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European edge with Ryder Cup wild cards?

If psychological points are to be won via Ryder Cup captain's picks, then Europe's Bernhard Langer almost certainly won the first skirmish against his opposite number Hal Sutton of the United States at the weekend.

German Langer, a veteran of 10 Ryder Cups as a player, opted for Britons Colin Montgomerie and Luke Donald as his two wildcard selections after the BMW International Open ended in Munich on Sunday.

Two weeks earlier, after the U.S. PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Sutton went for the 50-year-old Jay Haas and Stewart Cink as his two picks.

Montgomerie and Donald versus Haas and Cink?

Langer 2, or possibly 1-1/2. Sutton 0, or maybe 1/2.

Time will tell, of course. However, if shrewd wildcard selection is based simply on picking the two players least fancied by the opposition, then Langer holds the early advantage.

He has chosen a seven-times European number one in Montgomerie, a man who always seems to raise his game several notches at the Ryder Cup where he is unbeaten in six singles matches and was an inspirational figure at The Belfry in 2002.

Langer's other choice, Donald, is a rock-steady player who should respond well to the demands made by the Oakland Hills layout outside Detroit, Michigan.

Aged just 26, the young Englishman has already won on both sides of the Atlantic.

He is also a proven winner in the cut-and-thrust of match-play golf, having collected seven points out of a possible eight in the Walker Cup amateur team competition in 1999 and 2000.

Sutton's picks look steady and reliable, and Cink justified his selection by winning the prestigious WGC-NEC Invitational by four shots at Firestone Country Club eight days ago.

However, none of the Europeans in Langer's 12-man team is likely to be unduly concerned by either Cink or Haas. Although both have previously played in the Ryder Cup, neither boasts a winning record.

Scott Verplank, the man widely regarded as Sutton's third option as a captain's pick, was overlooked after he twisted his ankle during the second round of the U.S. PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

Sutton conceded Verplank had come desperately close to being included, but added he had been "worried about his foot problem and his ankle problem".

Verplank, who won twice in three matches on his Cup debut at The Belfry two years ago, would almost certainly have worried the Europeans a little more. Even American John Daly, a twice major champion, agrees.

"I think Scott Verplank would have been a really good pick, he's playing really good golf," Daly said at last week's BMW International Open in Germany.

"Nothing against Jay Haas but Jay's been there before (at the Ryder Cup) and hasn't fared too well.

"We are pretty strong but I think it's going to be close."

Daly is absolutely right about how close the Ryder Cup is almost certain to be.

Since 1981, competition could hardly have been tighter with Europe winning five matches and the U.S. four. One encounter -- at The Belfry in central England in 1989 -- was tied.

In those 10 contests, only one was decided by a margin of more than two points in either team's favour -- Europe's victory by 16-1/2 points to 11-1/2 at The Belfry in 1985.

On paper, the Americans always have the strongest line-up, and this year is no exception.

In world number one Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Kenny Perry, David Toms, Chad Campbell, Chris DiMarco, Fred Funk, Chris Riley, Haas and Cink, they have eight players ranked in the global top 20.

Europe, with Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Thomas Levet, Paul Casey, David Howell, Ian Poulter, Paul McGinley, Donald and Montgomerie, have just three.

In Woods, Mickelson, Love, Furyk and Toms, the U.S. have five major winners. Europe, for the first time since 1981 when Seve Ballesteros was not selected following a dispute with European officials over appearance money, have none.

Both sides, though, have a mix of five rookies and seven players with previous Ryder Cup experience.

When it comes to the heat of battle at Oakland Hills from September 17 to 19, the 35th Ryder Cup will be all about match-play grit, team cohesiveness and the ability to deliver under pressure.

Forget about any advantage in player quality and experience. Forget about any perceived advantage in wildcard selections. As with the previous 10 trans-Atlantic encounters, this one will be very, very close.

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