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Val-Drama Belongs Mainly to Europe

Ryder Cup: Stunned U.S. trails, 9-4, with three suspended matches and 12 singles remaining today.

September 28, 1997|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOTOGRANDE, Spain — As it turns out, the world's golf experts were right. The Ryder Cup has turned into a rout.

The matches weren't expected to be all that close, and they're not . . . except it's the European team that is so far in front you have to climb the tallest cork tree at Valderrama Golf Club just to catch a glimpse of its tail lights.

With three unfinished foursomes matches and all 12 singles matches to go today, Europe not only leads, 9-4, but has some fairly hefty history on its side.

Only four times has a team come back to win after trailing going into the singles matches--never if the margin has been more than two points.

Add it all up and Europe needs to win only five of the last 15 matches to reach 14 points, which is enough to keep the Ryder Cup for two more years.

The way things are going for Tom Kite's U.S. team, a bull has a better chance against a matador. Kite said it isn't over yet, although he didn't sound very confident.

"We have to play like crazy, but it's not insurmountable," said Kite, who acknowledged he was something more than disappointed.

"I think 'surprised' describes the situation a whole lot better," he said.

Meanwhile, speaking for the new underdogs from a player's perspective, Phil Mickelson tried to put on a happy face.

"It could be worse," he said.

Not by much. The U.S. played all day Saturday and managed exactly one point--half a point from Tom Lehman-Mickelson in a halved foursome match against Ignacio Garrido-Jesper Parnevik left over from Friday added to half a point Lehman-Mickelson earned from halving their Saturday four-ball match against Garrido-Jose Maria Olazabal.

All in all, it was not exactly a rousing day for the U.S. team. Of course, part of the reason is that European players like Lee Westwood seemed to make every single putt they stood over.

Meanwhile, the way the U.S. players putted, they couldn't hit the Mediterranean from the Rock of Gibraltar.

For instance, there was Tiger Woods putting his ball off the green and into the water on the 17th hole, where Woods and Mark O'Meara put the finishing touches on a 2 and 1 loss to Westwood-Nick Faldo.

There was Brad Faxon, regarded as the team's best putter, who increased his streak to 35 consecutive holes without a birdie.

There was Mickelson missing a seven-footer on No. 13, an eight-footer on No. 14 and a six-footer on No. 17 after hitting a two-iron out of the rough to get that close.

In fact, so many golf balls stayed out of so many holes, they must have been scared of the dark.

Lehman couldn't believe his eyes.

"I'm just surprised we aren't making more putts," he said. "It really is unlike our team. Maybe when things start to hit the lips all the time it bounces from one guy to the next."

Kite said the Europeans knew the course better, but Lehman said he didn't think it made any difference in the putting.

So what's going wrong? According to Ian Woosnam, the U.S. team seems to be coming up a little short in a certain key area.

"It's nerve and bottle and whether you've got it or not," Woosnam said. "They have a very good team and very good individuals, but that doesn't matter when you come down to match play.

"In the end, we played our best golf under pressure."

There still is some hope for the U.S., but that's going to end early if something good doesn't happen in the three foursome matches that couldn't be completed Saturday after a rain-delayed start.

Scott Hoch-Jeff Maggert lead Faldo-Westwood, 1-up, through 14. Parnevik chipped in on the seventh hole for a birdie to square his foursomes match with Garrido against Justin Leonard-Woods. In the other unfinished match, Olazabal-Costantino Rocca lead Couples-Love, 1-up, through seven.

The U.S. probably needs to win all three of the leftover foursomes if there is to be any chance of a comeback.

"That's going to be the Ryder Cup in the morning," Maggert said. "If we can pull those three out. But if the negative side happens. . . ."

Well, Seve Ballesteros probably will never sit still again if that comes true. Ballesteros was all over the place in his golf cart Saturday, when he advised, cajoled, implored, sympathized and cheered his team to a five-point lead by sundown.

"We should not be relaxed," Ballesteros said, urging caution. "We are respectful of the U.S. team. But the golf we have seen from our team has been outstanding. Great."

There can be no question about that. And it has come from virtually everyone. Westwood, 24, a Ryder Cup rookie from England, had five birdies in the four-ball victory with Faldo against O'Meara and Woods. In perhaps the Ryder Cup's greatest upset, Westwood has managed to overshadow Woods.

Woosnam and Thomas Bjorn somehow scored a 2 and 1 four-ball victory over Faxon-Leonard even though Leonard had four birdies and an eagle through 10 holes.

"That's match play," Leonard said. "You can play really well and lose or mediocre and win. Unfortunately, I was in Category A."

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