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Wednesday, September 15, 2004
Updated: September 16, 10:19 AM ET
Europe is overmatched in every way

By John Huggan
Golf Digest

Every two years it's the same old thing. Even the briefest of glances at the probable and possible members of the American and European Ryder Cup sides reveals only one credible result in the biennial contest between these two longtime protagonists. From top to bottom, the U.S. side is just better. Miles better.

On U.S. Open-style home soil at Oakland Hills, where the fairways are narrower, the greens faster and the collars thicker than many of the less-experienced European players are accustomed to across the water, Uncle Sam's nephews will surely romp to a comfortable victory.

This year, especially, the gap between the two sides starts right at the top and only gets wider. The lower you pore down any combination of prospective lineups, the more pronounced is America's on-paper supremacy. At 10 through 12, man-to-man combat becomes man-to-boy spanking.

Let's say the best three players on the home side are Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III, all proven winners. The best three players the visitors can muster are Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Sergio Garcia. That's a formidable trio, but most judges would give more than a slight edge to the Americans.

Next up for the Stars and Stripes are, say, a U.S. Open champion in Jim Furyk, a PGA champion in David Toms and a rising star in Chad Campbell. What do the Euros have? Miguel Angel Jimenez, Paul Casey and Lee Westwood, of whom none has won a major championship.

It gets worse from an old world point of view. Battle-hardened Americans -- Kenny Perry, Chris DiMarco, Chris Riley, Fred Funk, Stewart Cink, Jay Haas -- against callow Europeans -- Ian Poulter, Thomas Levet, David Howell, Colin Montgomerie, Luke Donald, Paul McGinley. Hands up if you know where a few of these men hail from, never mind what they have achieved.

Since the gradual fading of Europe's so-called "big-five" -- Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer -- the very best players on either side have been exclusively American. Add the recent precipitous decline of European stalwart Jose Maria Olazabal, and the picture has gone from blazing Technicolor to a somewhat faded sepia.

Then again, students of recent Ryder Cup history will point out that this reasoning has not counted for much in the last four Ryder Cups, of which Europe has won three and, by the narrowest of margins, lost only once.

This time the visitors aren't even going to have their strongest side. For two reasons: One, the nonplaying captain, Langer, is still clearly one of the best 12 Europeans. And two, insular constraints applied by the European tour will cause the new European qualifying system (five players from the Ryder Cup world points list, five from the Ryder Cup European points list and two captain's picks) to fail in its aim of identifying the most capable side. Because only tour members are eligible for either Ryder Cup qualification or selection, the likes of Jesper Parnevik -- a U.S.-based European not ranked among the world's top-50 players and so unable to compete in elite-field World Golf Championships -- is, in effect, ineligible through the inability or reluctance to make trans-Atlantic trips to play the 11 European tour events required to retain that membership. Thus, the eternal question continues: Is this a European side or a European tour side?

Qualification issues aside, the numbers don't lie. More than once this year the World Golf Ranking has revealed an absence of Europeans from the top 10. And it has been more than five years since a European golfer -- Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie in 1999 -- won a major championship. Europe's golden era has been followed by something more akin to a bronze age.

The '04 version, therefore, is destined to be recalled as a European Ryder Cup side in transition. The old heads are gone or nearly gone; an admittedly highly promising batch of young studs is not yet fully matured. So it is that this is a European side destined to struggle. Though a format that does not ask every player to appear in every series of foursomes and four-balls will as usual help Europe "hide" any weak links from the no-doubt voracious Yanks found both inside and outside the ropes, the relative inexperience of Europe's lineup will be exposed come Sunday's singles.

America by six.

John Huggan is Golf Digest's European correspondent.