BROOKLINE, Mass. -- The members of the European team here for the 33rd Ryder Cup are an intriguing lot, representing seven countries and, depending on how you regard Swedes Jesper Parnevik and Jarmo Sandelin, a couple of galaxies.
Unlike their American counterparts, they are largely unknown. Only two players, Colin Montgomerie of Scotland and Lee Westwood of England, are ranked among the world's top 10. Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain and Paul Lawrie of Scotland are the only ones to have won major championships, Lawrie's at the expense of Jean Van de Velde of France at this year's British Open.
Despite the presence of a record seven rookies, including Lawrie and Van de Velde, they have come to The Country Club with a bit of a swagger. Undaunted yet not unaccustomed to their role as heavy underdogs, they are seemingly much more at ease than the 12-man U.S. team.
When the biennial competition begins here tomorrow, the Europeans would like to accomplish an unprecedented three straight victories. The U.S. relinquished the trophy four years ago at Oak Hill, in Rochester, N.Y., and has been second-guessed ever since.
"It means there is less pressure on us and more pressure on them," said Westwood, who as a rookie two years ago played a vital role in Europe's one-point win at Valderrama. "Great expectation for them to win, I suppose. It's in their own country, so the pressure is building, I would imagine."
Said Montgomerie: "We always tend to go into these matches as underdogs. We have over the last 10 years and it's amazing how well we've done. Because we go in there as underdogs, we don't seem to have as much to lose and therefore play better because of it, possibly."
It's not as if the Europeans are devoid of expectations -- or talent -- to approach the top-heavy American team led by the world's No. 1 and No. 2 players, Tiger Woods and David Duval. The pressure has been on 19-year-old Sergio Garcia of Spain since he nearly beat Woods at last month's PGA Championship.
Much of the burden will fall on the team's most experienced players, Montgomerie and Olazabal. They will try to provide the leadership that was previously the job of Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros.
Together Faldo and Ballesteros appeared 19 times over 11 competitions, playing in 83 matches and winning a total of 43 points. Though Olazabal's 14-8-3 record in five previous Ryder Cups is the best of any of this year's competitors, most of his success came while playing with Ballesteros, his countryman and mentor. It was Ballesteros' hands-on approach as the team's non-playing captain two years ago that was first criticized and later credited with being instrumental in the European upset.
"Obviously not having him here is going to be different for me," said Olazabal, who is expected to give similar guidance to Garcia when play begins. "Hopefully it will be as good as the rest of the years. We do have a great team. We are all together, and I think that's the most important thing."
What the Europeans mostly share is their inexperience. Since the event's inception 72 years ago down the road in Worcester, a Ryder Cup team has never had as many first-time players as Europe has this year. (In contrast, Duval is the only U.S. rookie.)
"There were five rookies two years ago and we won," said Andrew Coltart of Scotland, one of the seven as well as one of two captain's choices this year by Mark James. "On paper, the Americans should be slight favorites. But to say the Americans are overwhelming favorites is a lot of rubbish."
Said Padraig Harrington of Ireland: "One thing is being overlooked. I think we'll be able to support each other and know what the other guy is going through."
While Harrington and Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland will be asked to put aside whatever political differences they might have for the good of the team, Westwood and Sandelin will be asked to put the bad feelings they harbor for each other aside.
Westwood and Sandelin haven't been on the best of terms for more than a year, when Westwood charged that Sandelin didn't penalize himself after his ball moved as he went to putt it during a tournament in Paris. Sandelin has had similar run-ins with Americans Mark O'Meara and Phil Mickelson.
"It doesn't matter what you do, you have to make some decisions," said Sandelin, 32, who accused O'Meara of cheating at the same tournament two years ago and had a verbal altercation with Mickelson a few years back. "I look up to the 11 guys who I have on my side and do whatever it takes to make the team work together."
In Sandelin's case, it will likely mean toning down his act, and certainly his wardrobe. Known to sport lizard-skinned cowboy boots with spikes while he is playing, Sandelin plans on adhering to whatever dress codes James implements. "No boots," Sandelin said with a touch of sadness.
Sandelin has replaced Parnevik, who once resorted to eating volcanic sand in order to cleanse his digestive system, as the quirky star of the European Tour. Even James, who was a bit of an iconoclast himself as a player and was fined 1000 pounds at the 1979 Ryder Cup for rude behavior, seems to have a good feel about Sandelin.
"I wouldn't say Jarmo is a bit eccentric, I think he's very eccentric," James said Tuesday. "But we have a lot of eccentric people in Europe. We're very used to them."
"It must be something about the fertilizer they use on the Swedish golf courses," joked Parnevik.
James set the tone for his team by playing down the overall importance of the Ryder Cup.
"I wouldn't call it a bloodthirsty competition, I don't think golf ever gets that serious," he said. "You give 100 percent and it means a lot to the players whether you win or lose this match. It's the highest form of team event in our sport, our careers. It matters, but people aren't dying because of it."
Don't tell that to the uptight Americans, intent on avoiding another embarrassing defeat at the Ryder Cup, this time by a team with players from seven countries and two galaxies.
Site: Brookline, Mass.
Course: The Country Club (7,033 yards, par 71)
TV: The Golf Channel, (today, opening ceremonies, 4 p.m.), USA (tomorrow, 7: 30 a.m.-6 p.m.) and NBC (Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 10: 30 a.m.- 6 p.m.)
Format: Tomorrow and Saturday, four morning alternate-shot matches and four afternoon better-ball matches. Sunday, 12 singles matches.
Last match: Seve Ballesteros' European squad defeated the U.S., 14 1/2-13 1/2, in Sotogrande, Spain.