The Ryder Cup, and the genuine depth of emotion American golf pros feel about winning it back from the Europeans this weekend, may be the best-kept secret in professional sports.

Today, Saturday and Sunday, a dozen U.S. pros, including Payne Stewart, Ben Crenshaw and Curtis Strange, will play golf for nothing. No prize at all. Yet they may care more about the outcome than any tournament this year.

Only those who've kept an ear to the ground all season on the PGA Tour know how much the Ryder Cup -- and its rescue from the cursed hands of Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Co. -- means to American golfers. They keep hearing how the sport the United States has dominated since World War I has slipped out of American hands. And they hate it, just as the Australian tennis stars loathed seeing the Davis Cup escape them.

All summer, millionaires like Ray Floyd and Fuzzy Zoeller have muttered about playing better so they'd make the Ryder Cup team and atone for the awful things they did in '85 to lose it. You'd think they'd kicked the Liberty Bell and spit on the Constitution.

About three seconds after he won the PGA, Larry Nelson said, "Great. This means Lanny Wadkins and I can team up again in Ryder Cup. You know, we're 9-0 against 'em."

All season, Jack Nicklaus murmured about "his team" and whether the better sort of people were going to be wearing U.S. team colors around Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, on the last weekend in September. As nonplaying captain, he took the matter seriously indeed. To get trounced at The Belfry in England in 1985 and lose the biennial match for only the second time since 1933 was bad enough. But to lose on home soil, something which has never happened, and at his own club, too, is a fate Nicklaus finds unthinkable.

In the game of sportsmanship, the blood is high. It's often said that the Ryder Cup is like the America's Cup. Nobody cared about it until we lost it. We'd always won it too easily. From 1933 to 1985, the U.S. record was 19-1-1. And the lone tie, in 1969, occurred when Nicklaus, in a display of sportsmanship so generous that Sam Snead berated him, conceded a three-foot putt on the last green with the match at stake.

On the other hand, American golfers may care even more passionately about their Cup than American yachtsmen. Why? Because the European and Far Eastern tours are a huge economic threat to the American golf empire. You only get to be worth $400 million, like Nicklaus, if you are the king of the undisputed big league of your sport.

There'll be lots of patriotic gab at Muirfield, some of it genuine. But the U.S. team also knows it is playing for its precariously held international prestige -- and the millions of dollars of ancillary contracts linked to U.S. golf hegemony.

For the golf fan, the Ryder Cup should be delicious for other reasons, too. First, it's a dead even match. Europe barely lost, 14 1/2-13 1/2 in 1983 at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., when Wadkins hit a full wedge to a foot on the final hole to tie his match and win the Cup. At The Belfry, with rowdy fans heckling Zoeller, Floyd and Craig Stadler into performances that some called chokes, the Americans lost badly -- 16 1/2 to 11 1/2.

When grouches gather to gut golf, they focus on four inherent weaknesses in the Tour version of the game. There's no man-against-man, no team-against-team and no variety in the forms of the game.

The Ryder Cup cures all that. This time, it's not every man for himself against the scoreboard. On Sunday, there are 12 match play showdowns, a point apiece. In the mornings today and Saturday, each captain sends out four two-man teams to play "foursomes"; each team has one ball and the men alternate shots. Set up your partner's strength and avoid disasters.

In the afternoons today and Saturday, the captains name four two-man teams for "fourball." Each man plays his own ball and low man wins the hole for his team. This calls for hellbent make-a-birdie strategy.

Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin, the European captain, will have to decide which men to pair in foursomes and fourball. Then, on Sunday, they will have to array the troops, Nos. 1 to 12.

Ryder Cup has always demanded a different sort of temperament. You need some prize fighter in you and a head for strategy. Bland consistency isn't always rewarded in such a colorful format. This is the one week in pro golf for frat-house high jinks and team blazers. Finally, in this decorous subculture, an Andy Bean can root at full holler or a Tom Kite can make, shall we say, the psychologically acute comment at the telling moment.

Who prospers in Ryder Cup? Arnold Palmer has more Ryder Cup points than anyone (22). Snead loved the format (10-2-1). Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan seldom participated. Some, like Floyd (7-13-3) and Zoeller (1-8-1), can't get the hang of it. Others, like Nelson (9-0), the Vietnam combat veteran, and Hale Irwin (9-2-1), the Big Eight football star, seem to thrive in Ryder Cup.

How will Ryder Cup rookies, like Dan Pohl, Mark Calcavecchia, Larry Mize and Scott Simpson, handle the pressure?

In his prematch comments, Nicklaus has admitted that he has set up his course "fast and firm" to favor his own team. He has noted to the good people of the Columbus area that British fans have been rude. He has underlined how adversely another defeat would effect the image of American golf.

To know how much this Ryder Cup means to American golf, you only have to know how much it means to Nicklaus. He was captain once before -- in the 1983 win. What did he do after Wadkins' clutch wedge for birdie?

"It's true," he has been quoted as saying, "I did kiss the spot where he played the shot."