SPORTS EXTRA / RYDER CUP : The James Gang : With Seemingly Nothing to Lose, Europeans Are Shooting Straight From the Lip

TIMES STAFF WRITER

We know all about the U.S. team in the Ryder Cup--the greatest, wealthiest and most publicized collection of golfers in history.

But what about the Europeans? What are they all about? They're led by a 36-year-old Scot (Colin Montgomerie) and a 19-year-old Spaniard (Sergio Garcia), they've got a Frenchman who is as dry as a bottle of vermouth and a Swede who seems to be auditioning as a stand-up comic.

The European team has seven Ryder Cup rookies, a rookie captain and is working under an expectation level just barely this side of nothing.

Jarmo Sandelin is one of the first-timers, which means we have a chance to get to know him for something other than his argument with Mark O'Meara, when he accused Mark O'Meara of moving his ball closer to the hole in a European PGA Tour event in 1998.

Jesper Parnevik, who is on a first-name basis with eccentricity, was asked why he and Sandelin are such, well, off-the-wall Swedes.

"I don't know," Parnevik said. "It must be something about the fertilizer they use on the Swedish golf courses."

You may recall that Parnevik made a name for himself when he revealed he wore blinking lights on airplane flights to unify his brain and that he ingested volcanic sand to cleanse his system. Parnevik told reporters here that he has changed his diet.

"I'm off the sand now," Parnevik said.

And on to the first tee come Friday, when the 33rd Ryder Cup begins. It's a popular notion to believe that the more united team that shows up will be Europe. Why would that be true? Because Europe isn't supposed to win, so there's no pressure to be anything other than a free-wheeling golfing carnival?

If that's true, then captain Mark James has done a masterful job of positioning his team in such a manner.

James said the European team has a lot of friends on the U.S. team and the reverse is true as well.

"We're both out here to win the matches, and it's serious golf," James said. "But at the end of the week, I'll be able to shake Ben [Crenshaw] warmly by the throat and we'll sit down and have a beer."

James was joking, of course.

At the same time, there are a few players on his team who don't really seem to be the back-slapping kind. Jose Maria Olazabal, for instance, who is so tightly wound that he stuck his fist in a wall during the U.S. Open and broke a bone.

Olazabal is a man of few words, if not many emotions, and represents the Spanish bridge between what you have to call two fairly loose countrymen--Seve Ballesteros and Garcia.

Olazabal was asked what impresses him about Garcia.

"What impresses me the most?" Olazabal repeated the question.

Yes, Jose.

"Everything," Olazabal said.

Thank you.

There is another Spanish player on the team--not Ballesteros. It's Miguel Angel Jimenez, who is 35 years old but has never played Ryder Cup. He's the oldest rookie on either team. He's also the only player with a mustache.

When he met with reporters, Jimenez sounded almost overwhelmed by the whole thing.

"Thanks God to be here," he said. "It's very nice. And I try to help my partners in Europe with my game. That's all. Thank you very much."

Andrew Coltart and Lee Westwood of England, Paul Lawrie of Scotland, Padraig Harrington of Ireland and Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland are going to be counted on to contribute something to James' gang.

Westwood said he was looking forward to the competition.

"It's nice to be the underdogs," he said. "It means there's less pressure on us and more pressure on them. Great expectations for them to win, I suppose. It's in their country, so the pressure is building, I would imagine."

It's not hard to imagine. Clarke managed to follow the European party line, as drawn by James, without much of an effort.

"I think the people at home are all hoping that we're going to win and not expecting us to win," he said.

This doesn't mean the European team is without expectations. Montgomerie is the big guy, though. He has played on four other Ryder Cup teams and his record is 9-6-3. In singles, he is undefeated at 2-0-2.

Jean Van de Velde of France lost the British Open but gained a legion of fans because of his lack of guile. The expectations placed on Van de Velde as a first-time player are probably lower than any other. Van de Velde tried out some of his fresh material when he met reporters.

He said the greens at the Country Club are so small, they look "like handkerchiefs." The toughest hole is "all of them." He is all right about his British Open experience, Van de Velde said. Well, sort of, anyway.

"I think I need to see a shrink and maybe he'll give me the answer," he said. "If you can make an appointment for me, it would be very nice."

And a victory by Europe? That would qualify as very nice too, at least on the right side of the Atlantic. Few really expect that to happen, but the way this European team is acting, don't be surprised if they're all toasting each other Sunday night. Volcanic sand for everyone!

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