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Both sides agree course is fair for all

Ben Crenshaw, who fell in love with The Country Club when he was 16 years old, calls it "a special place in American golf" -- and a perfect venue for this week's Ryder Cup matches.

"It's a very interesting course. I think it lends itself beautifully to match-play golf," the U.S. captain said in the run-up to the 33rd Ryder Cup matches, which begin on Friday.

The venerable course -- which has hosted numerous national championships, including three memorable U.S. Opens -- has evolved from a modest six holes laid out in 1893 to a 7,033- yard, par-71 track that tests every golfing skill.

"The thing is you can't tip-toe through this course. You've got to keep playing your best golf -- and it's got to be aggressive, because that's the way holes are won," Crenshaw said.

"That's the great thing about match play -- it lends itself to more aggressive play," added Crenshaw, whose love of golf history and architecture were sparked by his first visit here as a 16-year-old player in the 1968 U.S. Junior Amateur.

The course -- carved out of hilly, rocky land originally used primarily for horse riding -- certainly has holes where the 24 Ryder Cup players can be aggressive. But there is invariably a risk involved.

Two holes -- the 335-yard fourth and the 310-yard sixth -- are par-4s where long hitters like Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia can reach the green with their drives, but both greens are well-bunkered and bordered by trees.

There are only two par-5s, and both can be reached with two well-struck shots. But each has its dangers.

The 513-yard ninth -- called Himalayas -- has a mountainous rock outcropping in the right side of the fairway 290 yards out that will have to be carried to reach the green in two.

The 14th is a 534-yard slight dogleg left hole, but it is uphill and the green is elevated and bordered by trees on three sides as well as deep bunkers in front. But the green is certainly reachable in two.

In the 1968 Junior Amateur, where Crenshaw reached the quarter-finals, Eddie Pearce, the winner, played the 14th five times, scoring two eagles and three birdies. The hole is now called Pearce's Pride.

The hardest hole on the course -- by the unanimous opinion of the 24 Ryder Cup players and their captains -- is the 486- yard 12th, which is normally a par-5.

While a downhill slope in the fairway will help lengthen drives, the small green -- designed for short-iron approaches -- sits atop a high hill and is tucked behind a stand of trees, requiring a high draw approach.

With the course drenched by the remnants of Hurricane Floyd last week and softened further by rain on Wednesday, no team was reaching the green in two shots in practice.

"It is either an easy par-5 or a very hard par-4," said Davis Love, one of the longer hitters on the U.S. team.

"That hole is really a par four and a half," said Crenshaw. "But I think it's a hole that fits beautifully in the mix of all the rest. It's a nice little barricade."

Still, the course will not be as treacherous as most courses for major championships, where the rough is so long that players are lucky to gouge their balls out of the grass and onto the fairway.

Crenshaw, as host captain, ordered the rough to be cut to a manageable four inches, which will allow players to go for the green even if they miss the fairway.

The greens, however, will not be easy to hit even from the fairway. At an average of 3,000 square feet, they are tiny.

Jean Van de Velde, runner-up in the British Open in July, said the green at the difficult 12th "is like a handkerchief."

"I think you need to hit first, because if you hit your ball on the green, there's no room for another ball, it's so small."

The small greens, however, may also benefit players because they will leave relatively short putts.

"There are going to be a lot of birdies out there because the greens are tiny," Love said. "If somebody is hitting the greens, they are going to be able to make putts."

"This is set up far better than a normal U.S. Open course," European Captain Mark James said. "It's much, much fairer and much better."

Crenshaw intended that the course be fair to both sides, and it is hard to say that it will favour either in the Ryder Cup.

"When it boils down to match play, side versus side, a series of 18-hole matches, we all know a lot of things can happen," Crenshaw said. "Golf is extremely inexact. It is anything but predictable."