ryder cup
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Pressue on US to team to deliver promise

Imagine facing a 3-2 pitch in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series. Standing at the free throw line with the score tied and one second left in the NBA Finals. Staring at a 6-foot putt to win the Masters.

Pressure in the Ryder Cup is every bit of that.

"It's like playing golf in the middle of the Super Bowl," Sweden's Jesper Parnevik said of the biennial matches between the United States and Europe, which start Friday at The Country Club.

The pulse quickens, legs turn to mush, palms get clammy -- and that's just when flags are raised and anthems are played during the opening ceremony. Walk to the first tee to hit the first shot in the first match, and the pressure gets insufferable.

"The only thing that stands still is the shaft of the club, and that's before you take the club out of the bag," two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal said. "Everything shakes -- hands, legs, everything. There's nothing you can do to avoid that.

"That's what makes it so special."

Tom Lehman played his first Ryder Cup in 1995 and was called upon to hit the first shot of the matches. He used a 3-wood, which goes about 250 yards under normal circumstances.

"It went 320," Lehman said. "So, where was my blood pressure? You figure it out."

In a most complicated game, played this week in the most unpredictable format, understanding what is at stake for the U.S. team in the next three days is simple.

"We need to win," Lehman said.

Never mind that the British invented the game, or that an English seed merchant named Samuel Ryder dreamed up this concept in 1927 of matching the best players on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Americans come to the Ryder Cup with better credentials, a cast that includes Tiger Woods, David Duval, Davis Love III, Payne Stewart -- no player lower than 28th in the world rankings.

"We've got the 12 best players in the world," Jeff Maggert said.

What they don't have is the cup. Europe has won or retained the Ryder Cup five times in the past seven matches. Still, it returns every year as the underdog. And even though it owns the cup, another victory would be considered another major upset.

That's just what Europe wants to hear.

"They must be under pressure, being the 12 best players in the world, according to themselves," England's Lee Westwood said.

"People at home are all hoping we're going to win, not expecting us to win," Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland said. "And that's a huge difference."

Adding to the pressure for the United States is the rift over Ryder Cup revenue, estimated at $63 million with a net profit of $23 million for the PGA of America. Woods and Duval led a faction of U.S. players who want some of that money, at least for charities of their choice.

The PGA says it will have such a plan in place by the end of the year, but the damage has been done. Another loss, and the Americans will look like greedy millionaires who have everything but a 17-inch gold chalice that money can't buy.

Perhaps the Americans can find the passion to win from captain Ben Crenshaw, who goes by the nickname "Gentle Ben" but who also broke his putter during a fit of rage during the 1987 Ryder Cup.

"It's terribly important for us," Crenshaw said. "I think everyone knows that for our side, not having success in the last few occasions. We've felt that sting twice."

Another loss surely is possible.

After all, this is match play, the most fickle format in golf, especially over 18 holes. The match is decided by who wins the most holes, not who shoots the lowest score. All it takes is one player to make a couple of long putts, or hole a shot from the bunker, for momentum to shift and the lead to become insurmountable.

"I think we can beat anybody," Westwood said. "This format leads to shocks."

With 28 matches worth one point each over three days, no team has won by more than two points since 1987. In the past five Ryder Cups, the United States has won 70 1/2 points, compared with 69 1/2 for Europe.

"A few rolls of the ball here, a rub of the green there, a bit of luck in the middle, and the match can go either way," European captain Mark James said. "There's an element of luck, and I think you have to be aware of that."

Woods is regarded as one of the best in match play, particularly since he became the first man to win the U.S. Amateur three straight times. But as great as he is, Woods lost a crucial singles match to Costantino Rocca, a former factory worker in Italy, in the Ryder Cup at Valderrama, Spain, two years ago.

"In match play in 18 holes, all it takes is just one shot here and there, especially on the back nine," Woods said. "If we can make those putts at the crucial times, who knows? We could turn it around and get the cup back."

If not, the pressure will build with every shot on every hole. The teams are decided over a two-year process (one year for Europe), so some may not be playing at their best. Mark O'Meara, the Masters and British Open champion of 1998, hasn't won this year and has offered to sit out some of the matches.

"You can show up this week and play very bad, and that's when the pressure turns into fear and panic," Parnevik said. "And you don't want to be here."