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Ryder Cup: Get ready for golf with gristle

The Ryder Cup itself is small, only 17 inches high, nine inches across from handle to handle.

It weighs just four pounds, unless it's on your shoulders when you're standing over a putt to win, lose or halve a match in the competition that is named for it, in which case it weighs as much as a grand piano.

The Ryder Cup matches, which commence Friday in Wales, are golf with gristle, golf with hot blood running through it, golf that can make grown men act like kids when they win and, on occasion, cry like babies when they lose. There's an electricity to the whole thing that is different from that you feel even at major championships. And they're not even playing for money.

It's not just the bogeys hiding out there in the gorse that make it tough. These players - 12 American stars playing against 12 European stars - deal with narrow fairways, yawning bunkers, water hazards, hidden pins, lightning fast greens and clowns yelling "Go in the hole!" every week.

But this week, there are two elements added that make this event sizzle - they will be playing with partners in the first four of the five matches and they will be playing for their countries.

There's a different feel to it for the spectators as well as the players. People in the gallery paint their faces, wear flag-themed clothing, sing soccer songs, chant "USA!" and have a hard time being polite when one of the opposing players buries one in a bunker.

On Friday and Saturday, the teams will battle it out in foursomes (two-member teams playing alternate shots) and four-ball (two-member teams playing better ball). On Sunday, everyone plays in the singles matches.

Some players thrive in the foursomes and four-ball, others don't adjust well to the formats they rarely see.

Tiger Woods was 3-1-1 in singles in his first five Ryder Cups but overall, he's 10-13-2. In seven appearances on the team, Phil Mickelson is 5-4 in singles but 10-14-6 overall. In 2004, captain Hal Sutton paired those two in what looked like a dream team. They lost both of their matches. That mysterious thing called chemistry plays a big role.

Woods, trying to recover from a terrible year in golf and his personal life, will be closely watched this weekend, of course. He didn't play well enough to qualify for the team but was picked by captain Corey Pavin. There is a chance Woods, still No. 1 in the world and, when in form one of the great players of all time, will be benched for a match or two, depending on how well he plays. There was a time, not too long ago, when that would have been unthinkable.

The European team is probably a slight favorite but all of these guys can play. The team that makes the putts wins, especially the putts with a piano on their backs, wins.