The U.S. Ryder Cup team should not be able to lose at The Country Club over the next three days. In fact, the match probably shouldn't even be close.

However, in what has become the most tension-filled, tearful and unpredictable international feud in sports, what "should" happen seldom carries the day at the Ryder Cup. That's part of its enormous power.

For the past 14 years, the final Cup headline often has been the same: "Favored U.S. Team Collapses." As America has won only two of those seven encounters, the painful subplots have repeated themselves, too. American Superstars Fail to Lead. Tiger Goes 1-3-1. European Unknowns Shine Under Pressure. U.S. Loses Close Matches on 18th Hole.

How is this possible? What advantages does the European team have that aren't fully factored into forecasts? And can it happen again in '99?

Because the last seven Cups have been such magnificent live theater and such a boon to golf's popularity, few golfers want to be completely candid about this '99 affair. In other years, the U.S. has been a favorite, even a heavy favorite. But not like this, not since the days of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

At least Sweden's Jesper Parnevik has been totally blunt: "On paper, we're such huge underdogs, you could even call us the underpuppies."

Seldom, in any sport, will you see such a mismatch not only of talent and potential, but also of proven past results. If Europe somehow wins, you owe it to yourself to grasp the magnitude of the upset that you are watching.

The Americans, as a group, have won everything golf has to offer. Seven own major championships. Listen to the names: Tiger Woods, Payne Stewart, Davis Love III, Tom Lehman, Justin Leonard, Mark O'Meara and Hal Sutton. Don't forget David Duval--ranked No. 2 in the world--and Phil Mickelson, too. These are all pressure-tested stars in their primes.

For Europe, only Jose Maria Olazabal has won a major. He's been in a slump since punching a wall at the U.S. Open. What of Colin Montgomerie, the six-time European money champion? Monty is most famous for not winning major titles, especially under pressure. Pair him with France's Jean Van de Velde in alternate shot, and you've got the ultimate bad karma team. If they came to the 18th tee tied, which would dare ask the other for strategy?

Europe's old charismatic stars--their Fab Five of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle--are all gone. Among them, they won nine Masters. Their absence should cut the very heart out of the European team. In their stead, Europe is now led by a couple of wonderful kids, Lee Westwood and 19-year-old Sergio Garcia. As for the rest, they're a bunch of Padraigs, Jespers and Jarmos.

Balanced against all these facts is an array of intangible ghostlike forces that have seemed to help Europe in the past. Perhaps this weekend we'll find out how many of these supposed subtleties of the game were actually real and how many were just the Fab Five, plus Monty and Olazabal.

"I still like our chances," Parnevik said this week. "Match play is a great equalizer."

That's Europe's ace in the hole. On Friday and Saturday, the Ryder Cup is played Europe's way--with two-man-team matches, which count for 16 points. Plenty of American golf fans have to pause for a second to remember the difference between "foursome" and "four-ball" matches.

Quick, explain the most obvious differences in how you would pair your players in an alternate-shot versus a four-ball match. In Europe, they know. Or pretend that they do just to psyche us out. Here, we scratch our heads.

Let's see, do you put a young guy with an old guy, a rookie with a clutch player, a star with a stiff, a long hitter with a short hitter, an aggressive birdie-maker with a steady par-machine? Do you pair up good friends? Do you try to make every team competitive or virtually throw away a couple of matches so you can have more star-plus-star teams?

In truth, it's an utterly imprecise art. The European advantage may simply be that they think they have an advantage. This week's debate: Should players be paired according to the brand of ball that they play? The Europeans probably cooked this one up just to make us crazy. How can we expect Tiger to sink a six-foot putt if he has to hit somebody else's Maxfli instead of his own Titleist?

Only on Sunday does the Ryder Cup have a format the United States prefers--a dozen head-to-head matches. Since 1983, the U.S. has entered Sunday's play with a lead only one time! The Americans either fall behind, or have to scramble like madmen, on Friday and Saturday. Europe gains confidence. Everybody screams, "The U.S. is choking."

When the pressure builds, Europe almost always has one advantage: They're the underdogs. Or "underpuppies." They love it. In a sport where more prizes are choked away than are ever won by the victor, it's a big edge to think you have nothing to lose.

Maybe that's why, since 1985, the U.S. has a sickly 22-33-22 record in matches that went the entire 18 holes. The tighter it gets, the tenser the Americans play?

Most of the other explanations of Europe's relative success have a barely disguised anti-American bias. The U.S. is spoiled by its soft, rich life; the Europeans are psychologically hardy. Americans make poor teammates because they are selfish free-market individualists--one-man corporations; Europeans have that socialist-tinged one-for-all thing going for 'em. The Americans go back to the Ritz and order room service; the Europeans drink at the pub and listen to Seve's dirty jokes. They're imaginative shot makers because their courses aren't so perfect.

Blah, blah, blah. If the U.S. blows Europe's doors off this time around, watch how fast its "character" will improve. However, as dominant as the U.S. team appears on paper, a decisive victory is unlikely.

The very nature of golf tends to bunch the field. For example, last season Tiger Woods averaged 69.2 strokes a round. The 25th-best player on the PGA Tour averaged 70.2. That's right--one stroke per round difference between perhaps the greatest golf talent who ever lived and Loren Roberts.

At the Ryder Cup, the credentials and the pedigrees of the players seem enormously different. Over many years and a whole career, the gaps truly are huge between a Duval and a Jarmo Sandelin. Yet, on any one day in any one match, the difference between foes is seldom more than that one desperate nerve-racking shot. The fans seldom know it. But the players do.

That's why the favorites seem so wracked with tension and why the underpuppies play as though they know some inspiring secret. That's why, when it comes to the Ryder Cup, only one "should" really applies: You should grab a seat and hold on tight.