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RYDER CUP

A Daring Pairing From Sutton

A star-power twosome, Woods-Mickelson, will lead off for U.S. The risk: A loss could be demoralizing.

September 17, 2004|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Think Koufax and Drysdale, Magic and Kareem, Maris and Mantle, Montana and Rice.

And, for the first time, think Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

It's all about star power and in golf, the combination of Woods and Mickelson is a heavy dose, which is just what the U.S. team is throwing at the Europeans in the first four-ball match today that begins the 35th Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills.

Hal Sutton, the U.S. captain, had trouble containing his enthusiasm Thursday when he mused about the Woods-Mickelson pairing, which will lead off against a heavyweight European tandem of Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington.

Sutton said he knew the moment he was named captain, in October 2002, that he would put Woods and Mickelson together for the first time. He just kept it secret, although he let his mind wander Thursday afternoon.

"They might shoot 58, man, if they make it that far," said Sutton, hinting that the match wouldn't last the entire 18 holes.

He wouldn't hear of any talk of risk, what a Woods-Mickelson defeat in the first match of the Ryder Cup might mean.

"This might be one of the greatest teams in U.S. history," Sutton said. "There is risk in life. You might cross the street and you might get run over."

In the morning matches, Sutton clearly wants to think that the U.S. is going to be doing the running over.

Davis Love III and Chad Campbell play Darren Clarke and Miguel Angel Jimenez, followed by Chris Riley-Stewart Cink against Paul McGinley-Luke Donald and then David Toms-Jim Furyk against Sergio Garcia-Lee Westwood.

Neither Sutton nor European captain Bernhard Langer would reveal his pairings for the four alternate-shot matches in the afternoon, but Sutton indicated the Woods-Mickelson tandem probably would stay together. At Sutton's suggestion, Mickelson did not practice with the U.S. team Thursday morning, and instead took two sleeves of Woods' golf balls to the North Course at Oakland Hills to get used to hitting them.

Sutton told Woods and Mickelson they would be playing together in separate conversations Wednesday night.

"I told these two guys that I felt like the perception of the world was that the U.S. team didn't bond and we didn't come together as a team," Sutton said. "I said, 'I can't think of any other message that we could send any louder than to put the two of you guys out first.' "

Woods has played with eight partners in 12 matches and his record in the four-ball format is 2-4. Mickelson is 4-3-1 in the same format.

The Woods-Mickelson alliance is a first, but there is a long history of superpower pairings on the U.S. team, beginning with Gene Sarazen-Walter Hagen in 1933 and '35 and continuing with Sam Snead-Lloyd Mangrum in 1947, '49, '51 and '53, Arnold Palmer-Jack Nicklaus in 1971 and '73 and Nicklaus-Tom Watson in 1977 and '81.

Sutton says he expects Woods-Mickelson to be just as formidable and sees no downside to the pairing.

"The way I look at is, I can't imagine anything that would aggravate those two guys more than to get beat, so, man, there would be some hell to pay if that happens," he said.

Langer said his thinking was much the same as Sutton's -- to put out his best players first to try for a quick start. But even from his side of the field, Langer had to express admiration for at least the potential of a Woods-Mickelson fireworks show.

"You've got two great players who make a lot of birdies usually," he said. "It's a wonderful pairing. I don't see anything wrong with Hal's thinking. I expected something like that. It's four balls, you need guys out there who make birdies, you don't need the guys who make 18 pars in a row because they are not going to win the match."

Langer chose the safe route in his morning pairings, playing only one of the five rookies on his team, the 26-year-old Donald, who has won twice on the European Tour this year. The other four rookies -- Ian Poulter, Thomas Levet, Paul Casey and David Howell -- won't play before this afternoon.

Campbell and Riley are two of Sutton's five rookies, but both have impressed Sutton in practice this week. Rookies Fred Funk, Chris DiMarco and Kenny Perry and captain's pick Jay Haas will play in the afternoon's alternate-shot format, Sutton said again Thursday, but he would not reveal their partners.

Whatever headline-grabbing attention Woods-Mickelson will draw, the fact remains that Europe has won three of the last four Ryder Cup competitions and kept the cup six of the last nine meetings, dating to 1985. That was a 16 1/2 -11 1/2 romp for Europe, the first time the U.S. had lost since 1957, and the singles match where Langer defeated Sutton, 5 and 4, in a contest between two players who would become opposing Ryder Cup captains 19 years later.

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