Woods, Mickelson to lead U.S. charge vs. Europe

Friday, September 17, 2004

By Doug Ferguson ~ The Associated Press

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- Always rivals, barely friends, finally partners.

U.S. captain Hal Sutton made sure this Ryder Cup gets off to a dynamic start by pairing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson -- America's best two players -- for the first time in the opening match at Oakland Hills.

"We came here to win," Sutton said Thursday, determined as ever.

So did Europe, which has captured the Ryder Cup six of the last nine times and showed that it wasn't about to back down. Sensing a Woods-Mickelson pairing was inevitable, European captain Bernhard Langer decided to send out Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington to stop them.

Harrington is Europe's best player. Montgomerie has the best Ryder Cup record.

"We can beat them," Monty declared. "We will go to bed with that view, and we will wake up tomorrow morning with that view. And it will be dramatic."

Not even the glitzy opening ceremony that featured plenty of star power -- from Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps to Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown to Donald Trump -- could set the stage any better for the three most intense days in golf.

Woods and Mickelson, who have combined to win 63 times on the PGA Tour, sat side-by-side at opening ceremonies as the leading points-earners on the U.S. team.

For the first time in seven team events -- four Ryder Cups, three Presidents Cups -- they will be side-by-side on the tee box Friday morning for the first of four better-ball matches.

The decision is risky.

The last time America's best two players were paired was in the second set of matches at Brookline five years ago, and it gave Europe a huge lift when Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood beat Woods and David Duval.

"If we do win that game, it will have a dramatic effect on the day," Montgomerie said. "It would be huge for the European team -- and everybody here -- to see that we can cope with their top two."

Sutton sees it a differently.

He had this pairing in mind when he was appointed captain two years ago, not sure why other captains never bothered to match golf's two most exciting players.

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

Is it a risk if they lose?

"There's a risk every day in life," Sutton said, losing patience with anyone who doesn't see his side. "You cross the street and it's a risk; someone may run over you. This is a risk Hal Sutton is taking. I'm not afraid of this risk. And I challenged them not to be afraid of this risk."

No one is sure what to expect -- not now.

Mickelson is coming off a stunning year in the biggest events, winning the Masters and coming within a combined five shots of winning the other three majors. But he changed his equipment companies last week and will be playing with a new driver, fairway metals and golf ball at Oakland Hills.

Plus, he put a bulls-eye on his back by not practicing with the team the last two days. He took Wednesday off and played Thursday on the adjacent North course.

Woods is in the midst of his least productive year. His only victory came in February at the Match Play Championship, and his five-year reign at No. 1 in the world ranking ended two weeks ago.

Still, Sutton figures that Tiger is Tiger and Mickelson is the kind of guy who likes to show he can get it done.

"This might be one of the greatest teams ever paired in U.S. history," Sutton said.

In other better-ball matches Friday morning, Darren Clarke and Miguel Angel Jimenez of Europe will play Davis Love III and Chad Campbell; Paul McGinley and Luke Donald of Europe will play Chris Riley and Stewart Cink; and Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood (3-1 as partners at The Belfry two years ago) will take on David Toms and Jim Furyk.

Sutton purposely kept his players guessing on their partners, wanting them to concentrate on their own games and not how their partners were playing.

Langer started pairing his guys up the last two days, having them play better-ball matches the front nine, and alternate-shot matches on the back.

The only change he made was to swap McGinley for Paul Casey, simply because McGinley has been hot in the last two months and continued to show good form during practice rounds.

"I think I've sent out some very strong pairings," Langer said. "They have 12 very strong players, and they're going to have strong pairings no matter who they send out together."

Still, the focus is squarely on the opening match.

The rivalry between Woods and Mickelson intensified early last year when Lefty joked in a magazine interview that Woods used "inferior equipment."

They have never been particularly close off the course. Woods played in the World Cup three straight years until the rules were changed in 2002 requiring the highest-ranked players to represent the U.S. team. With Mickelson the next-ranked player, Woods chose not to play that year.

Even so, Sutton said the pairing sends a strong message about U.S. unity.

Mickelson gave Woods a gentle tap on the back as they were introduced at opening ceremonies, and they returned to their seats with a firm handshake.

"We're fine with it," Woods said. "We're totally excited about it. We're geared up. Can't wait to get out there and play."

Woods might have been speaking for all 24 players from both teams.

After four days of Ryder Cup pomp and gala dinners in tuxedos, it's time to take off the cuff links and play golf.

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