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U.S. golfers are off to slow start in Europe

September 17, 2006|Jim Litke | Associated Press

Some of Tiger Woods' countrymen awoke to the news Thursday that he lost for the first time in two months and chased their morning coffee with a few aspirin.

Relax.

No one needs reminding how painful a Ryder Cup hangover can be, least of all Woods. But getting hammered 4 and 3 by Shaun Micheel at the World Match Play Championships -- matching Woods' worst loss in match play -- will shake El Tigre's confidence for about as long as it takes to read this sentence.

The Ryder Cup is still a week off and nobody on the other side is suddenly licking their chops at the thought of playing Woods head-to-head. Or Jim Furyk, for that matter -- despite how vulnerable they looked on yet another damp, cloudy afternoon in the British Isles.

Then again, for U.S. captain Tom Lehman and all those already keeping score at home, those first-round results weren't the only thing that augurs poorly for the Americans.

On European captain Ian Woosnam's side of the ledger, four of the five Europeans who will turn up at The K Club outside Dublin next week won their opening matches. And the sole loser, Englishman David Howell, was beaten by teammate Colin Montgomerie, a Scot whose brave heart will be front and center once the matches begin in earnest.

Coincidence?

Maybe.

Momentum is everything at the Ryder Cup. Anyone who's watched the scoreboard change colors like the temperature gauge in an overheating car knows how quickly a cushion can become a hot seat. Think of how fast the Europeans slid down the drain just ahead of American Justin Leonard's putt on the final day of singles at Brookline in 1999. Or, conversely, how the knees of one American after another buckled at Oak Hill in 1995, when four pivotal matches went to the 18th green and the Euros won them all by choking less.

So what to make of Thursday's little dress rehearsal?

Nothing.

Yet.

While it simulated the conditions and the format the Ryder Cuppers will find next week, the incentive to win was entirely different. This was still every man for himself.

"It says he beat me today, how's that?" Furyk said, waving off his 6 and 4 drubbing by Robert Karlsson, a Swede he could find himself playing again in a week's time. "And I'll have to try harder next time."

Without having to think long or hard, Karlsson concurred.

"It would be great if people around me think that it helps a little bit for the team. But for me," he said, "it was two rounds of golf that I'm very happy with. That's pretty much it."

David vs. Goliath might be the most overused billing in sports, but the Europeans have unrepentantly dusted it off and put it back on the marquee en route to winning four of the last five Ryder Cups. It takes more chutzpah than usual to do that this time around, and not just because of recent results or the odds the bookies over there are offering. Based on the world rankings, the Euros have never been so flush.

Woods, who might as well be on his own planet, is still No. 1, followed by teammates Furyk and Phil Mickelson. But there are seven Europeans in the top 20, and the farther down through the 12-man lineups you look, the deeper their advantage gets.

So far, though, they've been treating that fact like a state secret.

Somebody asked Montgomerie the day before the world match play began whether the results would have any bearing on the Ryder Cup.

"Of course it can," he said. "If any of our team gets to the final or goes a long way, it could be good for all of us."

And this is how he answered the same question Thursday, after shaking off Howell, his teammate, with a 1-up win: "Forget next week. I'm into this tournament now, and I've got three more people to win against, and I haven't won this since 1999. Right now, next week can wait until Monday."

Woods, of course, doesn't have a choice.

He's made no secret of his desire, finally, to be the leader of the U.S. squad and to make the rest of us forget his 7-11-2 record, or how he once shrugged off the Ryder Cup as an exhibition. So now that Woods has the weekend off, he'd better be ready when the real thing rolls around.

The Europeans' strategy for keeping the cup revolves around many things, but knocking off Woods is at the top of that list. Beating him over the course of 72 holes in stroke play may be one thing, but as Micheel reminded everybody, beating him over the course of a single day is another. And while doing it still only counts for a point, like knocking over Goliath, it's a very big point.

"I'm sure if Woosie is watching," said England's Luke Donald, who would have faced Woods in the next round, "he'll be happy."

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