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Sutton tipped to be next USA Captain

Within the next month, if not sooner, the PGA of America is likely to announce Hal Sutton as its captain for the next Ryder Cup matches in 2004 at Oakland Hills outside Detroit.

Sutton played on the last two Ryder Cup teams and was the spiritual leader and de facto co-captain for Ben Crenshaw in 1999 when his solid play and interaction with teammates helped orchestrate the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history.

Sutton performed a similar function last weekend for U.S. captain Curtis Strange but had mixed results on the course, in a stunning loss to Europe.

Sutton is the logical choice for several reasons. In addition to his leadership qualities, Sutton has played on four Ryder Cup teams (1985, 1987, 1999 and 2002) and has posted a record of 7-4-5.

The winner of the 1983 PGA Championship satisfies another prerequisite that might come as a surprise. He's the right age. That's a big part of the pecking order.

People thought Strange, who won the 1988 U.S. Open at The Country Club, would get the nod in 1999. Strange said he knew he was a couple of years too young for that one, which went to Crenshaw, who also had a history at TCC from having played in the 1968 U.S. Junior Championship there.

Strange was 44 in 1999 when he was awarded the captaincy. Sutton is 44 now and probably won't be able to turn his struggling game around to make the next team as a player.

Of course, after watching Strange become the fall guy for the U.S. loss with a questionable singles lineup, Sutton might be wondering what upside the job has. Since the PGA of America doesn't ask captains to remain for more than one Ryder Cup, Strange won't be back in 2004 and it has nothing to do with the loss Sunday.

Strange made out the lineup, but only two of his 12 players (David Toms and Scott Verplank) won singles matches Sunday. Strange did a terrific job setting up the rosters for the team matches Friday and Saturday when the U.S. team tied 8-8, far better than 1999's 6-10 record after team play.

One Fleet Street pundit tried stirring the pot with this question, the first one asked of Strange at the postmatch press conference.

``Everyone is saying, Curtis, that you handed the Ryder Cup to Europe by not putting your top players out first. Do you agree?''

Strange, intense and honest during his playing career when he won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1988 and 1989, has mellowed as a veteran and a broadcaster for ABC. He managed to contain himself.

``I think Scott Hoch (who lost to Colin Montgomerie in the first singles match) can play a pretty good game of golf, and I think David Toms (who beat Sergio Garcia in the second singles match) is a pretty good player, and I think David Duval (who halved with Darren Clarke) is a pretty good player,'' said Strange.

``So obviously, if somebody says that, it shows me that - well, I won't (go there). I would tend to disagree, as simple as that. I think it's an insult to those three players quite frankly.''

As soon as the singles pairings came out Saturday night, most observers were convinced Sam Torrance's lineup gave his team a chance to win and Strange's lineup gave his team a chance to lose. But it still came down to players not getting the job done. Tiger Woods was in the unique position of perhaps not getting a chance to make a difference, as the Ryder Cup outcome could be - and was - decided long before he finished the final match of the day against Jesper Parnevik.

Strange and Torrance, close friends for years, did manage to eliminate the contentiousness that dominated Brookline. Both captains vowed a return to intense competition with the sportsmanship and good will with which the matches were founded by Samuel Ryder in 1927.

In that sense there were two winning captains at The Belfry.

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