- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2001

DULUTH, Ga. Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez curses under his breath and jabs his putter angrily at the 4-foot putt that has just curled cruelly past the cup on the 18th hole at the Atlanta Athletic Club. Jimenez is usually one of the game's most stolid competitors, showing little emotion in the throes of major championship contention, much less in a meaningless practice round.
Not this week.
As if the pressure of competing in a major championship isn't enough, Jimenez is one of the two dozen or so players at the 83rd PGA Championship trying to handle the excruciating stress of the tournament within the tournament: Ryder Cup qualifying.
For U.S. hopefuls, this is the final week to collect points in the standings and impress captain Curtis Strange before he makes his two wild-card picks Monday to fill out Uncle Sam's squad. For European players, it is one of the final three weeks to make the team on their own merits, offering as many points as the next two events combined.
Jimenez stands squarely in the midst of the standings storm. The 37-year-old grinder finds himself 11th in the European point standings; the top 10 players in the final standings on each side make the team. Then Strange and European captain Sam Torrance round out their rosters by adding the wild cards.
"I'm trying not to think on it, but it's agony," said Jimenez, who was a deputy to Seve Ballesteros at the 1997 Ryder Cup and then played in all five matches for the Euros last time out in Brookline, Mass. "I must play well and make the team on my own to take the pressure off of Sam. I don't want him to have to worry about picking me."
Torrance, you see, is in a rather nasty position. With the matches at the Belfry (Sutton Coldfield, England) just more than a month away, his strongest team has yet to materialize. European-based Ryder Cup veterans like Jimenez, Ian Woosnam (16th) and Jose Maria Olazabal (19th) are all languishing outside the top 10.
And because the European Tour refuses to award points for U.S. PGA Tour finishes to Euros based in the States, Sergio Garcia and Jesper Parnevik are also buried well beneath the top 10. The quirky Swede and Garcia proved to be Europe's most potent pairing at Brookline, teaming for a 3-0-1 record before the legendary U.S. rally in the singles.
With the U.S. boasting the world's three top players (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval), any European victory in the Ryder Cup would be a huge upset. But if Torrance is forced to play without three of the aforementioned five European standouts taking potential Ryder Cup rookies Pierre Fulke (fifth), Niclas Fasth (seventh), Paul McGinley (eighth) and Philip Price (10th) to battle with him instead that upset bid goes from unlikely to darn near impossible.
"I think the perfect scenario for us would be for the Spanish armada to rise to the top this week. I think it would be perfect if me and Miguel and Jose would finish first, second and third and get into the side," said Garcia, Torrance's only certain captain's pick if he fails to qualify. "If I don't make it this week, I'm going to go to Europe [for the BMW International Open] to try and do my part."
Unlike the European mess, the key cogs in the U.S. machine are already in place heading into this week's major, and all that remains to be resolved are the role players who will fill out the eight through 12 slots. But that doesn't mean there is any less pressure on players trying to claim those positions.
"I know if I just go out and take care of business this week, that it will happen for me," said Chris DiMarco, who stands 11th on the U.S. list in his bid to become a Ryder Cup rookie. "But I've watched it and read about it and heard about the Ryder Cup for so long that I really want to be a part of it. So, sure, there's added pressure there, because I want this so badly."
Traditionally, a player of DiMarco's stature would need to make the team on his own merits. Most U.S. captains have tended to use their picks on Ryder Cup regulars or veterans known for their intensity. In 1995, Lanny Wadkins took Strange and Fred Couples. In 1997, Tom Kite took Couples and Lee Janzen. And in 1999, Ben Crenshaw took Tom Lehman and Steve Pate.
Paul Azinger (19th) jumps out as this year's likely firebrand pick. But yesterday Azinger had a strange response when asked about his desire to make the team.
"Right now, I'm just concentrating on this tournament this is a major," said Azinger. "Who's the best player never to win a major? Phil Mickelson. Well, if Phil doesn't win this week and then goes 5-0 at the Ryder Cup, he'll still be the guy that's never won a major. But if Phil wins this week and then goes 0-5 at the Ryder Cup, nobody cares. Not to belittle the Ryder Cup, but that's the difference between a major championship and the Ryder Cup."
Those are exactly the kind of sentiments Strange really doesn't care to hear as he prepares to soak up four more days of data. He was extremely vague throughout most of his news conference yesterday, refusing to drop any hints. But one of his comments was particularly revealing and gives added hope to the excited likes of would-be rookies like DiMarco, Joe Durant (12th), David Toms (14th) and Scott Verplank (17th).
"Experience to me only means so much," Strange said. "I would rather have a young guy who is ready to go, chomping at the bit, versus a guy who has been around many years saying, 'This is OK.' I'm serious."
So is this week's tournament within the tournament.

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