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Strange has burden of proof Ryder Cup selection brings out skeptics


ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- The second-guessing began even before Lanny Wadkins made Curtis Strange one of his two captain's picks for the 31st U.S. Ryder Cup team. It has continued for more than a month, with many wondering whether Wadkins chose his longtime friend because of what he has done in the past or what he could do this weekend.

There were some compelling reasons for making Strange part of U.S. team that will open its defense of the cup today at Oak Hill Country Club. Strange has played in four Ryder Cups, more than anyone else being considered. He also has played well on this course, winning the U.S. Open here six years ago and finishing fifth in the 1980 PGA Championship.

But there were nearly as many reasons for picking Lee Janzen, the other player who had made Wadkins' short list, instead of Strange, whose Ryder Cup record of 6-9-2 might have been better than nearly everyone else on U.S. team, but paled in comparison with such European veterans as Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam. And Strange hasn't won a PGA event since the 1989 Open.

"Curtis is here a lot for his knowledge and personality, but he's also here because he's playing well," Wadkins said yesterday. "I didn't bring him along just to chat."

Strange might be used in a role similar to the one Wadkins played at The Belfry in England two years ago or at Kiawah Island, S.C., in 1991. Wadkins certainly was a large part of those back-to-back victories, but many believe it was his decision to sit out the final-day singles matches in 1993 after Europe's Sam Torrance was injured that gave the emotional spark to the U.S. team in its comeback win.

Strange and fellow captain's choice Fred Couples will be under the microscope beginning this morning. Both will be playing in the opening foursomes, with Strange and reigning Masters champion Ben Crenshaw going against Bernhard Langer and Per-Ulrik Johanssen in the last of the four matches.

"I haven't played my best the last two or three years, so there is a little bit more pressure," said Strange. "You just want to play well."

It has been only in the past year that Strange has started to regain some of the swagger that was so much a part of his game in the late 1980s, when he was considered among the best in the world. His well-documented free fall was attributed to everything from a classic case of burnout to some mysterious illness.

Strange has had a chance to win a number of times this year, but late bogeys or disappointing final rounds have kept his winless streak in the United States going. After missing the cut at two straight tournaments before the PGA Championship, three straight 68s at Riviera was enough for Wadkins to make what some still believe was a Strange choice.

"He's a good match player, he's tough, doesn't get down and he fights for everything," said Wadkins. "He's played awfully steady over the last two years. He hasn't played spectacular golf, but he's played good, solid golf. And he does know the course. He has won on this course. I think that's a big

factor, no question."

Said Strange: "He had his reasons, and I have my feelings about why he picked me. It means a lot to me. The thing you have to do is go out and help the team in whatever way you can."

NOTES: Seve Ballesteros has been the most dominant player in the cup's recent history, and twice has carried the European team to victory nearly singlehandedly.

But when the 31st competition begins this morning with alternate-shot foursomes, Ballesteros will be a spectator.

Others will be left wondering whether European captain Bernard Gallacher's decision will turn out to be a wonderfully profitable gamble or just a huge blunder.

"It's not a gamble," said Gallacher. "Seve's game is about birdies and bogeys, and foursome play isn't about that."

However, since losing his first Ryder Cup foursome match in 1983, Ballesteros has partnered the Europeans to 10 wins and a tie in 13 foursome matchups.

Said Ballesteros: "The captain has put in play the players he thinks are in better form, and that's all I have to say."

31st Ryder Cup

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

When: Today through Sunday

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

Format: Today and tomorrow, four morning foursomes (alternate Ashot) and four afternoon four-balls. Sunday, 12 singles matches.

TV: Today -- USA Network, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tomorrow -- Ch. 11, 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday -- Ch. 11, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Today's tee times

8 a.m.: Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, Europe, vs. Corey Pavin and Tom Lehman, U.S.

8:12 a.m.: Sam Torrance and Constantino Rocca, Europe, vs. Jay Haas and Fred Couples, U.S.

8:24 a.m.: Howard Clark and Mark James, Europe, vs. Davis Love III and Jeff Maggert, U.S.

8:36 a.m.: Bernhard Langer and Per-Ulrik Johanssen, Europe, vs. Ben Crenshaw and Curtis Strange, U.S.

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