Ryder Cup Logo Ryder Cup: Team USASeptember 22-24 2006, The K Club, Straffan, County Kildare, Ireland
Story Image Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk are looking forward to having more fun this week. (Photo: Getty Images)

In a twist, the U.S. team isn't burdened by expectations

For perhaps the first time, the U.S. team enters the Ryder Cup as the underdog to a European squad that has been dominant lately. Freed some of the pressure that goes along with being the favorite, the American team spirit is high.

September 17, 2006

STAFFAN, Ireland (AP) -- One team has never enjoyed such depth, with seven players in the top 20 and none lower than No. 52.

The other?

Tough at the top, but carrying four rookies whose names would barely be recognized by their mailman.

It's the same old story at every Ryder Cup, with one delicious twist. The roles are reversed.

Underdogs no more, all eyes are on Europe to extend this era of dominance over the Americans when the Ryder Cup gets under way Friday at The K Club in what is expected to be the biggest sporting event ever in Ireland.

The Europeans used to have a chip on their shoulder. Now they hoist a 17-inch gold cup proudly over their heads, having captured the Ryder Cup four of the last five times and seven of the last 10.

Colin Montgomerie, who has won more Ryder Cup points than Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson combined, referred to this European team as the strongest assembled in some time.

And that wasn't a boast.

"No, that's just pure fact," he said. "If [Captain] Ian Woosnam had picked all 12, he wouldn't have gotten very far from where we are. We are a good team. We hope to be the first European team to win three times in a row. We'd love to be part of that."

There is nothing to suggest that won't happen.

Two years ago at Oakland Hills, the Europeans embarrassed Woods and Mickelson on their way to an 18 1/2-9 1/2 victory, their largest margin since the Ryder Cup began in 1927. The time before that, they hammered the Americans in singles -- a U.S. birthright in golf -- to win at The Belfry.

Never mind that the Americans counter with a 1-2-3 punch of Woods, Jim Furyk and Mickelson, the top three players in the world ranking. Or that Americans have captured 20 of the last 28 major championships since their last Ryder Cup victory in 1999.

Raise the flags, play the national anthems, and Europe turns into a world-beater.

"This year, we are definitely the underdogs," Woods said.

It could lead to some interesting dynamics over three days of golf's most intense competition.

Europe long has rallied around the perceptions that its players are inferior, and that its tour is like a second-class citizen. They have played the underdog card for so long, and so effectively, that they now are trying to convince everyone they have no chance.

Having won seven of the last 10 times, it hasn't been easy.

"I think the U.S. team is up for it," Padraig Harrington said. "They're going to go in with the same attitude that Europe has gone into the two times, trying to prove a point."

That's not the only turnaround.

Team spirit appears to be strong in the U.S. camp. The 12 players looked like a team for the first time when all of them -- Woods and Mickelson included after rearranging their schedules -- took a charter flight to Ireland at the end of August for two days of practice at The K Club and general goofing around.

That caught Europe's attention.

"We know the Americans have come over to The K Club, first time ever the American team has traveled before the event as 12," Montgomerie said. "They mean business, and so do we."

Woods was criticized in 2002 for practicing at dawn on his own, before the rest of his team had breakfast. Two years ago, Mickelson decided not to practice on Wednesday, and the day before the Ryder Cup was found practicing on the adjacent course.

Now, the turmoil in the weeks leading up to the Ryder Cup falls to Europe.

Montgomerie criticized Jose Maria Olazabal for skipping the final qualifying event in Europe.

"It surprised us all that he's not here -- someone who lives for the Ryder Cup," Monty said in Germany.

European Captain Ian Woosnam has been criticized for not keeping his players in the loop during the summer, and it led to angry words from Thomas Bjorn when he found out he had been left off the team while watching television in a bar.

What could give Europe a rallying point is having Darren Clarke back on the team.

Clarke has been playing under constant turmoil the last two years as his wife, Heather, battled cancer that spread throughout her body and finally claimed her life on Aug. 10, leaving behind two young children. Clarke, from Northern Ireland, stopped playing after the British Open and did not return until the Madrid Masters this weekend.

It will be emotional, no doubt, to see him line up with the European team and play for continental pride before an Irish crowd.

"I wouldn't be playing if I thought it would hurt the team," Clarke said this week from Spain, his voice choking. "Heather was always very much behind me all this time, kicking me out of the house to go and play in tournaments. She would have wanted me to play."

Clarke is close to the Americans, too, especially Woods. They played together a few times over the last year, sharing thoughts over coping with death. Woods' father, Earl, died in May after a lengthy battle with cancer and Woods took more than two months off, returning at the U.S. Open and missing the cut for the first time in a major.

"It will be great for him to play," Woods said. "It will be fantastic for him to have teammates around him. I still think it's going to be hard because every player has his wife there, and it's going to be hard in that environment at times. He knows that. But you have to deal with it one day, and it might as well be now. He was playing well when all this happened."

Clarke was among five rookies for Europe in 1997 that contributed eight points to another victory over the Americans, a scene that has become familiar over the years. Philip Walton won the decisive match in 1995 at Oak Hill, and Paul McGinley delivered the clinching putt at The Belfry four years ago.

Now, these unknowns play for the Stars & Stripes.

The United States revamped its qualifying process for this Ryder Cup with hopes of getting players at the top of their games going into the matches. With the points at quadruple value this year, all it took was for a few players to get hot, and that's what happened.

But no one expected it to be Vaughn Taylor, J.J. Henry, Zach Johnson and Brett Wetterich. Two of them (Taylor and Wetterich) have never competed in match play at any level. Wetterich had never met Woods until the week after he made the team.

Advantage Europe? Not necessarily.

"The unknown is never welcomed in any situation," Montgomerie said. "The rookies in the past on these Ryder Cups, on both teams, have performed actually quite well. Who knows what to expect?"

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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