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Strange fends off tabloids for Tiger

SUTTON COLDFIELD, England -- Try as they might -- and the
British tabloid writers tried mightily -- they couldn't get a
controversy going over the decision by Tiger Woods to play an early
practice round Thursday.

Woods was on the course with Mark Calcavecchia at 6:30 a.m., 2½
hours before the scheduled American practice time.

Woods, who normally practices early, might have disappointed
some fans who didn't get to see him on the course, but American
captain Curtis Strange said it was fine with him.

''I'm sorry if somebody didn't get to see Tiger play,'' Strange
said. ''But they'll get to see him play the next three days, if he
plays.''

That wasn't enough to satisfy the writers, who kept trying to
get out of Strange some admission that Woods violated team rules or
perhaps owed the fans an appearance.

One asked Strange if he was aware of ''any element of
confrontation'' between Woods and fans over the fact he played
early.

''No, because there probably wasn't any out there at 6:30
a.m.,'' Strange replied.

Strange had made it clear the day earlier that he had given
players the leeway to decide how they wanted to prepare on Thursday
after two days of official practice.

He also made it clear he was getting tired of the line of
questioning, especially after one writer said he didn't think it
was fair for Woods to ''slip out of his blanket, wear his pajamas,
and go play a game of golf without the rest of the world seeing
him.''

''Are you asking a question or making a comment?'' Strange
asked.

No Seve
Seve Ballesteros was conspicuous by his absence at a
Ryder Cup opening ceremony that drew dozens of former players.

Ballesteros, captain in 1997 and a fiery competitor in eight
Ryder Cups, declined an invitation from the European Tour to attend
the event.

''I have nothing to do -- I am not the captain or vice captain,''
Ballesteros said in an interview with BBC from his home in Spain.

Ballesteros, though, said he would be paying close attention to
the matches.

''As I was last time, I will be watching,'' he said.

Wife's tales
The players had their own seating section at the
opening ceremonies, and so did their wives and girlfriends.

After each player was introduced, television cameras would show
a brief shot of his significant other.

Nine of the 12 American players had wives attending, while Tiger
Woods and Mark Calcavecchia had girlfriends. In Woods' case it was
Elin Nordegren, a former nanny for Jesper Parnevik who has been his
companion the past year.

David Duval was the only player who came without a partner.
Duval broke up with a longtime girlfriend earlier this year.

On the European side, Sergio Garcia brought his mother, Consuelo
Fernandez. Garcia has been dating tennis player Martina Hingis.

''The wives are fantastic,'' European captain Sam Torrance said.
''In the end, they're the ones in the room where the players go
back with the frustrations or whatever. And they're the ones that
calm them down.''

Jesper's out
Jesper Parnevik teamed with Sergio Garcia in the
1999 Ryder Cup for a 3-0-1 record that helped put the European team
four points ahead going into the singles matches.

But he was nowhere to be found in the pairings for the first
best ball matches Friday.

Parnevik has fallen from No. 24 to No. 61 in the world rankings
in the past year after struggling with his putter.

''Jesper is not on top of his game yet, but he's very close,''
Torrance said. ''I didn't want to put the pressure on him when his
game is not right in the first match.''

Garcia was matched with Lee Westwood for the opening match
against Scott Hoch and Jim Furyk.

Favorites
British bookies expect the American team to do well
in the opening four matches.

Shortly after the pairings were announced Thursday, oddsmakers
made three American pairings favorites, with the only European edge
going to Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer in their best-ball
match against Scott Hoch and Jim Furyk.

The United States is a 2-1 favorite to win the cup, while Tiger
Woods and Sergio Garcia are the favorites to lead their respective
teams in scoring.

Bad television
NBC course reporter Roger Maltbie thinks
viewers will be cheated because of the decision of Torrance to use
the back tee on the drivable par-4 10th hole.

Most players say they will now lay up because the tee on the
311-yard hole was not only moved back, but to the right, making it
difficult to clear trees and hit the tiny green flanked by water.

Even Tiger Woods says the risk outweighs the reward. Woods plans
to hit no more than an 8-iron off the tee and try to get a wedge
close.

''Sadly, it's going to cheat the television viewer and the
spectator both of some pretty compelling and exciting stuff,''
Maltbie said. ''But I don't think Sam's too concerned with them.
He's trying to win the Ryder Cup.''

Tidbits
Play begins Friday with team best ball, a change from
most Ryder Cups where alternate shot leads off. Torrance made the
decision to change the format as the host captain. ... The U.S.
team hasn't done well the first few days in recent Ryder Cups. In
seven of the last eight, the Europeans have led after the team
competition. ... NBC's coverage will be a combination of live and
taped play on Saturday, with live coverage of Sunday's singles
matches beginning at 7 a.m. EDT.