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Ryder Ready Based on their play in Ireland, Tiger Woods and his U.S. teammates should be in fine form at the Belfry

On Sunday evening a smiling Curtis Strange climbed down from the
tower behind the 18th green at Mount Juliet Estate still wearing
the blue blazer he'd had on during the ABC telecast of the
American Express Championship, but the collar of his shirt was
unbuttoned and the knot in his tie was at half-mast. Strange
looked like a man who had just had the weight of the world lifted
from his shoulders, not someone frazzled by the knowledge that he
was only hours away from captaining a dozen U.S. pros through a
week of organized chaos and high anxiety.

Why the smile? Simple. Eight of the players on his Ryder Cup team
had gone a combined 43 under par during the final round, and for
the week his 10 Cuppers in the 64-man field were 123 under. Best
of all, one of them, Tiger Woods, had shown up in Kilkenny,
Ireland, with his famous A game, going 25 under to beat Retief
Goosen by a shot. Not that Woods was satisfied. He was pleased to
win but annoyed that he hadn't achieved another personal best--his
bogey at the 72nd hole was the only one he suffered in four days,
and he didn't suffer it well. "Three feet from bogey-free. Oh,
man," Woods told the crowd that had gathered around the 18th
green for the trophy presentation. "Can we move this ceremony to
some other green? I don't want to look at this one anymore."

The fans tittered politely, thinking Woods was joking, which also
made Strange smile. Woods, despite having a few hiccups with his
driver and playing with a new set of Nike irons, was primed for
this week's match at the Belfry, and that news alone makes the
U.S. a solid favorite. "Everybody is playing O.K.," said Strange,
"and I'm tickled to death."

The best efforts of Woods and Goosen, who closed with a 10-under
62 and made Woods, the wire-to-wire leader, work for his win,
almost helped the AmEx escape the shadow of the Ryder Cup. Asked
which tournament he'd rather win, last week's or the Ryder Cup,
Woods, who has a lucrative endorsement deal with AmEx,
chose--duh--the American Express. Pushed to explain why, he reached
for the weakest club in his bag, humor. "I can give you a million
reasons why," Woods said, referring to the first-place prize
money. He went on to say that an individual title is more
satisfying to him than a team title, but the European media,
which obsess over the Ryder Cup, would have none of it and were
only further aggravated when other U.S. players agreed with their
teammate. Even Phil Mickelson, who's not exactly an FOT (Friend
of Tiger), said, "We play golf as individuals our entire lives. I
understand what [Woods] is saying. It's not the $1 million. It's
winning that individual championship."

It was left to Ernie Els of South Africa, who isn't eligible to
play at the Belfry, to tell it like it is. "You seem to enjoy
writing about the Ryder Cup and making it very important, as if
the players feel the same way," he told reporters. "I don't think
they do."

Nevertheless, last week's focus never strayed far from the Ryder
Cup rematch postponed a year by Sept. 11. Darren Clarke of
Northern Ireland was doubly unlucky that was so. Thought to be a
mainstay of the European team, he has been trying to play his way
out of a slump for months, and last week many of his friends
witnessed the struggle as he wound up second from last, 32 shots
behind Woods. "I'm mystified as to how I can play my worst golf
in five years," he said. "I've put in many practice hours trying
to get ready for next week, but my form is going the other way.
I'd have been better off having a few pints at the bar."

Clarke is one of a half-dozen Europeans who are, as they say east
of the Atlantic, off the boil. Hoping to atone for their
record-breaking collapse on the final day of the 1999 Cup, and
with the home course advantage, the Europeans were positioned to
be menacing underdogs. Now, though, despite some final-round
beacons of hope at Mount Juliet--Sergio Garcia shot a 62 and
Niclas Fasth a 64--several Euros are looking like just plain dogs.
Aside from Garcia (seventh place) and Fasth (11th), none of the
other five European Ryder Cuppers cracked the top 20 at Mount
Juliet, and this despite balmy conditions that had the players
checking their passport stamps to make sure they had, indeed,
come to Ireland. Favorite son Padraig Harrington, who has been
hampered by a sore neck and left ankle, finished in 21st, at 13
under. Colin Montgomerie of Scotland said his bad back has
improved, but he came in 31st, 16 strokes behind Woods. Thomas
Bjorn of Denmark, who will need to have a big week if the Euros
are to challenge, enjoyed only one good round at Mount Juliet, a
66 on Saturday, and finished 27th, yet still insisted, "There's
nothing to be worried about. We'll give the Americans a good

Strange says he knows how he'll pair his players at the Belfry
but won't reveal his lineup, reserving the right, in the words of
Paul Azinger, to change his mind "in case somebody's chopping in
practice." However, there is no shortage of volunteers to play
with Tiger. Azinger, 43rd at Mount Juliet, is a possibility in
alternate shot, as is David Toms, a straight hitter who tied for
fourth in Ireland, or David Duval, Woods's partner in two World
Cups. In better-ball Mark Calcavecchia, a frequent practice-round
partner of Woods's, might be a good match. "There's a little
extra pressure playing with Tiger," Calcavecchia says, "but it
doesn't suck to have the best player in the world as your

Azinger, Calcavecchia and Mickelson were early starters in the
final round at Mount Juliet, so Strange drove out in a cart to
check up on them before ABC went on the air. Calcavecchia hadn't
broken 70 in the three previous rounds, but his playing partner
on Sunday, Craig Parry, assured Strange that Calc was playing
well. Said Calcavecchia, "Curtis told [Parry], 'He'd better be,
otherwise he'll be sitting his butt on the pine.'"

Mickelson made 16 birdies the first three days, but racked up
eight more plus an eagle during a 64 on Sunday and came in 23rd.
When Strange caught up with him, Mickelson said, "Gee, Captain, I
feel as if I'm [playing in] qualifying." Strange's deadpan reply:

Mickelson laughed, but Strange had made his point. That evening
he would be having his first, informal team meeting. "The Ryder
Cup starts tonight," he said. "Now these guys can start thinking
about it 100 percent." As he has been for what seems like

Read Gary Van Sickle's Underground Golfer column on

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN PAPER TIGER Woods led from start to finish but nonetheless took a beating in the press.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN PEAKING Toms, who quietly tied for fourth, could be a force in this week's match.

"Gee, Captain, I feel as if I'm in a qualifier," said Mickelson.
Strange's deadpan reply: "Good."