RYDER CUP PREVIEW

Europeans Visit The Belfry with Redemption in Mind

By Shawn Nicholls,
Contributor

NEW YORK CITY, NY (Sept. 18, 2002) - So much has happened since September, 1999. In the world of golf, there have been records broken, slams achieved, and major championships won by minor contenders. The golf family grieved at the loss of Payne Stewart, but welcomed the great memories that he left behind.

And then there’s that day last year, which changed the world, and postponed the Ryder Cup 12 months.

But with all that’s gone on, and even though the specifics of that September battle three years ago may only seem to be a distant memory, there is one aspect of the match that will never be forgotten, by anyone.

When Justin Leonard sank an improbable putt on the 17th hole in Massachusetts to conclude an improbable final day comeback, sending the United States and her fans into an unfettered frenzy, the European players felt as if a three iron had been driven into their sides.

And for three long years, that three iron has remained, painfully. Every mention of the Ryder Cup, every time Leonard is in contention, that image is replayed, and it is haunting the European squad.

But, as is the beauty of sports, there is always a time for redemption, even when the wait is an eternity.

For the Europeans, that time is now.

And while the United States will be the team traveling away from home to a hostile arena for the start of the tournament on September 27, they won’t find themselves at as much a disadvantage as year’s past. For starters, the World Golf Championship event this week is in Ireland, giving the U.S. players plenty of time to shake off any jet lag and get used to the September European weather.

As for the golf itself, the Americans have the advantage of playing on a course that is more like those found in North America than those across the Atlantic. Now, granted, all of the 12 European members have played extensively in the United States, so it is not the case that they are unfamiliar with the style of course; but not all American players visit many European courses, and when they do, they are usually quite humbled.

The 7,000 yard Brabazon Course at The Belfry is hosting its fourth Ryder Cup grudge fest, with the all-time series being conveniently knotted at 1-1-1; yet another gripping storyline to go along with the course’s melting pot of holes which includes the testy 18th over water and the tight, tree-lined 15th.

The format for the Ryder Cup is a combination of individual and team play, thus strategy becomes quite important. Over three days of play, 28 points will be awarded based on the results of match play events. A victory equals a point. In the case of a time in any individual match, no extra holes are played, and each team is awarded a half a point.

The two team types of competition are fourball and foursome play. In fourball play, two American players and two European players team up against each other, with each player playing his own ball. At the end of each hole, the better score by an American player and the better score by a European player are used to determine the winning twosome for that hole.

Foursome play is a little bit more irregular, but perhaps much more exciting. Again, it pits twosome against twosomes, but instead of every player hitting his own ball, teammates alternate shots until the ball is holed. One team member hits the tee shots on the odd holes, and the other on the even holes.

If the long weekend ends with the match all square at 14, the United States retains the cup and goes home happy.

 

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Not much could be better than golf at its best form, all of the emotions that start to boil in international team competition, and a course rich in tradition and beauty as its host. What’s even better is that Birmingham, the home city of the Belfry, is a great travel option, Ryder Cup or no Ryder Cup.

So, to help stir up a little excitement and anticipation as the day of the first Ryder Cup match approaches, let’s take a look at some of the more tantalizing subplots sure to float to the surface early in the proceedings, followed by some travel advice for those taking in the matches firsthand.

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

When the decision was made to freeze the rosters of the two teams after September 11, despite the year delay in the event that would follow, it seemed to make perfect sense. After all, these players earned their right to support their country, and that should not be taken away from them. And accordingly, that feeling should still be generally accepted.

However, what the delay has done has created an arena for second guessing. In a normal setting, the time between the selection of the captain’s picks and the first tee shot is relatively short, so the chances of players plummeting into mighty slumps is rather slim.

But, with 12 plus months since Paul Azinger and Scott Verplank were named to the team, very little has gone right in their golf careers. That’s not to say that they won’t turn it all around, much the way Leonard did, but Strange certainly has to have that element of question in the back of mind.

Of course, put captain’s picks aside and there are still several players on both squads that have not even sniffed the winner’s circle in quite some time. David Duval has been missing in action ever since his British Open victory surged him near the top of the Ryder Cup standings, and threatened to send his career into orbit.

The same is true for Stewart Cink, who came all so close to a U.S. Open crown to earn most of his points, before retreating back into the shadows. And perhaps the worst of the American causalities is Hal Sutton, who seems resigned to waiting out his eligibility and joining the Senior Tour.

All in all, of the ten Americans that earned their way onto this competition’s team by earning the most points, only three, Tiger Woods, David Toms and Phil Mickelson, would make the team if they reselected. Names like Duval and Love and Hoch would be replaced with Beem, Funk, and Riley. Ah, what a difference a year makes.

