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Why It's Better to Be Worse

It took a miracle for the U.S. team to win the 1999 Ryder Cup.
The Americans were still in it on the final day only because of
European captain Mark James's loony strategy of front-loading
his Sunday lineup with his worst players. Then--let's face
it--Justin Leonard made a lucky putt to clinch the thing.

Even so, the Europeans have held on to the hardware, either by
winning or tying, five times in the last eight meetings. They
play better in teams than the Americans, and the foursomes and
four-ball matches account for 16 of the available 28 points.
What's more, the site of this year's tournament bodes well for
the Euros: Their captain, Sam Torrance, drained the clinching
putt for Europe at the Belfry in 1985.

Yet none of that explains why the Europeans will win next week.
They'll win because they are not supposed to: Ladbrokes has the
U.S. as a 1-to-2 favorite. The underdog advantage is real, and it
is formidable, especially in golf. After Rich Beem's improbable
victory at the PGA, Leonard sounded as if he longed to be a long
shot again. "[Beem] did a good job of taking the pressure off
himself last night," Leonard said, referring to Beem's
self-deprecating Saturday press conference. "I've played dumb
before, and it's a pretty good place to be."

It's an even better place to be in match play. "No one expected
me to win," said pudgy Australian Peter O'Malley, then the
66th-ranked player in the world, after dispatching Tiger Woods,
2 and 1, in the first round of the Accenture Match Play
Championship last February. "I had a no-lose situation, really."

The underdog advantage explains how Costantino Rocca defeated
Woods at the '97 Ryder Cup at Valderrama, how Europe almost beat
the U.S. in '99 at Brookline and how the Yanks then staged their
improbable comeback. It was only when they found themselves in a
10-6 hole, effectively repositioned as underdogs, that the
Americans started firing at flags, taking 8 1/2 of a possible 12
points on Sunday.

Team Stars and Stripes will again be the favorite at the Belfry,
thanks to its edge in the World Ranking--the Yanks are ranked a
collective 346 to the Euros' 611--and the renown of Woods and Phil
Mickelson. That's why it's time for captain Curtis Strange and
the U.S. players to start acting like college football coaches,
who are experts at talking their teams down and their opponents
up. Way up. Tiger and friends, on the other hand, have been
saying things like, "Anything can happen in match play." That's
not going to cut it.

Now is the time to crow about Hal Sutton's spiral to 115 in the
Ranking. "Hal is struggling so bad," Strange should begin a press
conference, "he might be the first guy ever to lose a Ryder Cup
match 10 and 9. I half hoped he'd get bucked off one of his
horses and not be able to make the trip."

And it's time for the Americans to lavish praise on Europe's
most anonymous players. "Niclas Fasth gives me nightmares,"
David Duval should tell reporters. "He almost ripped the claret
jug out of my hands at Lytham last year."

Keep in mind these should be mostly true statements--Fasth did
finish second at the 2001 British Open, three strokes back. Paul
Azinger also needed a chip-in on 17 and two extra holes to beat
Fasth at February's Match Play. "I was lucky to get out of
there," Zinger said at the time, and he should still be saying it
to anyone holding a notebook.

Reversing the perceptions of the public, the press and even the
pros won't be easy. This is where Strange needs to remind the
press that the downtrodden Pierre Fulke of Sweden beat Ernie Els
in the Match Play semis in 2001. At no time should Strange or
any American player make fun of Fulke's name, or mispronounce it
as "Fluke."

Woods might mention Welshman Phillip Price's strong effort while
finishing in a second-place tie behind Tiger at the 2000 NEC
Invitational. (He was 11 strokes back, but no need to bring that
up.) Other Euros might benefit from a bit of hyperbole from
Strange, such as, "If I could pick anyone to play for my life,
it would be Paul McGinley." Mickelson, who with Bob May lost to
McGinley and Liam White in the 1991 Walker Cup, could then
expound on his lingering disappointment ("unforgettable") and
pain ("excruciating") from that match--even if he doesn't
remember it and until now thought Liam White was the lead singer
of Oasis.

Better yet, the next time Tiger is asked how it feels to be such
a big favorite to win the Cup, he ought to simply mention his
3-6-1 Ryder record and reply, "Who are you calling favorite?"

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK GREAT EXPECTATIONS Strange has to alter the perception that the U.S. should win.

The savvy coach knows the value of the underdog advantage--and
poor-mouths hard to get it.