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Europeans have Ryder Cup-ful of experience Makeup of U.S. team has been questioned


ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- The first shot was fired by Bernard Gallacher, the non-playing captain of the European Ryder Cup team. In analyzing his team's chances against the U.S. players picked by counterpart Lanny Wadkins, Gallacher said: "When you look at the American team, I don't think we've got anything to be scared of."

Since Gallacher made that statement more than a month ago, the buildup to the 1995 Ryder Cup has been nothing but civil. No hints of "The War On The Shore" in 1991 at Kiawah Island, S.C., where the United States reclaimed the cup after losing it in 1987. It's more reminiscent of 1993 at The Belfry in England, where Gallacher and then-U.S. captain Tom Watson made an effort for a kinder, gentler competition.

"I'm sure it's going to be close and tight, and I expect nothing less," Wadkins said yesterday at Oak Hill Country Club, where the 31st Ryder Cup will begin tomorrow. "I'm not sure what it proves if the Europeans win or what it proves if the Americans win. I haven't got any hidden agenda to prove anything."

Wadkins might not, but there are certain members of his 12-man team who have come here looking to silence the critics who say that the U.S. team lacks the experience, toughness and Seve of the Europeans. The American agenda seems to go beyond hoisting the 19-inch cup in victory come Sunday afternoon.

"When you read how the American team is going to do, all you'll read are the negative things about individual players," said Tom Lehman, one of five U.S. players making their Ryder Cup debuts. "And so I feel like most of the guys need to look at the positive as well as the negative. You need to realize that you had to do something halfway decent to get yourself on the team. And so [the criticism] doesn't seem fair at times."

Or does it? Consider that Europe's most experienced players, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, have been in more Ryder Cup matches (70) than the entire U.S. team combined (56). They also have won 19 matches each, but the most by an American is the six by Curtis Strange. Nobody on the American team has won a tournament since Corey Pavin's victory at the U.S. Open in June, and Strange hasn't won on the PGA Tour since his Open victory here in 1989.

"I think many of the Europeans hang their hat on Ballesteros and Faldo and some of the experienced players that have been there six, seven, eight, nine, 10 Ryder Cups in a row," said Peter Jacobsen, who is making his first appearance since 1985.

Yet the U.S. team has been as much as a 5-2 favorite to retain the cup, largely because of the fragile health of several key Europeans. Faldo has been bothered by a bad wrist, as well as a swirl of rumors in the British tabloids about an impending divorce. Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer have had back problems.

"The toughest part of the week is the mental side," said Ballesteros, likely to be the key individual figure in this biennial event.

The Europeans also lost Jose Maria Olazabal because of recurring foot injuries. Olazabal, who teamed with countryman Ballesteros to win two of three matches in a losing cause at The Belfry, was replaced by Ian Woosnam. There's also Colin Montgomerie, who went 3-1-1 two years ago and likely will team with Faldo in what could turn out to be either Gallacher's best team or his biggest faux pair.

"When Nick's on his game, he's as good as anybody in the world," said Wadkins. "They're not going to be intimidated, and, if anything, they have intimidation on their side."

What the U.S. team definitely will have is the home-course advantage. The traditional Oak Hill course, with its tight fairways and large, fast greens, is geared to a team that features straight hitters such as Jay Haas and Pavin, long hitters such as Fred Couples (who also has back troubles) and Davis Love III and deft putters such as Ben Crenshaw, Loren Roberts and Phil Mickelson.

The crowd, which is expected to swell to about 25,000 a day, typically is a bigger factor in the Ryder Cup than in any other big-time golf event. How much kinder and gentler it will be here compared with Kiawah, where fans cheered poor shots by the European team, may depend on how close the competition gets. Or how cold and windy it gets. The forecast favors the Europeans.

"Hopefully, we can get a home-course advantage out of it," said Pavin. "But you never know. You still have to go out there and perform."

31st Ryder Cup

Where: Oak Hill Country Club, Rochester, N.Y.

When: Tomorrow through Sunday

Who: 12-man teams from United States and Europe.

Format: Tomorrow and Saturday, four morning foursomes (alternate shot) and four afternoon four-balls. Sunday, six singles matches.

TV: Tomorrow -- USA Network, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday -- NBC (Channel 11), 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday -- NBC, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

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