Originally created 09/19/06

Past, bags weigh heavy on U.S. trip



STRAFFAN, Ireland - The United States team typically arrives at the biennial Ryder Cup matches sporting excess baggage. Monday marked the first time it caused a 3-hour delay.

Embarking on its journey to Ireland and the quest to erase the recent memory of the most lopsided American loss in Ryder Cup history, the team's chartered flight from Washington, D.C., to Dublin was delayed while the airport baggage handlers tried to figure out how to get all of the team's gear on board.

"I would just say that we brought more than our fair share of luggage," U.S. captain Tom Lehman said when the team finally arrived to the greetings of European captain Ian Woosnam.

It's a good thing the American team's two top players - Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk - were already on site after being eliminated in the first round of the HSBC World Match Play a few days earlier in England, or the effort to turn the tide of European domination in this "friendly" international competition might literally never have gotten off the ground.

What apparently held the plane up was Mexican food. Lehman, who lives in Arizona, got fed up with the inability to find decent chips and salsa in the United Kingdom, so he packed three golf travel bags with corn tortillas and the ingredients to make salsa. He says his golf bag weighed 500 pounds.

"I tried to move it and couldn't even get it off the ground," Lehman said. "I couldn't even move it an inch."

Eventually someone did, and the U.S. team - with its four rookies and underdog attitude - made it to Ireland in time to be greeted by rain and a forecast for more wet weather this week at the Arnold Palmer-designed K Club in the emerald acres of County Kildare.

The American-style parkland course might be a soggy track by the time the first four-ball matches tee off at 3 a.m. EDT Friday. Backhoes were already digging trenches Monday to drain the standing rainwater in some of the spectator walking areas surrounding the course.

Lehman says whatever weather comes their way will suit his players just fine. They already met the worst the island could offer during a rain-soaked team scouting and bonding mission three weeks ago.

"It's nice to kind of see the course play that way because now our guys know what to expect if it does get nasty," Lehman said. "So all in all, those two days we spent here were two really good days for our team."

Despite that experience and having the top three ranked players in the world, the American team is definitely the underdog to win back the 79-year-old Ryder Cup.

For the first time in the 36 matches, Europe is the odds-on favorite by the bookmakers. Not simply because it's won four of the past five and seven of the past 10 meetings, but because Woosnam has what is considered the deepest 12-man roster in that side's history while Lehman's brings what has been dubbed America's weakest contingent.

"I don't want to feel that we're favorites at all," Woosnam said. "I want to feel like we're going to get back in that team room and feel like we're still underdogs. I still think it's going to go down to the wire. A lot of people said (the U.S.) team is one of the weakest they have ever had, and I just don't agree with that."

Lehman agrees.

"Our team is very strong," Lehman said. "We have four rookies that are always a bit of a question mark, although I believe that they are tremendous players. I have total confidence in them. But at the end of the day, I think the European team - based on the strength of their team playing in Ireland - would probably have to be favored slightly."

Lehman has to find a recipe to lift the Americans to a victory on foreign soil, and that probably doesn't include the cilantro or guacamole he stuffed into his duffel. He's sought the advice of championship coaches such as Mike Krzyzewski and John Wooden.

Before leaving Sunday, he even sought inspiration from wounded American troops recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington with other PGA of America officials.

"They were inspired by the fact that we stopped by, but all of us were inspired by their stories, their courage, their honor, sense of duty and commitment to their team," Lehman said.

When the matches end Sunday, Lehman hopes the Americans can travel home a little lighter - without the nachos, champagne and mental baggage of the 800-pound gorilla on their backs.

Would there be room for a 16-inch, 4-pound golden trophy?

"If push came to shove, we would be fine," Lehman said.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@morris.com.