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Original Issue


You wouldn't know it from the unprecedented demand for tickets,
the 23 1/2 hours of television coverage or the voguish label of
"golf's greatest spectacle," but the Ryder Cup may be headed for
a fall. As most of the golf world takes for granted that Oak
Hill will produce yet another spellbinding cliff-hanger, there
are forces at work that could mark the 31st Ryder Cup as the
beginning of the end of the biennial event's golden era.

On the strength of 12 years of tight matches (the cumulative
score in the six meetings since 1983 is Europe 85 1/2, U.S. 82
1/2), the Ryder Cup has come to be perceived as a fail-safe
showcase for some of the purest competition in all of sports.
But although nobody wants to talk about it, the possibility of a
rout looms large at Oak Hill, and a blowout would severely
damage the Ryder Cup's main hook--the promise of a nerve-jangling
photo finish. If Europe can't win, or come as stirringly close
as it did in 1991 and '93, the Ryder Cup will take a giant step
backward to its former life as an exercise in goodwill,
diplomacy and butt-kicking.

Consider Europe's very significant problems, first in the short
term. The team that will come to Rochester, N.Y., is a ragtag
bunch. Jose Maria Olazabal has withdrawn and Nick Faldo has a
bad wrist, while Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer have bad
backs. The team's emotional leader, Ballesteros, is in the worst
slump of his career. Another stalwart, Ian Woosnam, was a late
replacement. Of Europe's best players, only Colin Montgomerie
has been in top form.

With all but one of its Big Six either hurting or absent, the
team will almost surely need strong performances from its
traditionally weak second tier--this year made up of Sam
Torrance, Costantino Rocca, David Gilford, Mark James and Howard
Clark, plus two unimposing Cup rookies, Philip Walton and
Per-Ulrik Johansson. Further steepening the mountain before
the European team is a golf course doctored to prey specifically
on the visitors. U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins knows that among the
opposing squad, only Faldo, Montgomerie and Olazabal have
finished better than 18th in a U.S. Open since 1988.

So it doesn't look good for Europe. But should an isolated
European loss on U.S. soil, even a bad one, hold so much
portent? Yes, because European golf has other problems that are
less immediate but even more fundamental. In the 1990s Europe
has been passed as a spawning ground for golf talent. While
players like Ernie Els, Robert Allenby, Tiger Woods and Michael
Campbell are coming from the warmer climates of other
continents, a conspicuous dearth of exceptional prospects has
risen from Europe. As a result the European team is still
looking for a group that can uphold the legacy of Ballesteros,
Faldo, Langer et al. Moreover, it is becoming clear that Europe
is not the best place for a good player to get better. Last
year, when Faldo made the decision to become a member of the PGA
Tour, the implications were enormous. Coming from Faldo, whose
quest for improvement is an obsession, the move pointed to
Europe's inferior courses and practice facilities, and the lack
of depth in its tournament fields. It also provided a compelling
rebuttal to the idea, which rose out of the European successes
in the Ryder Cup, that the variety of weather and turf
conditions found in Europe was producing a breed of player
superior to those playing the more standardized courses of the
PGA Tour.

But the European team's most profound problem is a diminishing
sense of mission. After years of being bullied by smug U.S.
Ryder Cup teams, the Europeans, led by captain Tony Jacklin and
Ballesteros, battled with single-minded fervor. The victories of
1985 and 1987 and the retention of the cup in 1989 exacted
revenge and proved a point, but once the point was proved, the
hunger dissipated. The subsequent bloodletting at Kiawah Island
was cathartic for both teams, and the 1993 matches, though
brilliantly played, lacked the sense of vendetta that had been
palpable since 1985. The Europeans now seem resigned to the idea
that the U.S. will always have greater depth and that they
will always be underdogs. "We've got nothing to lose," says
Faldo in assessing Europe's approach to Rochester. "We've got a
free shot."

Going in totally loose may be their best chance, but if the
Europeans think they have nothing to lose, they are wrong. In
fact, if they don't play well at Oak Hill, it will be hard to
find a winner.

COLOR PHOTO: ALLSPORT For Corey Pavin and the U.S., emotions peaked in 1991.