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U.S.'s odd couple: Woods, Furyk

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

STRAFFAN, Ireland -- On paper and in person, they look nothing alike.

Tiger Woods is sheer power, from his 12 major championships and 63 titles worldwide to his acclaim as the richest athlete and one of the most recognizable faces in the world.

Jim Furyk is a U.S. Open champion who grinds at his golf and is recognized only by his swing, which is not always a compliment. An analyst once described it as an octopus falling out of a tree.

Woods' reputation is the long ball.

Furyk is so accurate he can aim at stripes left by a lawn mower.

But they almost certainly will be partners in this Ryder Cup, a combination that makes sense only to them.

"We have some similarities, we have some differences and we get along pretty well," Furyk said Tuesday. "We partnered well at the Presidents Cup. There's no promises, obviously, but hopefully that continues. I enjoy playing golf with him, and I'm excited because I feel that's going to happen this week."

Woods and Furyk were together at The K Club during the first practice session leading to the start of Friday's matches, which was no surprise. U.S. captain Tom Lehman saw how they played at the Presidents Cup in October -- a 2-0-1 record in team play -- and listened to their requests that they be partners again.

Their success is crucial to an American team that has lost four of the last five times in the Ryder Cup.

For all his greatness in the majors, Woods has been nothing more than ordinary in the Ryder Cup. Even more surprising than his 7-11-2 record is that he rarely contributes anything on the opening day, which sets the tone for these matches.

Woods is 1-7 on Fridays at the Ryder Cup, riding an ugly streak of seven straight losses.

Furyk isn't much better.

He has shown his grit in singles by going unbeaten in four Ryder Cups, usually against Europe's strongest players, whether it's Nick Faldo or Sergio Garcia. But he is 1-9-1 in team matches.

"You want your best player to go out there and play well the first day and make a statement," Furyk said.

That was hardly the case last time.

U.S. captain Hal Sutton made his own statement by teaming Woods with Phil Mickelson, creating unity that ranks right up there with oil and water. They rarely spoke, barely smiled and lost both their matches as Europe went on to its largest victory ever.

Woods usually gets his way, but the world's No. 1 player had to wait a couple of years to get this request.

He was in the locker room at Firestone in 2003 going over a long list of partners in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup that was about to grow even more. He had already had 11 partners in five events.

"You know who I'd really love to play with? Jim Furyk," Woods said that day. "You can't believe how tough this guy is."

He didn't get him at the '03 Presidents Cup and '04 Ryder Cup, and almost didn't get him last year in the Presidents Cup. U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus considered putting Woods and Mickelson together again for the good of the event.

Instead, Woods got his man.

Furyk was injured that week with a pulled muscle in his ribs, the pain so severe that he had to lie on his stomach with his shirt off while therapists worked on him. Woods also was injured, getting his back iced between shots, yet they pulled out a 3-and-2 victory. They won another match and tied a third, giving the U.S. team a big lift.

Woods rarely has looked so happy at a team event as he did that Sunday evening after the Americans won the Presidents Cup. As everyone charged across the 18th green to celebrate the winning putt, Woods and Furyk stood to the side with their wives, Elin and Tabitha. Woods draped his arm around Furyk's shoulder.

"I finally found a partner," he said.

More than anything, he might have found a soul mate.

Their mutual admiration took root at Firestone in 2001 when they engaged in an epic battle. Woods overcame a two-shot deficit to force a sudden-death playoff that lasted seven holes before Woods put Furyk away with a par in the World Golf Championship. Furyk showed such fight that he holed a bunker shot for par to stay alive.

"Believe it or not, Jim and I play the game the same way -- it's just I hit the ball further," Woods said recently. "But our belief in how we play the game strategically, how we read greens, the philosophy of getting around the golf course, we're almost identical."

Some believe it can be just as intimidating playing with Woods in a team match as going against him in a major. Paul Azinger was his partner at The Belfry in 2002, knew he was playing poorly, and said it affected him.

"I was just trying not to drag him down," Azinger said, although he eventually contributed in a losing cause.

Asked about the possible distractions of playing with the world's No. 1 player, Furyk stared back as if he didn't understand the question. Then he shrugged, and delivered an answer that showed why he and Woods get along so well.

"You can either say, 'Uh-oh, I'm playing with the best player in the world.' Or you can say, 'All right! I'm playing with the best player in the world!"' Furyk said. "What's the worst that can happen? It's not the end of the world."

That smacks of what Woods often has said about coping with pressure over some of the biggest putts he has ever made.

"Two things can happen," he says. "It either goes in or it doesn't, so just put your best stroke on it."

Furyk doesn't remember which Ryder Cup this happened, but he lost a match and was beating himself up over it. He felt he let his team down and was stewing in the locker room when Woods came by.

"He said, 'Hey, it's just golf. These things happen in sports all the time,"' Furyk said. "As hard as he tries, as much effort as he puts into every shot, as much as he burns to win, he keeps his perspective. That told me a lot about him."


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