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Ceremony framed by remembrances

SUTTON COLDFIELD, England -- Separated on stage by the gold
Ryder Cup trophy they desperately want to win, U.S. and European
players paused to remember why they had to wait so long for the
chance.

U.S. captain Curtis Strange began with a reminder of the Sept.
11 terrorist attacks, the reason the matches were postponed for the
first time since World War II.

''Every country represented here lost citizens that day,''
Strange said during the opening ceremony Thursday.

Strange urged players and fans not to forget why the Ryder Cup
was started, recalling the vision of English seed merchant Samuel
Ryder to stage a golf exhibition that would promote friendship and
peace on both sides of the Atlantic.

''Guys,'' he said with a nod to each team, ''let's make Samuel
Ryder proud.''

Three years after the Americans staged their great comeback in
suburban Boston and riled the Europeans with a chaotic celebration,
the Ryder Cup finally returns to the golfing stage Friday at The
Belfry, with Tiger Woods in the leadoff position.

No one questions that the matches should have been postponed a
year. No one doubts that the intensity will be just as strong.
Everyone figures it will be close.

In the last seven Ryder Cups, each team has won 98 total points.

''It's a two-horse race, and we have a super chance,'' Colin
Montgomerie said. ''It's very, very close -- one of the closest
competitions in world sports. That's why it gets your attention.''

Woods has conquered every domain in golf except the Ryder Cup,
where he has a 3-6-1 record in his matches. He opens with a
best-ball match with Paul Azinger against the only two Europeans
who have knocked down Woods in tournament play.

Darren Clarke manhandled him in the 2000 Match Play
Championship. Thomas Bjorn went all four rounds with Woods in Dubai
last year and beat him on the final hole.

''Thanks for reminding me,'' European captain Sam Torrance said.
''I'll remember that for the team meeting. That might be my best
point.''

Adding to the pressure on Woods is that he was singled out as an
example of how Americans aren't as passionate about the Ryder Cup.
Woods joked last week that he could think of a ''million reasons''
why he would rather win a World Golf Championship -- and its $1
million prize -- than the Ryder Cup.

Woods had The Belfry buzzing even more on the final day of
practice by playing nine holes at dawn while some of his teammates
were asleep.

Strange was annoyed when asked whether Woods broke rank, saying
he wanted his guys to prepare for the Ryder Cup as if it were a
major championship.

''This is not an exhibition,'' Strange said. ''This is a hell of
a competition that we take great pride in winning.''

It hasn't been that easy of late.

While the Americans come into the Ryder Cup with more talented
players, the Europeans have wound up with the trophy in five of the
last eight matches -- all of them decided by no more than two
points.

The lineup on both sides doesn't look nearly as strong as it did
last year, when the teams were selected.

David Duval has only one top-10 finish this year, which is one
more than Hal Sutton. European vice captain Ian Woosnam is ranked
higher than two of his players, Phillip Price and Lee Westwood, who
have fallen out of the top 100 since the matches were postponed.

No one knows what to expect this year.

''We all made the team last year,'' said Paul Azinger, a
captain's choice playing in his first Ryder Cup since 1983. ''We
are now thrust into Sunday major championship pressure the first
day, and we didn't necessarily play ourselves into that spot.''

If the Americans have more talent, the Europeans might have more
motivation.

Still lingering are the images from Brookline, Mass., in 1999,
when U.S. players, caddies and wives spilled onto the 17th green at
The Country Club to celebrate Justin Leonard's long birdie putt
that essentially gave them the Ryder Cup.

Worse yet was the gallery, hurling vulgar insults toward the
Europeans at every turn.

''I think it went over the top from all aspects,'' Woods said.
''I think this atmosphere is going to be completely different.
Because of what transpired last year, I think we all have a better
understanding of where this thing needs to be.''

The atmosphere has been much more pleasant this week. Sutton and
Mark Calcavecchia received warm applause just for walking onto the
practice range.

But once the matches begin, the cheering will become partisan.
It was like that in Boston and Valderrama, in Kiawah and previous
matches at The Belfry.

''The emotion of the Ryder Cup in '99 was really no different
than what we've seen every year,'' Phil Mickelson said. ''It's just
part of the event. I remember in '97 people jumping in the lake and
swimming before Scott Hoch was about to hit.

''I think that emotion that is brought out in this event is part
of what makes this unique.''