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Ryder Cup race heats up

The heat is on for U.S. Ryder Cup hopefuls with just three nerve-jangling tournaments remaining before the 12-man team is decided.

After this month's PGA Championship at Medinah in Illinois, the top 10 in the Cup standings will automatically qualify to take on Europe at the K Club in Ireland from Sept. 22-24.

For those players narrowly missing out, there is a final chance of making the team as one of captain Tom Lehman's two wildcard picks.

Will he go for experience or will he favour form? Much will depend on the mix of his automatic top 10 and the counter-balance he believes the U.S. will need if they are to wrest back the trophy from Europe.

The Europeans, who romped to a record-equalling victory by 18-½ points to 9-½ at Oakland Hills in 2004, have won four of the last five matches.

In Ireland, they will enjoy home advantage but the Americans, under the passionate guidance of Lehman, are certain to provide much sterner opposition than two years ago.

As things stand, the U.S. team will be led by world number one Tiger Woods, Masters champion Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Chad Campbell, David Toms and Chris DiMarco.

The next four in the standings are all would-be rookies -- J.J. Henry, Zach Johnson, Brett Wetterich and John Rollins -- while players such as Vaughn Taylor, Jerry Kelly and Davis Love III remain on the fringe.

This week's Buick Open in Michigan, next week's International in Colorado and the final major championship of the year in Illinois represent the last-chance saloon for those hoping to squeeze into the team on merit or a late impression on Lehman.

White knuckles and racing hearts will dominate the next three weeks on the PGA Tour as players try to make the cut and then contend with the Ryder Cup uppermost in mind.

Furyk, a veteran of four Ryder Cups, knows all about that pressure.

"It's how you view it," the 2003 U.S. Open champion told reporters on Tuesday as he prepared for this week's Buick Open.

"If you're put in that position where you're ninth, 10th, 11th or 12th there's quite a bit of heat because sitting on that bubble, you probably have to finish in the top 10 in one of the next three events to secure a spot on the team.

"For a guy that says there's no pressure, he's either lying or he's viewing it from a positive note; that it's an opportunity, rather than saying: 'Oh, geez, I don't want to fall out.'

"He's viewing it as an opportunity to make the team, and that's probably a good route to take."

Given that Lehman has four rookies in the final four spots for his top 10 -- and three more rookies in Taylor, Kelly and Lucas Glover at 11, 12 and 13 -- he is almost certain to go for experience in his wildcard picks.

Should that happen, 14th-ranked Love and number 15 Fred Couples would probably get the nod.

However, nothing is certain with three weeks of golf still to come and Lehman hedged his bets when asked in a teleconference on Tuesday.

"I've been on the list and you can start at No. 11 and go on down and I can give you a reason why every one of those guys would be a good part of the team," he said.

"You get to someone like Freddie, just the name Fred Couples is worth something and it brings a little bit of extra to the team. People have a huge amount of respect for him.

"Tim Herron is 16th, he gets along with everybody really well. He's funny, people love him. He brings a lot of light-heartedness to the team and I think that's something our team could use.

"(Fred) Funk is a great player, he's streaky and when he's on his on streak, he's really tough to beat. Every guy is like that and, at the end of the day, it could be a tough call."

August 2, 2006

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