The Ryder Cup, at least since 1983, has developed into a most fiercely competitive contest, despite not a penny, cent or peseta being at stake and one of the sides being an arbitrary amalgamation which does not exist in any other sport. Yet Europe versus the United States at golf has become a "them-and-us" encounter every bit as tension-filled as the great footballing derbies.
And about as straightforward to predict. For all the detailed analysis that will be presented in the days leading up to the commencement of the match on Friday, only one thing is clear: it is going to be close. The chance of one side running away with it is about as likely as Miguel Angel Martin teeing up at Valderrama. It is not going to happen.
"The teams are evenly matched," confirms James, a seven-time Ryder Cup player who has been brought into Seve Ballesteros's back-room team. "There is very little in it." Such has been the case over the last four matches. Since the tie in 1989, the match has twice been won by only one point - by the United States in 1991 and Europe two years ago - and once by two points, by the Americans in 1993.
Not since the 1987 match, when an incomparable European team won away from home for the first time, has one side been able to build a decisive lead over the first two days of foursomes and fourballs. Ten years ago, the Europeans led by five going into the final series of 12 singles, but in the last four matches no side has been ahead by more than two with a day to go.
Not that it helps: the side leading going into the singles has not won for 10 years. Europe, on that unforgettable final day at Oak Hill, had to reverse the trend of the singles in the three previous matches to regain the Cup. Victories by the likes of James and Howard Clark at the top of the order, were just as important as those at the sharp end by Nick Faldo and Philip Walton.
Much has been made of the captain's influence in close matches. It is tangible, since they never hit a golf shot during the week, but mood and momentum can shift dramatically with an inspired pairing or an error in ordering. Outshone, in vastly different styles, by Dave Stockton and Tom Watson in his two previous matches as leader, Bernard Gallacher got the better of Lanny Wadkins two years ago.
What to make of Seve Ballesteros and Tom Kite? Bearing in mind their duties so far amount to little in comparison with what is to come, both have surprised. Kite has been surprisingly good, Ballesteros surprisingly wearisome. "It is a wonderful match-up between the two captains," said the American player Mark O'Meara.
Of Kite he added: "He is tedious, he is a grinder, he has a lot of heart. As good a competitor as Seve is, Tom is very competitive as well." Kite was highly impressive when announcing his team last month and brought an analytical mind of rare sharpness - considering both positives and negatives - to the discussion of his wild card selections. He has appeared to relish the role, and his golf improved to the point where he even had to consider himself as a pick.
Ballesteros's form went the other way. As early as last November he said the captaincy was becoming a "nightmare". It was only when he admitted to himself there was no hope of him being a playing captain that his mood improved. Until, that is, the Martin affair. Whatever his role, and there is no doubt his countryman's injury handed the captain a stronger team, Ballesteros did not help matters with his intemperate remarks about Martin, much to the public disgust of one member of the team, Ignacio Garrido.
"I can't see the situation affecting morale at all," said James. "Morale will be fine. The players are all professionals and Seve is going to be a very motivating captain." As one of the playing 12, Ballesteros has been the team's heart and inspiration for years. "He is one of those players who is very, very charismatic," James added. "His mere presence in the team room has a very positive effect. His presence there is enormous, no question."
"Everyone will listen to Seve because he has done it," said Sandy Lyle. "Even when Tony Jacklin was captain, he was almost Tony's shadow. I think he was doing all the decisions at one point."
Paul Broadhurst can see the danger in that. "He likes to get very involved with the players," said the 1991 Ryder Cupper. "He must not interfere too much with their games. If he lets them get on with it, he could be a truly inspirational captain."
Ballesteros has likened his team to that of 1987. The Class of '97 can claim 10 major championships, while 10 years ago the team arrived at Muirfield Village with seven, but went on to collect 17. Ballesteros, Lyle, Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam were all at the top of their games, and Jose Maria Olazabal was not a bad 21-year-old rookie.
"We had some incredible players playing some incredible golf," said Sam Torrance, who is missing from the team for the first time in 18 years. "That was our greatest victory by a mile. We could not have been better." But as Colin Montgomerie says, "it is stronger below the superstars than it has been", meaning Ballesteros will not have to flog his leading players as much as Jacklin did.
There is enough experience to take care of the foursomes, and the rookies will fit nicely into the fourballs. "I don't think any of the newcomers will struggle," said Torrance. "They are strong and aggressive young players, who are not scared of anyone. It is a very good 12, and an even better eight for when there are only four matches. Seve can field four pairings just as frightening as Woods and Woods."
How the young superstar fits into Kite's team will be an intriguing aspect of the week. The American captain certainly has the best team from his country for eight years, although only time will tell if it compares with the hall of fame that represented the US in 1981. Where they lag behind in total majors (five to Europe's ten, but three of those this year in Woods, Justin Leonard and Davis Love) and past Ryder Cup appearances (14 to Europe's 35), their players have been in fine form this year, with eight of the team having amassed over $1m on the US tour.
Kite's case for being the underdog centres on Europe's knowledge of the Valderrama course from nine playings of the Volvo Masters. James, Lyle and Torrance all agree. "If you think of the scores that won that tournament when we first started playing there, they have come down from over par to almost 10 or 12 under," said Torrance. Faldo begs to differ, seeing putting on the speedy Valderrama greens as a main factor. "They have some seriously good putters," he said.
Be that as it may, the match is still going to be close. The point, for anyone tempted by a punt on the Americans, is this: are you prepared to stare Ballesteros in the face and let him know where your money is lying? Health insurance would be advised.Reuse content