Friday looms as key in the U.S. quest to reclaim the cup
The United States has trailed after the first day in the last four Ryder Cups, and seven of the last nine. So Tom Lehman and his charges are looking to paint the big scoreboard in American red on the opening day at the K Club.
September 21, 2006
STRAFFAN, Ireland (AP) -- As if recent history weren't enough, Europe showed just how tight a grip it has on the Ryder Cup.
U.S. Captain Tom Lehman gathered his team on the 10th tee Thursday morning for the official team photo, which lately is the closest the Americans ever gets to posing with the Ryder Cup trophy.
The Europeans didn't even allow them that luxury at The K Club.
Whether it was a harmless oversight or not-so-subtle message about the true ownership of the shiny gold chalice, Captain Ian Woosnam neglected to turn over the trophy even for 15 minutes of a photo opportunity. It was the first time since 1985 -- coincidentally, the start of European dominance in these matches -- that the 17-inch trophy was not part of the official team photo.
"I wasn't aware of that," Lehman said. "I have not idea what the protocol is or isn't, so I can't even respond to that."
All he cares about is posing with it Sunday.
After four days of glitz and galas, topped off by an opening ceremony that celebrated Ireland's biggest sporting event, the Ryder Cup was set to begin Friday morning with both sides sending out their best teams.
Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk will face Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington in the opening fourball match, a sign that both captains were intent on taking control as early as possible.
"We've got two of Europe's best on the first day," Woods said.
Woods has lost seven straight matches on opening day at the Ryder Cup, dating to his debut in 1997, and he rarely looks like the world's No. 1 player in these team events. On the other end is Montgomerie, 0-for-60 in the majors, 0-for-America, yet a stalwart in this event.
It will be the second straight time Montgomerie and Harrington have drawn a Dream Team from the United States. Two years ago at Oakland Hills, they beat Woods and Phil Mickelson in a match that set the tone for Europe's largest victory ever.
"We are leading out, as I have done a lot in this event, and it's almost my role here," Montgomerie said. "Whether I play again or not, I don't care. To start off this thing is great, and we will try our best with it."
For the Americans, the next three days are more important than they used to be.
They have a 26-9-4 lead in the Ryder Cup since it began in 1927 as a friendly exhibition between American and British golf professionals, but the symbol of dominance over the last 20 years is the European flag, blue with 13 gold stars.
Europe has captured the cup seven of the last 10 times, with victories in four of the last five matches. The last U.S. victory came in 1999 outside Boston, and even that needed a 45-foot putt by Justin Leonard on the 17th hole at The Country Club to complete the biggest comeback in Ryder Cup history.
Not only does Europe own the cup, but many believe it has the best team.
The lowest-ranked European player is Paul McGinley, No. 53 in the world and best known as the Irishman who made the clinching putt at The Belfry in 2002. None of Europe's 10 players with Ryder Cup experience has a losing record.
"This is probably -- hate to say [this] before the event starts -- but it's our strongest," Montgomerie said. "I believe it's our strongest team we've ever put together."
The Americans counter with the 1-2-3 punch of Woods, Phil Mickelson and Furyk, the top three players in the world. Then again, that hasn't gotten them very far before.
What might help this time is a strange label as underdogs.
"Why not play that underdog role?" David Toms said. "We haven't performed our best in the last few. On paper, I think we're as strong as their team is. I guess we're supposed to be underdogs because we have not performed up to our capabilities."
The key is Friday, when the Americans will be desperate to fill the scoreboards around The K Club with red numbers, instead of the European blue. The United States has trailed after the first day in the last four Ryder Cups, and seven of the last nine.
"Contrary to what some people say or believe, there aren't any chops in this deal, OK?" Scott Verplank said. "Both teams have 12 good players, if not great players. You're going to have to play well to get a point for your team. If you don't stand on that first tee thinking you're going to win your match, then you're already behind."
Lehman has tried to keep his team relaxed, bringing them over to Ireland at the end of last month for two days of practice, and the games have continued throughout a week abbreviated by weather. Rain has saturated The K Club, limiting practice sessions to nine holes on Wednesday and Thursday, the only full round coming on Tuesday.
Above all, Lehman has listened to the players.
"We have a policy on our team that you say what you think ... as long as it's what you truly feel," Lehman said. "It's not like I'm making decision in a void. There's input. If I have a real strong feeling about something, I push my opinion pretty hard. But I am very confident that we're going the right direction."
The Europeans counter with confidence that is at an all-time high.
They have not lost on home soil since 1993 at The Belfry in England, and this is a course they know well, even if it was designed by Arnold Palmer. The European Open is played here, and among past champions is Lee Westwood. Darren Clarke set a European Tour record on the course with a 60.
Clarke brings experience and emotion.
He played the Madrid Masters last week, his first tournament since his wife died of cancer on Aug. 13. He decided to accept a captain's pick, and the 38-year-old from Northern Ireland has become a rallying point for Europe, as if it needs one.
The leadership comes from Woosnam, a scrappy Welshman and former Masters champion who has driven home his personal motto to the European team all week.
"I'm never scared of anybody," Woosnam said. "Not even Tiger Woods."
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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