They are calling these 33rd Ryder Cup matches "The Battle of Brookline," even if both sides would like it to be known that they hardly view three days of match-play golf at The Country Club as anything but a spirited competition played in the spirit of great sportsmanship.
That's what they always say, even if fans worldwide will be riveted to the high drama and intense pressure these matches produce every two years as 12-man teams from the United States and Europe contest the cherished Cup. Europe has won the last two, most recently in 1997 at Valderrama in Spain.
Hearts on both sides will be fluttering quite early Friday morning when the matchup everyone wants to see--Tiger Woods vs. 19-year-old Spanish sensation Sergio Garcia--starts at 7:45 in the second pairing of the opening alternate-shot matches.
Woods, who held off Garcia by a shot to win the PGA Championship last month in Medinah, Ill., will play with Tom Lehman. Garcia will partner with Sweden's Jesper Parnevik in the marquee match of a very interesting morning. Lehman called the pairing "a golf fan's dream."
"It's not one-on-one," Woods said today. "It's alternate shot, and you only hit half the shots. It's not what the media is speculating. I know they want to see us play head-to-head. But we have to rely directly on our partners now."
They'll be preceded by another intriguing match--Europe's Colin Montgomerie and British Open champion Paul Lawrie facing David Duval and Phil Mickelson at 7:30 a.m. Padraig Harrington and Miguel Angel Jimenez will play Davis Love III and Payne Stewart, and Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke take on Jeff Maggert and Hal Sutton.
The United States, with 10 men among the top 16 in the world and every player in the top 30, is considered a heavy favorite. Every player but David Duval, ranked No. 2 in world, has played in a Ryder Cup.
"In my opinion, there's a very strong sense of urgency for this team to win," said Lehman, a member of the last two losing teams. "We need to win, that's all there is to it."
The Europeans, with seven first-time players, believe all the pressure is squarely on the Americans. The absence of former team titans--England's Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam, Germany's Bernhard Langer and Spain's Seve Ballesteros--only adds to that perception.
"It's nice being the underdogs," said Westwood. "There's a great expectation for them to win, I suppose. I think we can beat anybody. This format leads to shocks. We're virtually under no pressure at all. They must be under pressure, being the 12 best players in the world."
Westwood sarcastically was alluding to comments made earlier in the week by Maggert, who said the United States has the 12 best players in the world. Though the Europeans since have poked some fun at Maggert (after all, Montgomerie is No. 3 and Westwood No. 5 in current world rankings), they clearly were not amused to hear it.
The captains, American Ben Crenshaw and Europe's Mark James, have taken great pains not to pitch verbal volleys at each other and have cautioned their players to follow their lead.
"Mark James summed it up very well Tuesday night, saying that his goal and Ben's goal this year was to bring the matches back to a more friendly, gentlemanly competition," Love said. "But I don't think it gets any easier because of the focus and the attention and the pressure that gets put on us to win. Whether you win or lose, somebody's going to get criticized next week. Somebody's going to get beat up over the way they played."
At Valderrama, Love was among those players who took heavy heat. The '97 PGA champion was 0-4 in his matches. Combined with the two other major champions of that year, Masters winner Woods and British Open titlist Justin Leonard, the three were 1-9-3 in a 14 1/2 to 13 1/2 European victory.
Crenshaw said all of his players are hitting the ball extremely well over this 7,033-yard, par-71 layout, a historic venue the American captain first played when he was 16 years old. He set up the course to favor his team, with relatively short three-inch rough and tees that allow his long-hitters to use drivers and short irons to smallish and relatively slow greens.
On the European side, Jose Maria Olazabal also has been struggling and will not play Friday morning, along with Jean Van de Velde, Jarmo Sandelin and Andrew Coltart.
Still, everyone knows practice rounds don't mean much in this sort of competition, that players pumped on adrenaline often find their swings and their putting strokes just when everyone is prepared to write them off.
"I remember my first shot in Ryder Cup in '95," Lehman said. "I was with Corey Pavin, and we were playing Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie. I was hitting the first shot on the first tee, and I used a 3-wood, which I normally hit about 250. It went 320. There was my blood pressure. You figure it out."
Paul Lawrie, Europe
David Duval, United States
Jesper Parnevik, Europe
Tom Lehman, United States
Miguel Angel Jimenez,
Padraig Harrington, Europe
Davis Love III,
Payne Stewart, United States
Darren Clarke, Europe
Hal Sutton, United States
Afternoon pairings will be announced after the conclusion of the morning matches.
Where: The Country Club (7,033 yards, par 71), Brookline, Mass.
TV: 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m., USA Network.