It’s not much better for the Europeans. Where’s Westwood? Frankly, nobody knows. Finding him on a leaderboard these days is harder than finding that Waldo guy in those famous kids’ books of a few years ago.

Jesper Parnevik is on to playing the PGA Tour full time, and has not made much of a splash; Colin Montgomerie has been on a steady decline, and a bad back may keep him out of the matches all together; and no one is really even sure who Phillip Price and Niclas Fasth are. If only the Europeans had wonder kid Justin Rose, who suddenly sparked to life this year after an extended hibernation.

Tiger and Sergio

Ever since Sergio Garcia ran down the fairway and leapt into the air a few years back at the PGA Championship, eventually giving Tiger all he could handle as he worked to secure his second major championship, the world has been crying for Woods and Garcia to square off and create an ageless rivalry.

And it has yet to happen. Garcia, who was playing a group ahead of Woods in that epic battle, has proved to be completely incompetent when it comes to managing the growl of Tiger and the hiss of his enormous gallery. Tiger embarrassed him at the U.S. Open this year, and pretty much every other time they have played head to head.

But perhaps, captain’s pairings permitting, these two young studs will have a chance to square off in the singles portion of the tournament, and maybe, just maybe, it will be the deciding match.

Scott Hoch and the Wind

For as long as anyone can remember, Scott Hoch has made it clear that his golf game and the wind do not mix. Well, Scotty, welcome to England. Although the aging player has already called for Strange to sit him down if the wind is a factor, he could end up being a liability come Sunday.

But then again, if the conditions are docile, he could be the dark horse that helps keep the Cup on American soil for another two years. Hoch has always showed a flash for clutch shot making, and seems to make a hole in one just about every week, so at the very least, he will be exciting to watch.

The Best of the Rest

Phil Mickelson needs something to get him going. Yeah, he won twice this year on the PGA Tour, but unfortunately they were in events in which Tiger Woods was not in the field. His major finishes this year were rather distasteful, and for the summer, he has done very little but miss some cuts and finish half a dozen strokes back every week.

But, perhaps some heroics, or just some good, smart play at the Ryder Cup could light his flame, or just give the guy some confidence to go out and stare down the world’s best one out of four tournaments next year, and get that monkey off his back.

But here’s saying that monkey is still hanging around when the Ryder Cup comes back to the United States in 2004…

Padraig Harrington and Thomas Bjorn are quietly and quickly becoming two of the better players on tour. Bjorn is famous for his death stare, and utmost level of concentration, not to mention his come from behind conquest over Woods in Dubai last year.

Harrington meanwhile has that goofy walk and silly smile, but still manages to kill the ball and make every putt that he looks at. Expect both to earn major titles soon, and expect their games to go a long way to deciding the outcome at the Ryder Cup.

Prediction

The United States will find themselves ahead going into the final day, but despite feeling confident with their singles game, they will squander what once seemed to be an insurmountable lead.

But, driving that three iron even further into the side of the European team, Tiger Woods will defeat Sergio Garcia 4&3 and David Toms will conquer Thomas Bjorn for the only two American victories of the day, giving the team a one point victory.

Where to Play and Stay in Birmingham

Unfortunately, the Ryder Cup only lasts for three days, which is not nearly enough to time to enjoy the beauty that is the city of Birmingham, especially when you are spending all day at the golf course.

The city grew during England’s industrial revolution, and has been booming ever since. In fact, some of Birmingham’s most famous buildings are historic landmarks from that time period.

Additionally, much of the city is built around eight canals, which provide visitors with breathtaking opportunities to peruse the city in small boats or enjoy a pint at a canal-side pub.

As for the golf, while the Belfry may be the most famous sports attraction, it is by no means the only track in the area. The Abbey Hotel Golf and Country Club (+44 0 1527 63918) and the Windmill Village Hotel, Golf and Leisure Club (+44 0 24 7640 4040) are just a few of the great stay and play locations in Birmingham.

Also prevalent in the area, and perhaps more attractive, are the public courses. At just around ten pounds a round, the circuit of eight municipal courses is as good a collection of cheap but quality golf you are going to find.

Pype Hayes and Hatchford Brook are just two of the eight, but if you have the time to spare, sampling six or even all eight of these courses over a week or so will turn out to be quite worth your while.

When the sun finally goes down, and golf is no longer an option, Birmingham still flickers with the lights and music of its upbeat nightlife. Among the several nightclubs and music venues, The Water’s Edge and Ronnie’s Scott are two of the best known

And finally, as is the case with everything else in this United Kingdom hot spot, accommodations are aplenty. There are the usual suspects littered around the city’s center – Marriotts, Hyatts, Holiday Inn’s – mixed in with a few hotels local to the area, like the City Inn (44 0 121 643 1003), a brand new, 238 room complex. Shawn Nicholls is a staff writer for TravelGolf.com and WorldGolf.com

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