Pressure Cooker

TIMES STAFF WRITER

. . . Wait . . . Back up a couple of words. Now, make it this:

SUFFOCATION, Spain--Hello and welcome to Ryder Cup, where shirt collars suddenly shrink two sizes, your tongue gets stuck to the roof of your mouth like Velcro, sweat glands shift into overdrive and every hole on the golf course is smaller than George Steinbrenner's heart.

You know, there's nothing like this little biennial, bi-continental combination golf outing and psychosis-inducing get-together to cause some of the best players in the world to start wondering.

As they stand there on the first tee, naked to the world except for polyester and fried nerve endings, they wonder, by gosh, if it's not too late to make a career change. At this moment, the dry cleaning business never looked so appealing.

Case in point: Consider the case of Davis Love III in his Ryder Cup debut in 1993 at the Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England. Love and Tom Kite were playing Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal in foursomes on the first day, but fog delayed the start of the match.

Kite said that by the time they were ready to tee off, Love didn't really come all that close to resembling the calm, collected individual he had been only a short time before. In fact, Love was something entirely different.

"He was a blithering idiot," Kite said.

This time, when the U.S. tries to take the Ryder Cup away from Europe at Valderrama Golf Club, Kite serves as the nonplaying captain and thus the idiot's team leader, not his partner.

Kite's biggest job, besides making sure everybody wears the same color-coordinated outfits on the right day, is to try to get his inexperienced players accustomed to Ryder Cup pressure that is so intense it can turn a golf ball into a pile of dimpled goo.

Kite said Ryder Cup pressure will have a huge effect on how he will pair his players. He's not sure he will put two rookies together . . . and for good reason.

"Well, one might say 'I can't hit it here' and the other might say 'I can't hit it here, either, so let's go get a beer,' " Kite said. "They might walk off the tee and disappear."

When the first match is played Friday here at this pleasant layout on the Mediterranean coast, the U.S. team actually may have a factor in its favor, even if intimidation isn't one of them.

Sure, the U.S. is fielding a powerful team that features three of the four winners of this year's majors--Masters champion Tiger Woods, British Open champion Justin Leonard and PGA champion Love. These guys already have whipped the best players from around the world and held steadfast under more scrutiny than Jesse Helms would be able to muster.

But the fact is that a large portion of the team is really inexperienced on this storied stage. Roll call. Woods, Leonard, Jim Furyk and Scott Hoch are making their debuts.

The U.S. team actually is quite deep in inexperience. Tom Lehman, Brad Faxon, Phil Mickelson, Jeff Maggert and Lee Janzen are playing in only their second Ryder Cup. Only Fred Couples, Mark O'Meara and Love have played more than twice.

All of this means the U.S. team might have a few things to learn about the Ryder Cup. So in the interest of higher learning, here's a pop quiz. (Yes, it's open book).

*

Question: Who is the Ryder in Ryder Cup?

Answer: Sam Ryder.

*

Q: Thanks, but who is Sam Ryder?

A: Sam was an English seed merchant who in 1927 presented a trophy to the British PGA to go to the winner of an international competition between professional golfers from the U.S. and Great Britain.

*

Q: What kind of seeds?

A: Sorry. Only golf questions allowed.

*

Q: How tall is the Ryder Cup?

A: 19 inches.

*

Q: Who is that tiny guy with the golf club standing on top of the trophy?

A: That's Abe Mitchell, who was a friend and instructor of Sam Ryder.

*

Q: What's the Ryder Cup a symbol of.

A: Choking.

All right, the last one, that's the short answer. There is a lot more to the Ryder Cup than stomachs rumbling like cement mixers, but at the very least, it's pretty clear that this competition has far exceeded its original mandate.

No longer is the Ryder Cup a done deal for the U.S. Europe still trails, 23-6-2, but has kept the

Cup three of the last five encounters.

Meanwhile, the level of pressure increases each time, swooshing by like the backdraft from Woods' swings. Ryder Cup competition has become so intense and the jingoism so strong that frayed nerves and blown shots may be remembered as much as anything.

In the unblinking eye of television, every goof seems magnified. Who can forget Bernhard Langer of Germany missing a six-foot putt on the 18th hole at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., in 1991, allowing the U.S. to win?

