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More than a Ryder Cup warm up in Ireland

The American Express Championships is part of the World Golf Championships (WGC) series that has as its mission statement the intention to bring together the best players in the world to compete for the sort of purses that make ordinary men’s eyes water. They are even large enough to exercise the salivary glands of the players involved, and that means big.

There is a total of $5.5 million (about £3.65 million) at stake, with the winner earning $1 million come Sunday evening after 72 holes. There will be no cut, so even the 67th and last player in the field will go home with $25,000 (about £16,600) tucked snugly into his trousers, and that buys a firkin or two of that glorious black stuff.

It is difficult to wander round the tournament site without being aware of the dreaded “RC” words — the Ryder Cup, of course. To run a row of ticks down the list of entries is to be brought up with something of a start, with the realisation that although the big match is still more than a week away, the forces of invasion are there, on the other side of the moat, waiting to storm the citadel.

Of the 24 players on duty at The Belfry, 17 are present, ready, willing — for the most part — and waiting to tread the fairways of Jack Nicklaus’s only creation in Ireland. Those who are not have not made it because they did not produce the necessary numbers. That there are only two of theirs against five of ours does, however, come as a bit of a sap around the head with a sand-filled sock.

Stewart Cink and Hal Sutton are the missing Americans, while the Europe absentees are Pierre Fulke, Paul McGinley, Jesper Parnevik, Phillip Price and Lee Westwood. If taxed on the subject of whether they regretted not being here, most would doubtless try to find something positive to say about the situation, but they would be about as convincing as Genghis Khan sitting on the same lecture platform as Mao Zedong.

Most of the players here profess to see no connection between this tournament and the events of next week and, of course, strictly speaking, they are right. There should be no way that any logical link between a 72-hole medal tournament and a series of 18-hole matchplay matches can be arrived at. But there undoubtedly is.

If any of the ten Americans were to play with any of the seven Europeans in the next four days, and either outscores him or is comprehensively outscored, it will bolster the confidence of one and dent that of the other. It is a small matter of getting your retaliation in first, landing the first blow a fraction before the bell rings.

Phil Mickelson has yet to win a WGC event and neither has Sergio García. The first two tournaments in the series this year have been won by Kevin Sutherland and Craig Parry, neither of whom would have been mentioned in the first, second or third breath if forecasting a winner had been demanded.

The position of second favourite here, therefore, is open to all-comers. And the favourite? His first name is Tiger and his second Woods. Is that enough of a clue?


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