Americans looking for fast start


SUTTON COLDFIELD, England -- Tiger Woods is batting leadoff, with Paul Azinger, and Phil Mickelson is hitting clean-up, with David Toms.

That's the meat of Friday morning's fourball (best-ball) lineup American captain Curtis Strange unveiled Thursday as he and his U.S. team look to defend the Ryder Cup at The Belfry.

"I don't think we've ever come out of the blocks real fast, not in my recent memory," Strange said. "So I wanted to come out of the blocks being ready to play on Friday morning."

Strange is right, sort of. The Americans trailed 2½-1½ after the Friday morning play three years ago at The Country Club, and trailed 6-2 by the end of the day. Europe broke even in the morning sessions for the three Ryder Cups before that. Since 1993, the U.S. has led only once at the end of the first day -- 5-3 in 1995 at Oak Hill. Europe went on to win.

Strange's antidote? Woods, the world's No. 1 player, first on the tee, with steady Azinger. They'll meet Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn in the first match of the day at 3 a.m. ET.

"I think they bring out the best in each other," Strange said.

Following the first match, David Duval/Davis Love will meet Sergio Garcia/Lee Westwood (3:15 a.m. ET), Scott Hoch/Jim Furyk face Colin Montgomerie/Bernhard Langer (3:30 a.m. ET) and Phil Mickelson/David Toms meet Padraig Harrington/Niclas Fasth (3:45 a.m. ET).

Play will continue Friday afternoon with the foursomes (alternate shot) play, beginning at 8:30 a.m. ET.

Most had figured Woods and Mark Calcavecchia would team up, but Calcavecchia has never won a fourball match at the Ryder Cup. Azinger hasn't been much more successful -- he's 1-4-1 -- but he's more comfortable in the format.

Calcavecchia and Woods will likely play foursomes starting Friday afternoon.

Strange said Calcavecchia told him he was more comfortable in foursomes. That was all it took to make the change.

"I keep an open mind as I came in here ready to adjust pairings at any time," Strange said.

Clarke and Bjorn are a combined 3-1 in fourball play at the Ryder Cup. Clarke has a fourball win over Woods, teaming with Lee Westwood to beat Woods/David Duval three years ago. Both make a lot of birdies, vital in all match play, but imperative in fourballs.

Torrance insisted he didn't put Bjorn and Clarke out first in
hopes of facing Woods.

''I had no idea where (Strange) would put Tiger,'' he said.
''But thanks for reminding me. I'll remember that for the team
meeting tonight. That might be my best point.''

Strange had his own reasons for pairing Woods with Azinger.

''Woods and Azinger were put out first because they both play
fast and wanted to get out there and go,'' Strange said. ''And I
had pretty good bookends with Tiger Woods starting out and Phil
Mickelson bringing up the rear end. So I have a nice flow out

Duval and Love played together in the fourball competition in 1999 as well, halving a match with Garcia and Jesper Parnevik. They were 2-0 as a team at the 2000 President's Cup. Garcia was 3-1 with Parnevik at The Country Club in 1999, but Parnevik's lackluster play this year forced European captain Sam Torrance to make a change.

Parnevik isn't in the European lineup, and will sit on the sidelines along with three rookies: Pierre Fulke, Paul McGinley and Phillip Price.

Sitting out for the Americans are Hal Sutton, Stewart Cink, Scott Verplank and Calcavecchia.

Montgomerie and Langer, Europe's most experienced pair, have played fourball before. In 1991, they combined to beat Corey Pavin and Steve Pate. In 1997, Langer's last Ryder Cup, they played together in two fourball matches, losing to Woods/Mark O'Meara, and beating Jim Furyk/Lee Janzen. Hoch has never lost a Ryder Cup match (he's 2-0-1 in his only appearance).

Mickelson and Toms were a logical U.S. pairing -- the long-hitting Mickelson, who makes as many birdies as anyone in the world, with the steady Toms, who won't make many bogeys. Harrington lost his only fourball match three years ago, and Fasth is a rookie.

"I think Phil Mickelson is the best match play player on my team," Strange said. "He makes a lot of birdies."

Torrance said he considered splitting Montgomerie and Langer up to play off their experience, but ultimately paired them.

"This is where the fun begins," Torrance said. "When the draw came back up there at 2 o'clock (local time), it was awesome to see the reactions and now the plan is in place. The game starts tomorrow."