Hale Irwin had bogeyed the 18th, which meant all Langer had to do to win the match was make the putt and Europe would retain the cup with a 14-14 tie.

How about Costantino Rocca, the perpetually peppy Italian, who blew a two-footer on the last day at the Belfry in 1993 and let Love off the mat in what turned out to be a 15-13 U.S. victory? Then there was Curtis Strange in 1995 at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., with a bogey-bogey-bogey finish that featured a back-breaker on the 18th from the fairway and a 1-down loss to Nick Faldo.

Peter Jacobsen committed a big boo-boo when he picked up his ball on the seventh green on Friday at Oak Hill because he thought Faxon already had made a four. Jacobsen had lost track of the fact that Faxon drove into a hazard and made five. Faxon-Jacobsen were routed, 4 and 3, by Ballesteros and David Gilford.

Of course, there were legitimate highlights from Oak Hill too. Howard Clark and Rocca made holes in one. Corey Pavin chipped in on the final hole in a 1-up victory with Loren Roberts over Faldo and Langer.

Kite has this theory about Ryder Cup pressure and the withering results it often leads to. It's his contention that there are just as many good shots as bad ones and that is an indication the Ryder Cup is played out under the most intense spotlight in golf.

"You see some incredibly good shots and some incredibly bad ones," Kite said. "The fact that you see any good shots at all is an indication of how good the players really are."

For the casual golf fan, the concept that hardened pros accustomed to the burden of major championship play could falter in the Ryder Cup might seem hard to fathom. Pros such as Faxon see it differently, citing three main reasons:

* It's a team event. This is something nearly all pro events aren't. The only person you let down in a regular event is yourself. In a team event, such as the Ryder Cup, you let your teammates down. Consequently, your teammates may want to bury you in a bunker up to your logos.

* It's nationalism run rampant. Letting yourself down is one thing. It's another thing to let your teammates down. It's another thing to let your country down. Ask Benedict Arnold.

* It's really, really big. As Arnold Palmer said recently: "I don't know that I've ever seen a Ryder Cup with so much hype." Now this really is something since Palmer isn't exactly on his first spin around the block.

Faxon, who pushed a putt just past the hole on No. 18 and lost 1-down to Gilford on the last day at Oak Hill, said the Ryder Cup is filled to the top with pressure . . . and hype.

"It's really become something beyond the boundaries of just golf," he said. "It's a sporting event, all right, and I think this one is going to be one of the most-watched events in sports. It's as big as anything. It's hard to downplay it."

Well, yes it is. Faxon couldn't even work up the nerve to watch taped highlights of the 1995 Ryder Cup until two weeks ago. As Faxon said, it had a bad ending.

And as for the pressure, well, it's not going to go away. The forecast is for increasing high pressure with the possibility of a few localized gurgling noises. Faxon said it happened to Love at Oak Hill.

Faxon said Love came charging onto the 17th green during Faxon's match with Gilford to offer encouragement.

"He shouted 'Fax!' " Faxon said. "That's all he could say. He was so nervous he couldn't talk."

That's the Ryder Cup all right. If you can't talk it, how the heck are you going to play it?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

UNITED STATES

TIGER WOODS (Orlando, Fla.)

JUSTIN LEONARD (Dallas)

TOM LEHMAN (Scottdale, Ariz.)

DAVIS LOVE III (Sea Island, Ga.)

JIM FURYK (Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.)

PHIL MICKELSON (Scottsdale, Ariz.)

JEFF MAGGERT (The Woodlands, Tex.)

MARK O'MEARA (Orlando, Fla.)

SCOTT HOCH (Orlando, Fla)

BRAD FAXON (Barrington, R.I.)

FRED COUPLES (Dallas)

LEE JANZEN (Orlando, Fla.)

EUROPE

COLIN MONTGOMERIE (Scotland)

DARREN CLARKE (N. Ireland)

BERNHARD LANGER (Germany)

IAN WOOSNAM (Wales)

PER-ULRIK JOHANSSON (Sweden)

LEE WESTWOOD (England)

IGNACIO GARRIDO (Spain)

THOMAS BJORN (Denmark)

COSTANTINO ROCCA (Italy)

JOSE MARIA OLAZABAL (Spain)

NICK FALDO (England)

JESPER PARNEVIK (Sweden)

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