On Sunday evening a smiling Curtis Strange climbed down from the tower behind the 18th green at Mount Juliet Estate still wearing the blue blazer he'd had on during the ABC telecast of the American Express Championship, but the collar of his shirt was unbuttoned and the knot in his tie was at half-mast. Strange looked like a man who had just had the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders, not someone frazzled by the knowledge that he was only hours away from captaining a dozen U.S. pros through a week of organized chaos and high anxiety.
Why the smile? Simple. Eight of the players on his Ryder Cup team had gone a combined 43 under par during the final round, and for the week his 10 Cuppers in the 64-man field were 123 under. Best of all, one of them, Tiger Woods, had shown up in Kilkenny, Ireland, with his famous A game, going 25 under to beat Retief Goosen by a shot. Not that Woods was satisfied. He was pleased to win but annoyed that he hadn't achieved another personal best—his bogey at the 72nd hole was the only one he suffered in four days, and he didn't suffer it well. "Three feet from bogey-free. Oh, man," Woods told the crowd that had gathered around the 18th green for the trophy presentation. "Can we move this ceremony to some other green? I don't want to look at this one anymore."
The fans tittered politely, thinking Woods was joking, which also made Strange smile. Woods, despite having a few hiccups with his driver and playing with a new set of Nike irons, was primed for this week's match at the Belfry, and that news alone makes the U.S. a solid favorite. "Everybody is playing O.K.," said Strange, "and I'm tickled to death."
The best efforts of Woods and Goosen, who closed with a 10-under 62 and made Woods, the wire-to-wire leader, work for his win, almost helped the AmEx escape the shadow of the Ryder Cup. Asked which tournament he'd rather win, last week's or the Ryder Cup, Woods, who has a lucrative endorsement deal with AmEx, chose—duh—the American Express. Pushed to explain why, he reached for the weakest club in his bag, humor. "I can give you a million reasons why," Woods said, referring to the first-place prize money. He went on to say that an individual title is more satisfying to him than a team title, but the European media, which obsess over the Ryder Cup, would have none of it and were only further aggravated when other U.S. players agreed with their teammate. Even Phil Mickelson, who's not exactly an FOT (Friend of Tiger), said, "We play golf as individuals our entire lives. I understand what [ Woods] is saying. It's not the $1 million. It's winning that individual championship."
It was left to Ernie Els of South Africa, who isn't eligible to play at the Belfry, to tell it like it is. "You seem to enjoy writing about the Ryder Cup and making it very important, as if the players feel the same way," he told reporters. "I don't think they do."
Nevertheless, last week's focus never strayed far from the Ryder Cup rematch postponed a year by Sept. 11. Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland was doubly unlucky that was so. Thought to be a mainstay of the European team, he has been trying to play his way out of a slump for months, and last week many of his friends witnessed the struggle as he wound up second from last, 32 shots behind Woods. "I'm mystified as to how I can play my worst golf in five years," he said. "I've put in many practice hours trying to get ready for next week, but my form is going the other way. I'd have been better off having a few pints at the bar."
Clarke is one of a half-dozen Europeans who are, as they say east of the Atlantic, off the boil. Hoping to atone for their record-breaking collapse on the final day of the 1999 Cup, and with the home course advantage, the Europeans were positioned to be menacing underdogs. Now, though, despite some final-round beacons of hope at Mount Juliet—Sergio Garc�a shot a 62 and Niclas Fasth a 64—several Euros are looking like just plain dogs. Aside from Garc�a (seventh place) and Fasth (11th), none of the other five European Ryder Cuppers cracked the top 20 at Mount Juliet, and this despite balmy conditions that had the players checking their passport stamps to make sure they had, indeed, come to Ireland. Favorite son Padraig Harrington, who has been hampered by a sore neck and left ankle, finished in 21st, at 13 under. Colin Montgomerie of Scotland said his bad back has improved, but he came in 31st, 16 strokes behind Woods. Thomas Bj�rn of Denmark, who will need to have a big week if the Euros are to challenge, enjoyed only one good round at Mount Juliet, a 66 on Saturday, and finished 27th, yet still insisted, "There's nothing to be worried about. We'll give the Americans a good contest."
Strange says he knows how he'll pair his players at the Belfry but won't reveal his lineup, reserving the right, in the words of Paul Azinger, to change his mind "in case somebody's chopping in practice." However, there is no shortage of volunteers to play with Tiger. Azinger, 43rd at Mount Juliet, is a possibility in alternate shot, as is David Toms, a straight hitter who tied for fourth in Ireland, or David Duval, Woods's partner in two World Cups. In better-ball Mark Calcavecchia, a frequent practice-round partner of Woods's, might be a good match. "There's a little extra pressure playing with Tiger," Calcavecchia says, "but it doesn't suck to have the best player in the world as your partner."
Azinger, Calcavecchia and Mickelson were early starters in the final round at Mount Juliet, so Strange drove out in a cart to check up on them before ABC went on the air. Calcavecchia hadn't broken 70 in the three previous rounds, but his playing partner on Sunday, Craig Parry, assured Strange that Calc was playing well. Said Calcavecchia, "Curtis told [Parry], 'He'd better be, otherwise he'll be sitting his butt on the pine.' "
Mickelson made 16 birdies the first three days, but racked up eight more plus an eagle during a 64 on Sunday and came in 23rd. When Strange caught up with him, Mickelson said, "Gee, Captain, I feel as if I'm [playing in] qualifying." Strange's deadpan reply: "Good."