under way. By next Sunday we will know whether the 33rd Ryder Cup will have been Europe's greatest triumph or America's most embarrassing defeat. "We are up against it," Colin Montgomerie said. "But then we always are, and we won the last two matches."

ON FRIDAY, after two years, the talking will finally have to stop and one of sport's, let alone golf's, most compelling events will get under way. By next Sunday we will know whether the 33rd Ryder Cup will have been Europe's greatest triumph or America's most embarrassing defeat. "We are up against it," Colin Montgomerie said. "But then we always are, and we won the last two matches."

Over the last two decades, what was a friendly encounter with the Americans almost always completing victory as a formality has turned into a cut- throat competition (and that's not including the off-course rows and controversies like the recent American pay-for-play saga). Of the last eight matches, the Europeans have won four and the Americans three. Taking out the one- sided contest at The Belfry in 1985, the points tally for each side is exactly the same.

But in one respect this year's contest, at the Country Club of Brookline in Boston, is reminiscent of Ryder Cups past. For the first time since 1975 there will be none of this continent's famous five. No Faldo, Ballesteros, Langer, Woosnam or Lyle. Once more it is a matter of one side's rookies against the other's stars.

What Mark James, Europe's captain, hopes, and indeed firmly believes, is that his team's newcomers - seven in all - are better than ever before. In Sergio Garcia, at least, he is correct. His problem is welding together his strong men, who can expect to play in all five sessions, and the youngsters. There are few obvious pairings but James is happy starting with few preconceived ideas. "I have one or two possibles in mind but will be using the practice days to switch people around," he said. "You have to remain flexible."

Throughout, his guiding mantra can be simply expressed: "In my experience, experience is overrated." On paper, and more specifically the bits of paper upon which the world rankings are printed, this year's match, in the words of one American golf writer, "should be a rout for the Americans".

James responds with the observations that the rankings are skewed in favour of the US Tour. He can point to the fact that in each of Europe's victories at Oak Hill in 1995 and at Valderrama two years ago, every player contributed at least one point.

Montgomerie has his own particular analysis. "We saw at the World Match Play earlier this year the difference between someone ranked 50th in the world and someone ranked 10th is much smaller than in other sports like tennis," he said. "Over four rounds of a tournament, the difference between the two is less than a stroke. Over a season, that mounts up, but over one round, the difference is less than one and a quarter of a shot. And that is nothing."

Montgomerie, having played since 1991, and Jose Maria Olazabal, who made his debut four years earlier, are the visiting team's most experienced players. "We have a team of rookies, if you like," Montgomerie said, "but the important thing to impress on them is that the pressure is on the US team. It's their home territory, they have the higher-ranked players."

Europe has always thrived in the underdog role and the tag of favourites is being thrown around like the hottest of balatas. "It's almost like we're the underdogs," claimed Davis Love, whose fitness is in doubt after resting a back injury for the last two weeks. "Every year we hear how much better we are and we believe it and then we lose. This year you hear the same things, but now we're gun-shy a little. We don't believe any of that about them being underdogs."

What the Americans have lacked in the last couple of years is the gritty competitiveness of the likes of Paul Azinger and Corey Pavin. The cast has changed and even Tiger Woods, for all his US Amateur wins, has been shown up in team match play competitions. But they are getting enough practice now, what with the President's Cup in alternate years, although their thrashing in Australia last winter has only added to the urgency this week. "If we lose this year," Love said, "after the President's Cup and losing the last two Ryder Cups and after all that controversy over money at the US PGA, well, it's going to be bad. So we can't lose. We just can't lose."

Having virtually ignored the Ryder Cup when the States won regularly, the American media do not spare their millionaire players in defeat. "Pain in Spain," read the front cover of Sports Illustrated following Valderrama. It went on: "How a supposedly invincible US team blew the Ryder Cup."

Ben Crenshaw, the US captain, is in the firing line as well as the players. "If he doesn't win, he'll take more criticism than any previous captain," Tom Weiskopf said. "Knowing Ben, he would take it to his grave. I hope that doesn't happen." Crenshaw may surprise as a leader, as he did when publicly lambasting his players over the money row. But he knows he has to make his collection of highly talented individuals into a team. It is a generalisation, but the Americans seem to hole more putts in the singles than for their partners on the first two days of foursomes and fourballs.

"One thing we need to do is convey togetherness," Crenshaw said. "You have to throw out the 'I' in this event. It's all about the team. The Europeans live, breathe and think the Ryder Cup. Match play brings out raw emotion. Each match is determined by shots that are out of the ordinary. The Europeans have simply gotten the ball in the hole quicker. When they miss a green they get the ball up and down and they hole an important putt. The short game in match play is very, very important."

The good news there is that rookies like Jean Van de Velde, Padraig Harrington and Jarmo Sandelin are all highly proficient in that department. The Americans have only one rookie and what a player he is. But David Duval has also expressed reservations about the importance of the tournament. "I have heard some European players remark that it's the biggest event in golf to them," Duval said. "I just don't see it that way. If I had to choose between a Ryder Cup and a US Open, there is not much of a choice for me."

The quicker Payne Stewart and Tom Lehman get hold of him the better for their side. Lehman, as determined a competitor as there is, was an important addition as a wild card to the US team. In his third match he should take the role of intra-team leader which Woods was criticised for not performing at Valderrama. After winning just once then, Woods will concentrate on putting points on the board. Hard though it is to believe, he is a seriously better golfer than two years ago.

"It was not my place in '97 to be a leader," Woods said, "and I don't think I will be a boisterous leader this time because there are veterans on the team like Payne Stewart and Mark O'Meara. What I can do is play as hard as I possibly can and hopefully I'll lead by example. But I can't go out and play for the other guys. They have to take care of their own business. I will support them to hell and back, but I can't play for them."

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