Lehman: Ignore Current Form of U.S. Team

Tuesday, September 19th 2006, 8:43 am
By: News On 6

STRAFFAN, Ireland (AP) _ The Americans didn't exactly arrive in the best of shape for the Ryder Cup.

The best any of their five players managed at the final PGA Tour event before the matches was Chris DiMarco in a tie for 39th at the 84 Lumber Classic, 11 shots out of the lead. Only two others even made the cut.

Over in England, Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk both were soundly beaten in the first round of the World Match Play Championship, not what anyone expected from the Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world.

Then they arrived in Ireland on Monday _ and it started raining.

It was enough to dampen brown tweed coats, but not enough to bother U.S. captain Tom Lehman.

``I've always contended that the best player always plays best in the biggest events,'' Lehman said Monday after his team checked in to their rooms at The K Club to start a long week of practice and galas, before the Ryder Cup gets under way on Friday.

``I know from personal experience,'' he said. ``I've played in the B.C. Open the week before the Ryder Cup and missed the cut by about 10 shots, then went out and had a great Ryder Cup. It's so easy to look beyond what you're doing last week to this week. So I don't put a great deal of significance in the fact a guy may not have played his best.''

Nor does he put much stock in Paul Casey winning at Wentworth, or Padraig Harrington and Jose Maria Olazabal finishing in the top 10 at the Madrid Masters, where Darren Clarke also posted two rounds in the 60s at his first tournament since his wife died.

The buildup begins Tuesday, when both teams begin to practice on what is now a soggy K Club.

Not only did the U.S. team fare poorly last week _ at least the seven guys who played _ it had a rough time getting to Ireland. The charter plane with nine players was delayed three hours because of excess luggage.

Considering how these matches have gone lately, Lehman can only hope it wasn't emotional baggage. Having lost four of the last five times, the Americans will try to beat Europe on its home soil for the first time since 1993.

``We brought more than our share of luggage,'' Lehman said. ``We were trying to put together a puzzle, trying to fit all the stuff inside the plane. You could see the guys outside the plane in the windows going, 'How are we going to get all this stuff inside?' But they managed to do it. Our team is very excited we're coming back.''

Lehman brought his team to Ireland at the end of August for two days of practice, determined to end nearly two decades of frustration in the Ryder Cup. The weather should not have been surprising, because it also rained most of those two days.

Along with extra baggage, the Americans brought a new label to these matches _ underdogs.

Europe has only two rookies on this team _ Henrik Stenson and Robert Karlsson of Sweden _ and Casey gave his squad an emotional lift with his victory Sunday in the World Match Play Championship.

The Americans counter with a powerful 1-2-3 punch _ Woods, Phil Mickelson and Furyk _ but have four rookies on their team, two of whom never have competed in match play.

``The European team is extremely strong, and very, very strong from top to bottom,'' Lehman said. ``Our team is very strong. We have four rookies that are always a bit of a question mark, although I believe that they are tremendous players. But at the end of the day, I think the European team based on the strength of their team, playing here in Ireland, would probably have to be favored.''

European captain Ian Woosnam said his players would still feel as though they have something to prove, but he sure didn't make them sound like anything but the favorites on home soil.

``We've got 12 great players this year, and this is probably the strongest team we've ever had,'' he said. ``A lot of people have said their team is one of the weakest they have ever had, and I just don't agree with that. Guys that are on their team deserve to be on it. And you know what rookies are like. They come out and have nothing to prove.''

Europe knows what from experience.

Their rookies went 6-6-1 last time, getting clutch performances in team play from David Howell, Luke Donald and Casey.

Think back to 2002 at The Belfry, when Phillip Price knocked off Mickelson in a crucial singles match and Paul McGinley delivered the cup-clinching putt. Or to 1995 at Oak Hill, when Philip Walton and David Gilford won matches on the 18th hole that proved decisive.

``I think it's going to be a close contest,'' Woosnam said.