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Drawing the Battle Lines
We are only days away from Hal Sutton and Bernhard Langer shaking hands before introducing their teams at the opening ceremony for the Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills. This is the seventy-seventh anniversary and 35th playing of what has become the biggest sporting contest between Europe and the US and possibly the biggest event in sport for more people throughout the world will watch it on TV than will tune in to any other sporting broadcast. Even in countries not represented, TV coverage is continuous throughout play for the Ryder Cup has become the litmus test of American superiority in the game. For this reason, if for no other, Hal Sutton's instruction 'to win at all costs' is comprehensible.

Although the US has won three out of the last five meetings, this is probably the first time that the American team has been internationally regarded as the underdogs. It is clear that the US press are not prepared to accept this situation and the pressroom pencils are already dipped in the vitriol of veiled threat. Hal Sutton will either emerge as the next likely US presidential candidate, or experience a part of life with which he is unfamiliar.

Hal was born with an oil-filled silver spoon in his mouth in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he lives still. In the south, they have a way of looking after their own and keep things well within the family. But Hal has set his stall out on the bigger stage in the north, in Detroit, where you have to deliver - irrespective of your huntin', shootin' and fishin' background or where you got your business studies degree. Hal's selection as US team captain may have been inspirational for, more than at any time in the past, his gung-ho patriotism may be exactly what is required to fire what is generally held to be the weakest US team ever. Hal will either emerge a hero or a villain but he is not likely to be affected either way for he is very much his own man.

Bernhard Langer is also very much his own man but he has the self-assurance that goes with being a self-made man. The son of a bricklayer who, as a prisoner of war jumped a train carrying him off to Siberia, Langer has been a man-on-a-mission in golf throughout his life. He has contested and beaten the best of his time, from Nicklaus through Ballesteros and Faldo - even Tiger Woods has taken off his cap to him. Langer commands respect on both sides of the Atlantic for he is an enigma as a born-again Christian and a razor-edged competitor. Langer has nothing to lose in Detroit and will remain cucumber cool throughout, exercising his dry wit with relish. Hal Sutton has more than a little at stake and it will take more than waving a flag to compensate should his team fail.

While Langer's lads have something of the devil-may-care and possibly even a debonair air about them, Sutton's set are about as charismatic as a supermarket suet pudding. Jay Haas and Fred Funk, at 50 and 48-years-old respectively, may stir up some sentimentalism. Davis Love at 40 and Kenny Perry at 44 may inspire the guys in the beer tent while Phil Mickelson will bring out his own support as the good guy from next door. Tiger, of course, will bring out the 'youre-the-man' brigade. But they are all playing as part of a team and if the Detroit blue-collar boys detect anyone capitulating they will let the whole team know the limits of their affections.

Contrary to what one would expect, Sutton intends to pair playing partners who might not be too comfortable with one another. He may pair, for instance, Tiger Woods with Phil Mickelson because, as he states: 'I think sometimes being too comfortable with one another can be a detriment.' It is generally held that there is little love lost between Woods and Mickelson and it is hard to see how playing the same ball could result in anything other than a show of one-upmanship between the two - something not altogether conducive to good foursomes golf. In Woods and Mickelson, Sutton has his strongest and most experienced playing cards and it would surely be bizarre f he diluted his pool by playing them in the same match.

It is clear that Sutton has greater problems than Langer does with his foursomes and fourball pairings. Langer has, in the main, a tried and tested crew in this sort of format. Casey and Donald have shown what they can do together in two Walker Cups and will be desperate to renew their partnership at this level. Harrington and McGinley are also a tested pairing as are Westwood and Garcia, who have triumphed before in the Ryder arena and will fear nothing that the US team can set against them. Darren Clarke, with his experience, could well partner David Howell as could Montgomerie inspire and control the passion of Thomas Levet. This would leave possibly the most exciting pairing of all in Miguel Angel Jimenez and Ian Poulter. Jimenez, the hard man, and Poulter the quixotic genius could together make an awful mess of some unsuspecting US couple and seduce the crowd in the process.

This will undoubtedly be an eventful Ryder Cup and the outcome may make the events of 1999 at Boston seem like a tea party. It will make some and destroy others. But whatever the outcome it will be memorable and at least someone will enjoy the rapture expressed by McGinley on the 18th green at the Belfry in 2001. It says much for the man and the event when McGinley said: 'I just wish everyone, at some point in their lives, could feel those same 30 seconds of sheer joy.' Langer may well experience ecstasy for three days next weekend.

©    13 - SEPTEMBER 2004

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