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Don’t underestimate Europe

September 24, 1997

SOTOGRANDE, Spain (AP) _ Three of the four major championships this year were won by members of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. None were won by European team members.

Eight of the top 13 players in the world rankings are on the U.S. team. One member of the European team is ranked that high.

The U.S. team has hot players in Jim Furyk, Justin Leonard and Davis Love III.

It has an intimidating player in Tiger Woods.

And it has unflappable veterans in Fred Couples, Mark O’Meara and Tom Lehman.

Europe’s highest-ranked player, Colin Montgomerie, once again disappointed in the major championships when he finished second in the U.S. Open, then played poorly in the British Open at Royal Troon, the course on which he was raised.

Europe’s most intimidating player, Nick Faldo, is coming off his worst year ever in the major championships.

And Europe’s squad was rattled by the removal of Miguel Angel Martin from the team, a situation just settled Tuesday when he agreed to return as a non-playing member.

So how could Europe possibly keep the Ryder Cup?

``In match play it doesn’t really matter how strong a team it is or how weak a team it is,″ Ian Woosnam said Tuesday. ``I believe that if Seve (Ballesteros) gets his pairings right, then any team can win this.″

Woosnam, playing in his eighth Ryder Cup, is a perfect example of the beauty of team play and the unpredictable nature of match play in this competition.

Woosnam has never won a singles match in the Ryder Cup _ losing five and halving two. Yet he has four wins and two halves in nine alternate-shot matches and has won nine better-ball matches and halved another, losing only once.

``It’s all about getting players to play together who can flow together and score well together,″ Woosnam said. ``That’s the secret, I think.″

In no other golf event do so many great players hit so many bad shots. In no other golf event is the pressure as intense. And in no other golf event is as much dependent on team play as it is in the Ryder Cup.

It is truly an event where the sum of the parts can be greater than the individual components.

``I think on paper we are the underdogs, and although we are the defending champions, they look stronger than us,″ Bernhard Langer said Tuesday. ``But in match play, anything can happen.″

Throw in the quirkiness of the Valderrama course _ which the Europeans know much better than the Americans _ and the pro-European gallery and this Ryder Cup has all the makings of an upset.

There is one other factor that could help the European team squeeze out the 14 points it would need to retain the Ryder Cup on a tie or the 14 1/2 needed to win it outright _ Ballesteros, the European captain.

If any captain could be worth the extra point that could decide the Cup, it is Ballesteros.

``Seve is very emotional and very excitable,″ Woosnam said. ``He’ll be running around like a headless chicken, I think. That’s good, and for the young guys to see someone so excited like that just might give them a buzz as well.″

And if that happens, the Europeans just might give the United States a surprise.

If Tuesday’s practice pairings were any indication, Ballesteros will try to use his veteran players to ease his five rookies through the pressures of Ryder Cup play.

Montgomerie, playing in his fourth competition, played with newcomer Darren Clarke. Faldo, competing for a record 11th time, played with rookie Ignacio Garrido.

Woosnam and Langer both also went around with rookies, the Welshman playing with Lee Westwood and the German paired with Thomas Bjorn.

The two Swedes _ Jesper Parnevik and Per-Ulrik Johansson _ played together, despite the fact that Johansson’s appearance in 1995 is their only Ryder Cup experience.

Jose Maria Olazabal and Costantino Rocca, two veterans, rounded out the European practice pairings.

``The experience of the seven players, plus the new energy of the other five players makes it very positive,″ Ballesteros said. ``I don’t think I could have a better team.″

There is that word again _ Team.

On paper, the United States looks much stronger. But match play and the cooperative efforts of alternate-shot and better-ball can hide a lot of weaknesses.

The Americans must remember that the Ryder Cup is played on grass _ not on paper.

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