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Inside the Ropes: It looks like a Ryder Cup for the ages

The SportsXchange

On paper, as the pundits like to say, the 39th Ryder Cup this week at Medinah looks like one of the most competitive and compelling in the series, which dates to 1927.

Not that the matches have lacked for drama since the Europeans turned the tide in the mid-1980s. But when the rosters became official for this year's event, the talk began that these might be the two deepest teams to meet in the history of the biennial spectacle.

That aforementioned piece of paper would be the World Golf Rankings. Twenty-four players on the two teams come from the top 35 on the list as of last week, including nine in the top 10.

"I've always said that I don't see any favorites in this Ryder Cup; both teams are playing very strong," said Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, captain of the European team.

"The U.S. team is always strong, they've played great, they won the Masters (Bubba Watson) this year, the U.S. Open (Webb Simpson), they've won a bunch of tournaments, (four) rookies in that team so far have played extraordinarily well.

"In that regard both teams are strong. I don't see any favorites at all."

For much of the season, the U.S. team seemed to be gaining the upper hand, with Tiger Woods winning three times and Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner, a Ryder Cup rookie, each claiming two titles.

Phil Mickelson had an early victory with a dominant performance at Pebble Beach, Steve Stricker won the season opener in Kapalua and Brandt Snedeker posted an early victory at Torrey Pines before coming back from a rib injury in midseason to win the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup on Sunday.

Matt Kuchar claimed the biggest title of his career at the Players Championship and Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson came on strong with victories later in the season, leaving Jim Furyk as the only player on the American side without a victory this season.

Said captain Davis Love III: "(The Europeans are) going to be tough; they are every year. (But) I'll tell you this: I love my team."

One European golf writer wrote ominously awhile back that the Euros should pay attention to the "strong American team that is forming just over the next hill."

Then Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland captured the PGA Championship to start a run of three victories in a span of four tournaments that cemented his status as the best player in the world right now.

Not only that, veteran Paul Lawrie of Scotland claimed his second victory of the year, while Sergio Garcia of Spain, Peter Hanson of Sweden and Nicholas Colsaerts of Belgium, the only rookie on the European team, also won recently.

"We have definitely turned it around," said CBS commentator Nick Faldo, captain of the European team in 2008 at Valhalla. "Lee Westwood has found some form again recently, and I like our dark horses, too, people like Paul Lawrie and Nicolas Colsaerts.

"The Americans will set up the course for long hitters and we've got Rory, Westwood and Colsaerts as our long hitters so, as I say, everyone looks evenly matched."

For the record, and for what it's worth, the only players on the European team without victories this year are Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, and Martin Kaymer of Germany, the 2010 PGA champion, and Ian Poulter of England.

However, all of them are intense competitors and strong match players, as all of the Euros have proved to be over the years.

Even though the Americans hold a commanding 25-11-2 lead in the series, the Euros have an 8-4-1 edge since 1985, have won six of the last eight times and have prevailed twice on U.S. soil during that time.

Medinah, where Woods captured the 1999 and 2006 PGA Championships, might favor the long-hitting U.S. team at 7,657 yards, with Watson, Dustin Johnson, Bradley, Mickelson and Woods all capable of hitting the long ball.

"I've had a little bit of success there, so personally speaking, I like the place," Woods said. "I haven't played it since the new redo. They've gone in and redone 11 greens. Completely redid 15, so that's going to be different for us.

" ... As far as a match-play golf course, I think that it's set up for the ability to make a lot of birdies. The two times that we've played the PGA there, they set it up pretty hard and we still made a bunch of birdies. If we get the right kind of weather coming in there, and then being match play where we naturally can be more aggressive, the format lends itself to that. I can see there being just a boatload of birdies there."

However, the Euros might have a secret weapon because European stalwart Donald lives most of the year in the Chicago area and knows the course well, so he can offer up its secrets to his teammates.

"I've lived in Chicago for 15 years," said Donald, a graduate of Northwestern. "I love it here and I've built up a bit of a following. At least I hope they won't be booing."

McIlroy, Donald and Westwood give the Europeans three of the top four players in the world, broken up only by Woods at No. 2, but the Americans have 11 of the top 20.

However, once the first tee ball is hit Friday, you can take that piece of paper and tear it up.

COMING UP

PGA TOUR: The 39th Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Ill., Friday through Sunday.

TV: Friday, 8 a.m.-7:30 p.m. EDT on ESPN; Saturday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. EDT on NBC; and Sunday, noon-6 p.m. EDT on NBC.

2010: Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland defeated Hunter Mahan, 3 and 1, in the anchor match and Europe held off a United States rally to regain the Ryder Cup, 14 1/2-13 1/2. It was the first time since the 1991 matches on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island that the Ryder Cup came down to the final match; the Americans won that one when Bernhard Langer missed a six-foot putt on the final hole to halve his match with Hale Irwin. The U.S. rallied last year by earning seven points in singles, with victories by Steve Stricker, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Jeff Overton and Zach Johnson, plus a dramatic halve from Rickie Fowler, who had to birdie his last four holes. But the Euros got victories from McDowell, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Miguel Angel Jimenez to win for the fourth time in the last five Ryder Cups and sixth in the last eight. The U.S. leads the series, which dates to 1927, 25-11-2.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, N.C., Oct. 5-7.

TV: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 1-4 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Playing with a heavy heart, Kenny Perry holed a 30-foot eagle putt on the 17th hole in the final round and claimed his first Champions Tour victory by two strokes over Jeff Sluman and John Huston. The 51-year-old Perry, who won 14 times on the PGA Tour, nearly withdrew the night before the final round because of the death of his sister, Kay Perry, after a long battle with cancer. Kay died two years to the day after their mother, Mildred, also succumbed to cancer. Perry rebounded from a double-bogey 7 on the 12th hole, where he hit his approach shot into the water, to win with a closing 2-under-par 70.

LPGA TOUR: Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia at Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Oct. 11-14.

TV: Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 9:30-11:30 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Na Yeon Choi of South Korea posted four rounds of 3-under-par 68 or better and held off top-ranked Yani Tseng of Taiwan by one stroke. Tseng, who started the day four strokes behind Choi, closed with a 7-under-par 65 in a bid for her seventh LPGA Tour victory of the year. She pulled even with birdies on the 15th and 16th holes. However, Choi holed a five-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to regain the lead and claimed her fifth LPGA Tour title, but the first in 2011, closing with a 68. It was the 100th victory on the LPGA Tour for players of South Korean descent. Tseng, who a week earlier beat Choi by one shot in the LPGA Hana Bank Championship, missed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that would have forced a playoff.
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