Ryder in the storm: Clarke battles to keep emotions in check - but could tip balance for Europe

Woosie's wild card can come up trumps as Lehman leans on Tiger, the rock for his rookies
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Ireland's ability to drag out a party until the remaining seconds before work on a Monday should be tested to its limit next weekend in a Ryder Cup that promises everything, including a last-gasp finish. Tears, cheers, jeers and, er, Guinness. But above all, answers.

There are just so many questions it is difficult to know where to start when attempting the wholly unwise task of the predictions. Is Tom Lehman really that good as a captain and Ian Woosnam really that bad? Will Tiger Woods at last consent to do for a team what he does for himself? Have Lehman's unknowns either the class or the worldly experience to rise above their scorned anonymity? Will Darren Clarke be able to keep his emotions in check after losing his wife to cancer last month?

That last, of course, renders all the others rather petty, and if nothing else it guarantees that proceedings will not degenerate into the unsportsmanlike scenes of Kiawah Island and Brookline. This will be competition in its purest, most gentlemanly form, and it is why Clarke's inclusion was so necessary; not because of the perspective but the talent he brings. As a sportsman, Clarke deserves to be there, and in a tight match his presence could be what tips the balance in favour of a European defence.

That is what makes today's revelation that Woods did as much as anyone to persuade his great friend to play that much more startling. He is portrayed as a self-obsessed individual, but this selfless act hints at the huge human those close to Woods have always advised is there, and for the first time the American team-room may feel the benefit of it.

Lehman's biggest success out of many in this build-up has been not only to integrate the greatest individual who has ever walked the fairways into a team who can boast no such claim, but also to make Woods recognise his responsibilities as the leader of this ordinary bunch. The sighting of him in an Akron restaurant last month holding court to the four unheralded rookies who supposedly blight Lehman's dozen may just be the most ominous of all the portents for Woosnam.

Lehman was certainly ecstatic about it, although he is not about to get carried away and ask Woods to babysit any of the lesser lights out on the K Club's Palmer Course. At the Presidents Cup last year, Woods struck up a relationship with Jim Furyk that seems sure to last through the foursomes and fourballs, and in this regard the iron man with the bendy swing may be Lehman's most important performer.

A few Hal Sutton supporters may see the irony of Lehman throwing the world Nos 1 and 2 together, but Woods-Furyk is very different to Woods-Mickelson, a pairing that was always doomed to fail, chiefly because of differences in character.

The Presidents Cup also showed Mickelson to be far more comfortable with Chris DiMarco, the soul of the side, and although Lehman may bring the accuracy of David Toms in as a safety net for Mickelson's high-risk tactics in the foursomes, his top two pairings look set. Then it will be up to his two wild cards, Stewart Cink and Scott Verplank, together with the underrated Chad Campbell, to hold the hands of Zach Johnson, Vaughn Taylor, JJ Henry and Brett Wetterich, and suddenly his order appears suitably ordered.

But then Woosnam's pairings also seem as obvious as Noah's. Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie will lead off in the foursomes, Lee Westwood and Clarke will doubtless follow, and Luke Donald will go with one of Paul Casey, David Howell or Sergio Garcia, with the other two forming their own cosy twosome.

The fourballs will bring in Jose Maria Olazabal for his own wet-eyed return after a seven-year absence, and expect those Swedish blond bombers Henrik Stenson and Robert Karlsson to destroy that old myth of their ice-cool countrymen with a big-hitting, go-for-everything gameplan in which so much clubhead heat may be generated that asbestos golf gloves will be in order. That leaves Paul McGinley - and Woosnam's only problem.

It would be cruel if the Dub-liner could not recover at least a semblance of his old form in time for a week he has waited for all his life. Alas, unless Bob Torrance has worked his old magic in their intensive sessions on the range last week it is likely that McGinley's paradox of burning spirit and frozen game will render him willing but unable.

Nevertheless, Woosnam has maintained he will use all of his players before the singles and he may, anyway, find it irresistible to give the locals what they yearn for on Saturday afternoon with a Harrington-McGinley fourball. Where the match stands at that point will naturally dictate certain decisions, although the traditional maxim that Europe must be in front or at least level to have a winning chance going into the Sunday is palpably no longer the case.

Because take out Woods, Furyk, Mickelson, Toms and DiMarco and Woosnam will fancy any of his men against any of the remaining seven. Indeed, Woosnam can be fairly certain of where to find the marked men on the list, as it seems extremely doubtful that Lehman will put the Wetterichs and Taylors in the anchor roles. Of course, Lehman might, just like Sam Torrance so fearlessly did at The Belfry in 2002, and herein lies the importance of the captain.

There is no argument that Lehman has been the more impressive of the two in the build-up, but that is rather like judging a boxing bout on how the competitors walk out to the ring, and Woosnam's understanding of the bonhomie that makes Europe gel will be under-estimated at America's peril.

The Welshman is ready for a fight and is readying himself for it to go to the final rounds. "Yes, we probably are favourites, because we've won two in a row and all that," he said. "But I don't think it matters. On paper, they have always been stronger - but we've always been better as a team. I expect it to go down to the wire, just like it usually does."

After what happened at Oakland Hills in 2004, Lehman would probably be happy with that, though the danger is that he will be seen as a winner while ultimately losing. It is feasible that the wily Minnesotan will inspire America's finest finally to perform, but will still be done for by the paucity of quality in his ranks.

A personal fancy, therefore, is for Europe to squeeze home by the narrowest margin and for Woods to prove what an individual he essentially is by securing five points out of a possible five. Also for Irish sport to enjoy the greatest experience in its history. Actually, in a week when anything could happen, that is the only certainty.

Battles of old: The good, the bad and the grumpy

1929 CARELESS WHISPERS

For the second Ryder Cup, at Moortown, Leeds, the Americans had to revert to their old hickory-shafted clubs, as their new steel ones were deemed illegal. Johnny Farrell and Joe Turnesa protested that the crowd let out a "definite cheer" as they missed a one-foot putt, and George Duncan, Britain's captain, was incensed when he overheard Walter Hagen say he was guaranteed a point when the two skippers met in the singles. Duncan won 10 & 8 over 36 holes; Britain won 7-5.

1969 THE ROUGH AND THE SOOTHE

Royal Birkdale showed the best and worst faces of the Cup. On the final hole of the final match, Jack Nicklaus conceded a putt of several feet to Tony Jacklin to ensure a 16-16 draw, but this enraged the US captain, Sam Snead. Earlier, his opposite number, Eric Brown, had instructed his team not to help look for US balls lost in the rough, and during one of the fourballs both captains had to come out and pacify the warring players.

1999 BROOKLINE AND A STINKER

Justin Leonard, all square coming to the 17th against Jose Maria Olazabal, needed to win one of the last two holes or halve both to clinch a 14 1/2-13 1/2 victory at Brookline, Mass. Putting first, he holed a 45-footer, and the US team, their wives and fans stampeded on to the green before Olazabal had a chance to putt. When calm was restored, the Spaniard missed from 22ft. The rules of golf weren't broken, but its etiquette had been trampled underfoot.

Simon Redfern

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