Originally created 09/18/02

A Ryder Cup preview only on the calendar



THOMASTOWN, Ireland -- Tiger Woods will be playing with Padraig Harrington before a partisan crowd, most of them cheering for the Irishman.

Davis Love III has drawn Sergio Garcia. Phil Mickelson gets Darren Clarke.

But that's only the opening round of the American Express Championship at Mount Juliet. The tournament is 72 holes of stroke play, not match play. The winner gets $1 million, not possession of a 14-inch gold chalice.

This is not an exhibition or a Ryder Cup preview.

Harrington was asked Tuesday if he would rather win at Mount Juliet in a World Golf Championship that features 65 top players in the world, or be on the winning team at next week's Ryder Cup at The Belfry in England.

"At this very moment, I want to win the American Express Championship," he said. "Next week I want to win the Ryder Cup. There's no issue. When you turn up and play a tournament, all you're thinking about is winning this event. I think anybody playing on the Ryder Cup team will say if they're here, they want to win."

That includes Woods, who played the Jack Nicklaus design in July, and sped around the front nine upon his arrival.

Woods is in no hurry for the Ryder Cup to get here, although he certainly was in a rush on a cool, overcast afternoon at Mount Juliet.

He hit his tee shot down the first fairway and, upon seeing Chris DiMarco and Jim Furyk on the green, ducked under the ropes and headed to the second tee. He found Carl Petterson on the third tee, said hello and goodbye, and played through.

Woods caught up to Nick Price and Vijay Singh on No. 4, shook hands and kept right on going, finishing nine holes in 55 minutes.

He called the greens immaculate, the conditions at Mount Juliet as pristine as any course he has seen in the United States and noted it was colder in July than it was in mid-September, saving any other thoughts until his press conference Wednesday.

Woods is famous for saying he only plays to win, so that should fall in line with just about every other player in the field this week.

It's not just about the Ryder Cup, especially since eight of the 24 players didn't even qualify by finishing in the top 50 in the world ranking or being among the leaders on their respective tour's money list.

Even those who will go to The Belfry next week say the matches can wait.

"The most important tournament is the one I'm at," said Scott Hoch, who believes the Ryder Cup is overblown, anyway. "That's the way I feel about all of them."

Hoch's biggest issue was the weather.

He left Orlando, Fla., on Sunday when it was 92 degrees, then ran into one course official who raved about the lovely weather in store for the week.

"This guy says, 'You've got a spot of luck.' I said, 'How's that?' And he said, 'The weather is supposed to be like this - brilliant - all week,"' Hoch said.

"Collectively, we saw the sun for 20 seconds," he said. "Well, we saw a shadow. We didn't really see the sun."

Not even Hoch could complain about Mount Juliet, a lush golf course set in the hills in southeastern Ireland.

It will be the third straight time the American Express will be played in Europe. Tiger Woods won the inaugural event at Valderrama at the end of the 1999 season, and Mike Weir won the following year on the same course.

The WGC event was supposed to be played at Bellerive in St. Louis last year, but the tournament was canceled because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

While the 1951 British Open was played at Royal Portrush, this tournament is considered the biggest golf event ever in Ireland, especially considering 49 of the top 50 players in the world are entered. The exception is Toshi Izawa, who decided to stay in Japan.

It's even more meaningful for Harrington, who along with Clarke are the only two Irishmen in the field.

"Just the fact the tournament is in Ireland, you want everything to go perfectly," Harrington said. "I keep asking the player how everything is going. I'm wishing everybody well. That's not normal. I'm competitive."

He'll have plenty of time to chat with Woods in the opening round Thursday.

Harrington last played with the world's No. 1 player in the third round of the U.S. Open at Bethpage in June. Woods had a 70 and went on to win, while Harrington had a 73 and wound up in a tie for eighth.

He wasn't surprised that Ireland's top player was paired with the world's top player. And he doesn't expect to be the least bit overwhelmed.

"I think the adrenaline will be flowing without playing with Tiger - just playing at Mount Juliet," he said. "I would be nervous on the first tee just because it's in Ireland."

He might be nervous at the Ryder Cup, too. But that can wait.