Stirring finishes leave U.S. shaken Europeans' 9-4 lead is their largest in history of Ryder Cup

Back-nine rallies turn tide

Americans need 10 1/2 of final 15 points to win

September 28, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SOTOGRANDE, Spain -- The predictions of a rout in the 32nd Ryder Cup at Valderrama Golf Club are coming true. There is one minor hitch: The highly favored U.S. team finds itself on the wrong end of this potential blowout.

After finishing the rain-delayed and darkness-suspended Friday matches yesterday morning trailing by a point, the Americans unraveled like the inside of an old golf ball in the fourball matches and continued their surprising free fall in the foursome matches later in the day.

The result was a shocking 9-4 deficit of those matches completed, meaning that the U.S. team must win 10 1/2 of the remaining 15 points between the three matches that were not finished last night because of darkness forced by an earlier rain delay and the 12 singles matches scheduled for today.

"Obviously I'm disappointed, but surprised might describe it better," shaken U.S. captain Tom Kite said. "I thought I put some outstanding pairings out there this morning and we started off well. But as has been the case this week, the Europeans righted themselves on the back nine."

The European team holds its largest lead ever going into the final day in the event's 70-year history and stands to win by its largest margin.

"The one thing we can't afford to do is relax," European captain Seve Ballesteros said.

Led by an eye-opening performance by Ryder Cup rookie Lee Westwood of England, the Europeans lifted themselves to the brink of their second straight upset victory and put the Americans into an almost impossible situation.

Only one team has overcome as much as a two-point deficit going into singles since the current format was established in 1979 -- the Europeans came from 9-7 down to win at Oak Hill two years ago. But the Americans were not conceding, perhaps hoping they can narrow the gap with the finish of the three remaining foursome matches remaining this morning.

"So far what I've seen from the Europeans, there isn't one guy who has played well from start to finish, they've just been ham-and-egging it in the foursome and four-balls very well," said Tom Lehman, who has played the best of any of the Americans. "They can be had. If we just play steady, they can be taken down."

Lehman obviously wasn't watching Westwood. Playing with Nick Faldo against a team of Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara, Westwood made five birdies in the fourball matches to set the tone for the day. The Europeans dominated the fourball matches, winning three and halving one.

It marked the first time the U.S. team hadn't won a match in a session since it was shut out, 4-0, during afternoon fourballs at The Belfry in 1989. The only other time it happened was in 1987, also in fourballs. The Americans wound up losing leads on the back nine in all of them yesterday.

Fred Couples and Davis Love III were 2 up on Scotland's Colin Montgomerie and Northern Ireland's Darren Clark after 10 holes, and lost, 1 up. Woods and O'Meara were 2 up after seven holes and 1 up after 10 over Westwood and Faldo, but lost, 2 and 1.

Justin Leonard played the first 10 holes in 6-under, but he and Brad Faxon led by only 1 up over Ian Woosnam of Wales and Denmark's Thomas Bjorn, and went on to lose, 2 and 1. Woosnam said he was anxious after seeing his first action.

"It made me more angry, because I'm the type of person who wants to be in the middle of everything," Woosnam said. He was one of three players Ballesteros held out Friday. "When I got out there today, I was so pumped up, I just wanted to beat everything that was in front of me."

Even the match the U.S. team halved was, in a way, lost.

Leading 1 up over Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal and Ignacio Garrido after 15 holes, and tied after Olazabal made a birdie on the par-4 16th, Phil Mickelson missed a 6-footer for eagle on the par-5 17th. Olazabal then made a 20-footer to save par on the par-4 18th.

"I want to give the European team a lot of credit for how well they're playing," Mickelson said. He has yet to win a match after going 3-0 as a rookie at Oak Hill. "They're definitely doing all the things that you need to do to win matches."

The chance of a U.S. comeback seems slim, considering the way things have gone the past two days. If things weren't bad enough in the afternoon, they got worse last night when Lee Janzen and Jim Furyk lost to Scotland's Colin Montgomerie and Germany's Bernhard Langer, 1 up.

Of the matches left on the course, the U.S. team is ahead in one, Europe is ahead in the another and one is even. Scott Hoch and Jeff Maggert lead Faldo and Westwood 1 up through 14 holes, while Olazabal and Italy's Costantino Rocca are 1 up over Love and Fred Couples through seven.

In perhaps the event's most anticipated pairing, Woods and Leonard were matched for the first time and are even with Sweden's Jesper Parnevik and Spain's Ignacio Garrido through seven holes. The U.S. team likely will have to win all three matches, or perhaps win two and halve one, to have any chance of pulling off a comeback victory by dominating the singles.

"It's not insurmountable, but we're going to have to play like crazy," Kite said. "Certainly if we're going to get back in the Ryder Cup we need to start doing something with those three matches."

Kite says the advantage the Europeans had going in -- knowing the Valderrama course, site of a regular stop on their tour -- has proved to be the difference in this competition.

In particular, the difference could be seen around the greens, where the Europeans have made 45 birdies and two eagles.

"They have severely out-putted us," Kite said. "My one big concern was their knowledge of the golf course. We have made a lot of good putts that we have misread the line or misjudged the speed. They seem to be making a lot of putts."

Today, the Europeans might even make Ryder Cup history.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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