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Battle lines drawn with Ryder Cup wildcards announced

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The final pieces of the Ryder Cup jigsaw were slotted into place on Tuesday as holders Europe, who will be hosts and heavy favorites later this month, and the United States rounded out their 12-man teams with three wildcard picks.

European captain Paul McGinley, spoilt for choice, ultimately went for seasoned Cup veterans in Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood along with 39-year-old rookie Stephen Gallacher.

Later in the day, McGinley's counterpart Tom Watson opted for a blend of experience and form by announcing Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson as his three picks.

While both captains expressed delight and strong faith in their teams, the Americans will go into the Sept. 26-28 matches at Gleneagles in Scotland with a record of seven losses in the last nine editions.

"The Europeans, on paper, have been touted as being the favorites and we are the underdogs but I have a fundamental belief in my team," Watson told a news conference in New York after announcing his selections.

"More importantly, our players have a fundamental belief in themselves that they can go and win the Ryder Cup."

Watson felt that the stinging defeat suffered by the Americans in the most recent edition, at Medinah outside Chicago in 2012, would serve as his team's greatest motivation.

"I can tell you that all the players I have talked to, every one of them without a doubt, had one thing to say about the Ryder Cup," said the 64-year-old, who was captain when the U.S. last won on foreign soil, at The Belfry in 1993.

"They want to go back and they want to make amends for what happened at Medinah two years ago.

"From our standpoint, our team has that one focus. The Europeans played great in the last round in 2012 and that was a hard loss for the American players and it still sticks with a lot of them."

'MELTDOWN AT MEDINAH'

Two years ago in what became known as the 'Meltdown at Medinah', the U.S. threw away a commanding four-point lead on the final day to lose by 14-1/2 points to 13-1/2.

Bradley, an American version of Poulter because of his passion for the Ryder Cup and ability to raise his game in the white-knuckle atmosphere of the team competition, was a rookie in 2012 and would dearly love to bury memories of that loss.

"I've made no secret of how important this team is to me and how bad I want to go back and win the Ryder Cup," said the 28-year-old.

"This is a redemption year for a lot of guys that were on the team."

While the highly motivated Americans will be looking for redemption at Gleneagles, the Europeans will strive to maintain the iron grip they have established on the trophy so often in the past two decades.

Yet McGinley, who described himself as "a very lucky man" on Tuesday because of the strength of players at his disposal for his three captain's picks, is preparing his team for a strong challenge on home soil.

"We are playing against a very, very strong American team led by a very, very strong individual in Tom Watson," the Irishman said at Wentworth on the outskirts of London.

"I for one am under no illusions how difficult the task ahead is going to be, and the players will, as well, too, and they do know already.

"On the positive side, we have three players who will add a lot to the nine who have already qualified and make the European team as strong as it needs to be to take on the might of America."

The European team bristles with strength. Led by Northern Irish world number one Rory McIlroy, they boast four of the game's top-five ranked players.

The Americans arguably have greater depth with nine of the top 20.

BITTER MEMORIES

However, very few of the Europeans have been scarred by bitter memories at the Ryder Cup while only three of Watson's players -- Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Mahan -- have ever experienced what it is like to win the trophy.

All three played on Paul Azinger's triumphant U.S. team at Valhalla in 2008 and Cup veterans Mickelson and Furyk also featured in the astonishing last-day comeback at Brookline in 1999.

"Europe has flat-out kicked our butt the last 10 or 15 years and that's just the way it is," said Mahan, who will play on his third U.S. Cup team at Gleneagles.

"We have a great challenge ahead of us but we're extremely motivated and we have a lot to prove among each player."

Englishman Westwood will be making his ninth successive Ryder Cup appearance, and he believes it is becoming increasingly more difficult to make the European team.

"It just gets harder and harder to make every couple of years," said Westwood.

"The strength and depth on tour, it's phenomenal now. When you look at the people that missed out, you can't argue that it's strong guys."

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

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