2002: Safest prediction: Count on witnessing the unpredictable

Expect the unexpected from someone unexpected at the Ryder Cup. It happens every time the United States and Europe tangle for Samuel A. Ryder’s valuable four-pound, 17-inch-high trophy.

Recent history especially suggests that when you least expect it, a star is born. The latest was Justin Leonard in 1999 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Leonard hadn’t won in eight Ryder matchups, and wasn’t in top form at Brookline, to the point NBC analyst Johnny Miller suggested Leonard should “go home” rather than be included in second-day afternoon four-ball. On top of that, Leonard was 4 down to Jose Maria Olazabal with seven holes remaining in singles. But then the Texan took four holes to square the match and clinched a halve – and a U.S. victory – when he holed an uphill 45-footer at the 17th hole at The Country Club.

Who will be this year’s unsung star? Will it be the steady Swede, Niclas Fasth? Or a more tested warhorse, such as Scott Hoch? There are plenty of footprints to follow:

• In 1997 at Valderrama in Spain, Constantino Rocca capped a 3-1 record with a 4-and-2 singles victory over Tiger Woods as Europe retained the cup by a one-point margin.

• Europe rode three unheralded players – Philip Walton, David Gilford and Howard Clark – to a one-point victory in 1995 at Oak Hill. Each won singles matches 1 up as the Europeans rallied from a 9-7 deficit. Clark made a hole-in-one against Peter Jacobsen, and Walton clinched Europe’s reclaiming of the cup by scoring his lone point in his only Ryder Cup.

• In 1993 at The Belfry, Peter Baker of England went 3-1 in his only Ryder appearance, but unsung Chip Beck, John Cook and Jim Gallagher Jr. helped America retain the cup, 15-13. After sitting for three sessions, Beck and Cook upset Europe’s No. 1 team, Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, in best ball, 2 up. Beck followed with a singles victory over Barry Lane. Gallagher joined Corey Pavin in a 5-and-4 four-ball rout the second afternoon, then dusted Seve Ballesteros, 3 and 2, in singles.

• In 1989, making his second Cup appearance and first in 14 years, captain’s selection Christy O’Connor Jr. scored his lone career point in upending Fred Couples, 1 up, as Europe retained the trophy with a 14-14 tie at The Belfry. Four years earlier at the same venue, Manuel Pinero teamed with compatriot Ballesteros for two victories and beat Ryder Cup tough guy Lanny Wadkins (20 Ryder victories), 3 and 1, to help secure Europe’s first triumph in 28 years.

“It’s part luck, part inspiration when unknown players step up like that,” said David Feherty, former European Ryder Cup player and current CBS announcer. “Each one of the newcomers on the team is playing with and against guys who have been their heroes, but you can’t say that. You can’t say, ‘Seve, you’ve always been my hero.’ ”

Smack into this trend comes the Sept. 27-29 Ryder Cup at The Belfry, delayed a year because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Into this trend also comes a simple question: Who’s next?

Luck, timing, skill, opportunity (Hey, captain, put me in!), unforeseen circumstance and alignment of the stars all play roles. Leonard, for one, knows about each of them.

“It’s all luck,” Sweden’s Jesper Parnevik said. “It comes down to whoever has the decisive putt. You never know in the Ryder Cup. Guys who play bad for a while usually come through.”

Both teams have candidates ripe for instant stardom. In fact, considering that Europe has only one major champion (Bernhard Langer) and that among the 24 players, there are seven Ryder rookies (four Europeans, three from the United States) and only eight pros with winning career records in the matches – Phil Mickelson, Hal Sutton and Scott Hoch are the lone Americans with records better than .500 – the possibilities for surprise run deep.

“I’ve got a couple of guys who are underestimated as players that I am high on and think will rise up,” U.S. captain Curtis Strange said. “But I’m not going to name them so I don’t put undue pressure on them.”

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