2002: Perspective - U.S. skipper Strange stands by his team

New Orleans

Curtis Strange was standing alone on the back of the practice range at English Turn Golf & Country Club, working on his wedge game for nearly 45 minutes in mid-90-degree Cajun heat. He was there for two reasons: to kill time before going on the air with ABC television for the third round of the Compaq Classic and to loosen his ailing back, swinging a golf club for the first time in 10 days.

Wearing a golf shirt, shorts and flip-flops, Strange looked more prepared for an afternoon at the beach than an afternoon in the television tower, perhaps the reason he went virtually unnoticed by the gallery.

When asked about his Ryder Cup team, a palpable energy lit up an otherwise sluggish day. He could have stood there for hours talking about “the 12 guys” who “are like family” to him and wife Sarah.

“I’m always following the guys,” Strange said. “I think I’ll follow those 12 guys forever.”

Strange, 47, has his work cut out for him leading into the Sept. 27-29 matches at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England. Surely he has noticed that eight of his 12 U.S. team members are struggling. Sans Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – who have combined for three victories and 11 top-10 finishes on Tour this year – the remaining 10 players have no victories and 18 top 10s, four of those from Mark Calcavecchia and four from David Toms. Zero top 10s from David Duval.

Although Strange wouldn’t say it, Hal Sutton, Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk and Scott Hoch all have to be concerns even though the matches are more than four months away.

Sutton hasn’t even been on the map – finishing no higher than 23rd and missing seven cuts this year.

Cink has missed five cuts and not finished in the top 10.

Furyk played well early in the year, recording three top 10s, but has struggled since being plagued with an inner ear problem in March.

Hoch has had complications from surgery on his right eye and has missed the last two weeks.

“This team is not going to change,” Strange said. “They qualified for the 2001 team with great play.

“Some of the guys will be playing better, some of the guys won’t be playing as well. That holds true for the other team as well. Sam (Torrance, European captain) has the same predicament. There are some guys that are playing extremely well that aren’t on this team. Does that diminish from the matches? Absolutely not.”

He’s right. Does it really matter how well you’ve been playing in previous months when it comes time to represent your country? No. Especially this year, when national pride is at an all-time high.

Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia have had solid seasons for the Europeans. That doesn’t mean they will be playing well come Cup time.

I was among those who thought there should be a different team picked to compete this year if last year’s team was not up to par. It might be nice to see Chris DiMarco on the U.S. team. Europe would love to have Jose Maria Olazabal.

But that’s not how it works.

Talking with Strange makes one realize that those who qualified for the 2001 squad should not be punished because terrorists decided to fly two airplanes into the World Trade Center towers.

“Scott Hoch is part of the 2001 Ryder Cup team and always will be,” Strange said. “He will go – blind or not – this year.”

Strange is taking the correct approach with his team by not talking much about the matches. He knows how fickle golfers can be and would rather sit back and watch them develop their games this summer. He prefers not to distract with talk of an event that is still not on most people’s radar. Three major championships will be played before then.

“The only thing you can bet on is when the first tee goes in the ground that Friday morning,” Strange said, “the game will be on.”

And you can bet Captain Curtis will be leading the charge.

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