- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

SUTTON COLDFIELD, England The year stitched into the Ryder Cup logo says 2001, a subtle reminder of when the 34th matches between the United States and Europe were supposed to be played and why they were postponed.
Team uniforms have been stashed away in boxes, removed only to make sure they still fit. Stewart Cink lost 25 pounds and had to send off his pants and shirts for alterations.
The golf might look outdated, too, considering the teams were selected a year ago. The question is not who has the best players, but who has the worst?
Clearly, this is a different Ryder Cup.
"There are always guys who are not in good form, a little more so this year than it has been," Thomas Bjorn of Denmark said. "But we've got to realize why the Ryder Cup was postponed. Let's keep it focused on what happened 12 months ago in New York."
Delayed one year because of the September11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the Ryder Cup returns Friday at the Belfry for three days of intense match play with a 14-inch gold chalice on the line.
The biennial buzz was lost. The Ryder Cup has been an afterthought for much of the year since no one was jockeying for a chance to represent country or continent.
Some much-needed perspective was gained.
This is no longer the "Battle at the Belfry" or the "War by the Shore," some of the snappy nicknames used by the PGA of America to hype the event.
It's the Ryder Cup.
"What happened on 9-11 put everything in perspective for all of us. I think the matches will be conducted in the fashion it was designed, and that is a competitive atmosphere, but a gentlemanly sport," Tiger Woods said.
Surely, it can't be any worse than the last time the Ryder Cup was played.
Three years ago at the Country Club outside Boston, the United States staged the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history, capped off by a 45-foot birdie putt by Justin Leonard on the 17th green.
American players, wives and caddies stormed across the green, even though Jose Maria Olazabal still had a 25-foot putt to keep alive Europe's hopes.
The gallery was as partisan as ever, hurling insults at some of the Europeans. Colin Montgomerie was a favorite target, and the language was so foul that his father walked off the course after seven holes.
There was even some animosity among players, most notably when Phil Mickelson got tired of waiting on Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke and hit before his opponents reached the tee box.
What to expect this year?
"I think there's a different feel from the players, as well as the fans, the people who support the Ryder Cup," Mickelson said. "We felt it last year. We felt how insignificant the event really was in the whole scheme of things.
"It's still a wonderful event, but I think it will take on the more original intent of promoting camaraderie and sportsmanship on both continents. That's the expectation that we all have for this year's Ryder Cup."
Just don't expect an exhibition.
That was the term used by Woods and David Duval before the '99 matches when the biggest controversy was how to divide the Ryder Cup revenue.
No other golf tournament is more passionately contested, all because of that rare occasion when an individual, money-driven sport becomes all about team, country and flag.
The pressure is so great that players can't work up a spit. Grown men have cried after losing a match. Nick Faldo, the unflappable six-time major champion, was so uptight on the 18th hole of his decisive singles match in 1995 that he squeezed his eyes shut while his opponent was putting.
"In the Ryder Cup, you've got a fear of losing, rather than a nervousness about trying to win a U.S. Open or the Masters," Davis Love III said. "You don't want to lose a match. You don't want to lose a hole. You don't want to be on a losing team."
Isn't golf supposed to be fun?
"Fun is not feeling as nervous as you possibly can," Clarke said.
The Ryder Cup was shaping up to be a royal battle had it been played on schedule.
There were newcomers to each side, but all 24 players were among the top 52 in the world ranking. The U.S. team looked particularly strong, since three of its players Woods, Duval and David Toms had won major championships that year.
A year later, three players Hal Sutton, Phillip Price and Lee Westwood are no longer in the top 100. Only three players on each side have won a tournament this year.
Montgomerie has struggled with a bad back, and wasn't sure he would be fit to play. Rumors have circulated that Jesper Parnevik might beg off the team.
Still, captains Curtis Strange and Sam Torrance have shot down suggestions that they alter the teams to reflect the best players, or even add two players for these matches.
"When has the Ryder Cup ever been played with 24 of the best players in the world at that time? Probably never," Strange said. "You always have somebody who made the team [based] on their play the year before. Will it take away from the matches? Absolutely not."
The U.S. team is always heavily favored. The matches are rarely a rout.
One point is awarded for eight best-ball matches and eight alternate-shot matches over the first two days, and for all 12 singles matches on Sunday. With 28 points available, the winning margin hasn't been greater than two points since 1985.
No one expects that to change this year.
And not everyone expects the tone of these matches to be any different, either.
Galleries in Europe have been just as partisan and raucous as they were at the Country Club, or at Oak Hill in 1995, or at Kiawah Island in 1991.
"I hope some of it happens, don't you?" Duval said. "If there's no animosity, there's no homecourt advantage. You want some hostility. You want some excitement. You want an 'Us vs. Them' situation. That's part of the event."
The only hope among players is that it doesn't get out of hand. Even before the Ryder Cup was postponed, Strange and Torrance agreed to have a players-only cocktail party after the matches to remember that it was just a game.
The opening ceremony on Thursday, when the Stars & Stripes is raised next to the European flag of royal blue and a dozen gold stars, also will serve as a solemn reminder what everyone is doing at the Belfry in 2002.
In between, it should be business as usual.
"Once the tee goes in the ground Friday, I think you're going to have a good, solid match, the way it's always been," Strange said. "And I think you'll see a partisan crowd, which is the way it should be."

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