Sure bet: It'll come down to Sunday

SUTTON COLDFIELD, England -- Colin Montgomerie just knows it will come down to Sunday, with someone's game turning the Ryder Cup either way. That's always the case, isn't it?

"I think it's going to be very close again,'' Montgomerie said of the matches that begin Friday morning at The Belfry. "I think that's understandable. It's one of the closest competitions in world sport. And that's why it gets your attention, gets our attention.''

Indeed, he is correct.

And Monty has been a big part of it.

For the last 15 years, the Ryder Cup has been golf's most compelling competition. And to figure out why, you need only look at the total points won by the United States and Europe during that time.

It's dead even: 98 apiece.

Since 1987, the year the Americans lost the biennial competition at home for the first time, each side has won three times with one tie. No match has been decided by more than two points. And the last three Ryder Cups have been won by the same score, 14½ to 13½.

"Even when you think you have a better team, the format dictates that it's going to be close,'' said Curtis Strange, the captain of the U.S. team who has played in five Ryder Cups. "Eight out of 12 play (during the team matches), so if a team has trouble with their depth, you don't have to play them all.

"Anybody can get beat in 18 holes of match play. Tiger Woods is vulnerable. (Nick) Faldo. Anyone. It's a different ballgame. In 72 holes, stroke play, the cream will rise to the top more often than not. In 18 holes of match play, I don't care who it is, but we see people go beyond what they normally do.''

How else do you explain Brian Barnes twice defeating Jack Nicklaus in singles at the 1975 Ryder Cup? Nicklaus had won the Masters and PGA Championship that year. Or what about Tom Watson losing to 20-year-old Nick Faldo in 1977? Watson won the Masters and British Open that year.

Then there was Tiger Woods' first Ryder Cup in 1997. The year he burst upon the scene as a pro and won the Masters, Woods went up against Costantino Rocca, an aging Italian who had lost to John Daly in a British Open playoff two years earlier. Rocca defeated Woods 4 and 2. In fact, Rocca went 3-1 in that Ryder Cup.

When the 34th Ryder Cup matches begin, the Americans will have five of the top 10 players in the world, and seven of the top 25. The Europeans will have just two top-10 players and only five in the top 25.

It likely won't matter.

"The Ryder Cup is a very different game altogether,'' said Germany's Bernhard Langer, who is playing in his 10th. "It's not stroke play, it's not 72 holes. You go out guy against guy, or two against two. And things can happen. There's a lot of pressure. It's probably the most unusual pressure in golf because you don't play for yourself. If I play a major or any other tournament, I make a mistake, I'm the only one who suffers.

"But in the Ryder Cup, you feel for the whole team and the captain, the whole tour, country or continent.''

No one knows that better than Langer, who has won 18 matches in his nine Ryder Cup appearances and was involved in one of the most memorable against Hale Irwin in 1991. Their final-day singles match was the last one, and it came down to the last hole, the last putt.

Langer missed a 6-foot par putt that would have won the match and tied the overall competition at 14-14. Instead, Langer and Irwin tied, meaning the Americans won 14½ to 13½.

"That was the most pressure I ever faced in the Ryder Cup,'' Langer said. "And it wasn't just that one putt. It was the last four or five holes, because we knew it would come down to that match. From the 15th hole on, every shot was important.''

Consider this: Woods has 34 PGA Tour victories, including eight major championships, at age 26. He'd have to all but quit the game for anyone to catch him in the world ranking in the next two years. Before turning pro, he had won three straight U.S. Amateurs, preceded by three straight U.S. Juniors, all contested at match play. And yet, his Ryder Cup record is a mediocre 3-6-1.

"When they go up against Tiger, they have everything to gain and nothing to lose,'' Strange said. "You're playing against the best player of all time. Why wouldn't you get fired up to play this guy? If he's not ready for that, he's vulnerable. It's the same as when Nicklaus played, or (Arnold) Palmer, all the great ones.''

So you can analyze the rankings, the experience, the current form, the venue. Who drives it better? Who putts better? Who's won more majors? All of it is a factor.

Recent history suggests don't read too much into it.

Bob Harig of the St. Petersburg Times is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.