A time to remember, compete

Somber opening ceremony pays tribute to victims of Sept. 11 attacks

? 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 today 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.

U.S. team captain Curtis Strange, right, shakes hands with European captain Sam Torrance during Thursday's opening ceremony. The Ryder Cup begins today at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England.

“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.”

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 lineups don’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.

“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.

“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.”