The biggest upset in the history of modern golf, and one of the most shocking results in any sport in some years, is now on the verge of being completed in the 33rd Ryder Cup here at The Country Club.

A young European team with seven Cup rookies and six players not ranked in the top 45 in the world have built a huge, four-match lead over one of the most heralded teams America has ever assembled.

No team in Ryder Cup history, dating from 1927, has ever overcome more than a two-match deficit on the last day. The U.S. team isn't in trouble. It's on life support--three touchdowns behind in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, five runs down in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

"You know we've won, don't you?" said Europe's brutally blunt Colin Montgomerie, angry much of the day at unsportsmanlike heckling from the crowds. "It's silent [out there now]. Great. That's the best thing we can do--silence the crowd by outplaying them."

Monty wasn't kidding in the least. This is personal. For 15 years, there's been no hotter-burning, albeit civilized, feud in sport than this one.

Only a golf miracle can save the Americans, nothing less. So far, the U.S. stars here haven't been able to make a six-foot putt without shaking in their soft spikes, much less start walking on water. On paper, you can still make a case that America might sweep Sunday's 12 singles matches, thanks to pairings as comical as Tiger Woods against Andrew Coltart and Phil Mickelson against Jarmo Sandelin. Those who have been here, however, know better. Here's the truth after 16 matches.

Miguel Angel Jimenez and Darren Clarke are playing the balata off Davis Love III and Tom Lehman. Padraig Harrington has more points than Mark O'Meara. No American can hold a candle to the inspired play of Jesper Parnevik. Most important, 19-year-old Sergio Garcia has more points in two days than Woods, Mickelson, O'Meara, David Duval, Payne Stewart and Jim Furyk combined.

The U.S. team might as well throw all its U.S. Open, Masters, PGA and British Open trophies in the fireplace. They don't count for anything here when some guy who's ranked 72nd in the world drains a putt and pumps his fist in your face.

So far, this Cup has been equal parts European heroism and a bad case of cracking under pressure by a U.S. team that boasts 10 of the top 16 players in the world rankings. And boasted is the proper word. Jeff Maggert called his team "the 12 best players in the world" and added that, no matter how they partnered up, they should still win. Just pull any four pairs of names out of a hat on Friday and Saturday and that should suffice.

Well, well, well. How tunes can change. Even the noisy crowds here haven't unsettled the Europeans, who've glared down the rowdies and shown exactly the composure and resolve that their richer American foes have lacked.

"Their behavior was just ridiculous," said Paul Lawrie of fans who interrupted backswings with yells and snapped flash cameras in players' faces. "I don't mind it when we've both played, but to do it before the next opponent hits a shot, then it's just not on."

If anything, wanting the Cup back too much may be America's greatest problem. If the U.S. team does not win 8 1/2 of the 12 points on Sunday to take back the Cup, then some exalted reputations--most notably those of Woods and Duval--will face serious reevaluation. In fact, the entire U.S. golf tour may, with just cause, move to a lower place in world golf. This, after all, would be the third straight European "upset" and the sixth Cup in the last eight to end up in Europe's hands.

Something else besides excellent golf is transpiring here. Pro athletes always claim they don't believe in curses, jinxes or hexes. In particular, pro teams get crazy when you suggested there might be such a thing as collective bad luck or group gagging that extends from year to year, even though the faces on the team keep changing.

Ridiculous, they say, and illogical. Insulting, too.

But, irrational as it seems, entire teams can be infected with a debilitating sense that they have failed before and will inexorably find a way to lose again. Now, the Cubs, Bills, Red Sox, Vikings and the rest are not alone. The U.S. Ryder Cup team now stands near the top of the list.

U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw, who sounds like he's in denial, kept insisting his team had played "magnificently" and that, thanks to America's love of Sunday singles, this Cup was still in the hat.

However, history is against Gentle Ben. Second-tier European players often seem comic to American fans who fancy themselves sophisticated. Yet, in Cup after Cup, a long list of supposed unknowns--such as Coltart, Sandelin and Jean Van de Velde--has been stunning the U.S. on the final day of the Ryder Cup.

Here are some of Europe's winners in singles in the '90s: Paul Broadhurst, Joakim Haeggman, Howard Clark, David Gilford, Philip Walton, Thomas Bjorn and Per-Ulrik Johansson.

No one should underestimate the dimensions of a European victory here. The gap between these teams is huge by all conventional measures. For example, the U.S. team has seven major tournament winners to Europe's one. On the other hand, if the U.S. somehow comes back to win, don't sell that short, either. Europe--over three days and 28 matches on an American course--is an astronomical underdog. Europe--with a four-match lead in hand and 12 matches left in one day--is an enormous favorite.

Perhaps the U.S. only has one real ace in the hole: Montgomerie's premature exaltation. American fans understand the power of: "Is Brooklyn still in the league?" Some words burn. And focus the mind.

"You know we've won, don't you?" ought to be enough to awaken the blood in anyone. Although, with this exasperating American team--that calls the Ryder Cup "an exhibition" and wants to be paid to play for its country--you never really know.

RYDER CUPS AFTER TWO ROUNDS

Looking Favorable for Europe

Since 1979, when the Great Britain Ryder Cup team was expanded to include players from all of Europe, the second-round scores and eventual winners in the biennual competition:

Year

Two-Day Score

Leader

Eventual Winner

1999

10-6

Europe

--

1997

10 1/2-5 1/2

Europe

Europe, 14 1/2-13 1/2

1995

9-7

United States

United States, 14 1/2-13 1/2

1993

8 1/2-7 1/2

Europe

United States, 15-13

1991

8-8

--

United States, 14 1/2-13 1/2

1989

9-7

Europe

Europe, 14-14

1987

10 1/2-5 1/2

Europe

Europe, 15-13

1985 9-7

Europe

Europe 16 1/2-11 1/2

1983

8-8

--

United States, 14 1/2-13 1/2

1981

10 1/2-5 1/2

United States

United States, 18 1/2-9 1/2

1979

8 1/2-7 1/2

United States

United States, 17-11