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Americans lucky to escape down one

9/28/2002

SUTTON COLDFIELD, England -- It could have been worse for the Americans. Much worse.

The U.S. was staring down the barrel of at least a two-point deficit after Day 1 of the Ryder Cup at The Belfry. Maybe more.

Tiger Woods was losing again. Phil Mickelson and David Toms -- the lone American team to win a match in the morning fourballs -- were getting spanked.

A 5-3 deficit? American captain Curtis Strange probably would have taken that offer right there in his trusty Club Car, which he maneuvered from fairway to fairway in an effort to exhort his troops.

Instead, the Americans got help from some places they couldn't have bet on -- even if they'd gone to one of the on-site wagering centers scattered about The Belfry this week.

Hal Sutton and Scott Verplank, facing Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn (who had beaten Woods/Paul Azinger in the morning) in a foursomes match, came from behind and birdied the 16th hole, eventually winning 2 and 1. Stewart Cink and Jim Furyk, only 1-up at the turn, went on a tear to win 3 and 2.

And finally, Mickelson and Toms, 3-down through 14 holes, rallied to win three straight holes and then halve a surreal 18th hole to earn a half-point against Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer.

Put it together and the Americans -- despite watching Woods go 0-2 -- got a point back in the afternoon alternate-shot matches and trail 4½-3½ after the first day of play.

"We had to come back," U.S. captain Curtis Strange said. "We had to."

The Americans have trailed after the first day in six of the last eight Ryder Cups. But for a while Friday afternoon, it looked like they'd dug themselves a formidable hole.

In the morning, only Toms and Mickelson could manage a point -- and that dragged on to the 18th hole even though the Americans were 3-up through 12. Before lunch, Europe led 3-1 and had plenty of momentum.

In the afternoon, Strange played a hunch and went with struggling Sutton and rookie Verplank in the opening match, and rookie Cink and Furyk in the final match. The lunch-hour consensus? The Americans would be lucky with an afternoon split.

They did a half-point better than that.

"A great comeback in the afternoon," Strange said. "We were just reminded that if anybody ever thought this was going to be easy, anytime, ever, they're proving today it never is. That's why these matches are always close."

Sutton and Verplank were crucial. Two-down through 12 holes, they got even thanks to a pair of European bogeys, then won the match when Verplank hit an approach to within two feet at the par-4 16th.

"I can't speak enough for Hal Sutton," Strange said before stopping to compose himself. He later said that telling Sutton he wouldn't be in the lineup on Saturday morning was the toughest thing he'd done as a captain.

Cink and Furyk birdied the 10th and 11th holes, then added another at 15 to push Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley to the brink. They won 3 and 2.

Mickelson and Toms -- who battled each other twice in a final round last year, including a memorable PGA Championship duel -- squeezed out the final ounce of drama. Down three after only eight holes, they finally caught Montgomerie and Langer with a birdie at the 17th hole.

At 18, both teams took bogey -- but only after the Europeans squandered a great drive, Mickelson chipped from on the green, Langer missed a potential winning putt and Mickelson finally made a four-footer to halve.

He was immediately surrounded by his teammates.

"That half point was huge," Strange said. "Huge. Not only as we know these things are going to be close Sunday afternoon, huge from a numbers part of it, but huge for our psyche. We came back, got a half-point win when it didn't look good at all, and we might ... look back at that match and say that might have been the one that turned it around."

Still, there were some trouble signs for the Americans. Davis Love III and David Duval played poorly in the morning, losing 4 and 3 to Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood. Both sat out Friday's alternate-shot matches, and Duval isn't in the lineup Saturday morning.

Hoch and Furyk didn't play well as a team in the best-ball matches. Both may see different partners if they play in that format Saturday afternoon.

And then there's Woods. He played well in the morning with Azinger, making nine birdies as a team before losing to Clarke/Bjorn. He struggled with his putter on the back nine in the afternoon and lost with Calcavecchia to Garcia/Westwood.

He's 3-8-1 in his Ryder Cup career. But he won't be out of the American lineup anytime soon.

"You go with your horses," Strange said. "If you get beat, you get beat. But you go with your horses and that's what I intend to do."

Right after he thanks the golfing gods for keeping his team close.