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U.S. tries to find partner for Tiger

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

GAINESVILLE, Va. -- Tiger Woods has been paired with some of his best friends.

He also has been paired with Phil Mickelson.

In the seven Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup matches Woods has played since 1997, the U.S. captains have had no trouble finding him a partner for better-ball and alternate-shot matches.

Finding one who fits is another matter.

"Everybody wants to play with him," Davis Love III said Tuesday, searching for a reason why Woods already has had 14 partners in 28 matches. "Everybody gets their turn."

Fred Couples likely will get another turn at the Presidents Cup, which starts Thursday at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club. Woods and Couples played twice at Royal Melbourne in 1998 and were 1-1 as a team. The loss came on the 18th hole when Craig Parry chipped in from 50 feet.

What makes for a good partner?

"Being comfortable is the best thing about it," Couples said. "Everyone thinks they can play with everybody, and they all get along great. But when you're on the course, you have to know the guy pretty well because you're not going to win every single time you play, and you have to be able to say the right things and have some fun."

Woods is supremely comfortable with Mark O'Meara, his best friend on tour. That didn't help them in 1997 at Valderrama -- Woods' first Ryder Cup -- when they went 1-2.

Two other close friends are Notah Begay and Charles Howell III. Those are the only players with whom Woods was paired for all four team matches at the Presidents Cup -- Begay in 2000 at RTJ, Howell in South Africa in 2003. Both times, their record was 2-2.

The uncomfortable side is Mickelson. U.S. captain Hal Sutton put them together for the first two matches last year at Oakland Hills.

"I felt like history needed it. I felt like the fans needed it. And most of all, I felt like Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods needed it," Sutton said.

It proved to be a disaster. The best two Americans rarely spoke to each other in losing both matches. The lasting image was Woods trying to keep a straight face when Mickelson nearly hit 3-wood out-of-bounds on the final hole of alternate shot with their match all square against Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.

Woods also played with David Duval in 1999 when they were Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, an act of desperation by Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw. They lost on the 18th hole to Clarke and Westwood.

There have been partnerships over the years that have been tough to beat -- Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal; Love and Couples, who have played together 10 times in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup; Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, who never lost a match.

The search for a stable partner for Woods continues, and the record reflects futility. Woods has lost only one singles match in seven cups, yet his team record is a paltry 10-17-1. He has a winning record with only two players -- Love (2-1) and Chris Riley, who won his only match with Woods last year at the Ryder Cup.

Asked how many partners he has had in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, Woods guessed it was 16.

Asked for a reason why so many, he went blank.

"I have no idea," he said. "I've had some great times with my partners, trying to out there and win points. Unfortunately, I haven't won as many points as I'd like."

His ideal partner?

"A guy that makes a lot of birdies," Woods said. "If my partner makes a bunch of birdies, we're going to have a great time."

Even that might not make a difference. Woods still recalls the time he and Paul Azinger shot 9-under 63 in a better-ball match at The Belfry and still lost to Clarke and Thomas Bjorn.

Even more staggering is his 0-6 record in better-ball matches at the Presidents Cup.

"In better ball?" Couples said. "That's best ball? That's when you use his seven or eight birdies every round? That's pretty surprising. But again, I've watched a lot of it, and I think he's ready to change all that."

To get an idea how many partners Woods has gone through, consider two other perennial cup players. Love has played in every Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup since 1993 -- 11 events -- and has had 13 partners. Mickelson has played in 10 cups dating to 1994, and he's had only 11 partners.

Love played the majority of his matches with Couples. Mickelson has played at least five times with three players -- Tom Lehman, David Toms and Duval.

"I think it would be cool to play with the same guy," Woods said.

Maybe that would have happened if a partnership paid off earlier in his cup career. After going 1-2 in the '97 Ryder Cup, Woods and O'Meara never played together in the next two cups. Woods and Love went 2-0 at The Belfry, but their latest partnership ended in a 4-and-3 loss at Oakland Hills.

Make yourself U.S. captain for the day. Who does Woods get as a partner?

"Phil. They did good together," said Adam Scott of the International team, as the room broke into laughter.

Stuart Appleby had another solution to finding Woods a partner.

He was told only four Americans on this Presidents Cup team have ever played with Woods in cup competition -- Love, Couples, Mickelson and Leonard.

"All the rest of them, I guess," Appleby said.


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