U.S. players in the dark on pairings

Originally Published: September 15, 2004
By Bob Harig | Special to ESPN.com

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- When Lee Trevino was U.S. Ryder Cup captain, he had a simple attitude: pair the players, pat them on the back, and have them go at it. You get the feeling there wasn't a lot of science involved.


But as the Ryder Cup has grown, and the matches have become more intense, every move is scrutinized -- even for the captains, whose role is more than ceremonial.

Ask Curtis Strange. The losing captain of the 2002 U.S. team, Strange's strategy for putting his top players off last during the Sunday singles at The Belfry was highly scrutinized after the Americans were blitzed early by a front-loaded European lineup.

So what will Hal Sutton do? The U.S. captain made it clear this week at Oakland Hills Country Club that he has put a lot of thought into his pairings and order. But he's not saying what he'll do. Not even to the players themselves.

Where they're playing

This week:
35th Ryder Cup
Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Oakland Hills CC (7,077 yards, par 70).
Friday: 8 a.m.-6 p.m. ET (USA)
Saturday: 8 a.m.-6 p.m. ET (NBC)
Sunday: 12-6 p.m. ET (NBC)
Defending champ:

This week:
Texas Open
San Antonio, Texas
LaCantera GC (6,881, par 70).
$3.5 million
Thursday: 4-6 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Friday: 4-6 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Saturday: 4-6 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Sunday: 4-7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Defending champ:
Tommy Armour III

This week:
Safeway Classic
Portland, Ore.
Columbia Edgewater CC

$1.2 million
Friday: 9-11:30 p.m. ET (TGC)
Saturday: 9-11:30 p.m. ET (TGC)
Sunday: 9-11:30 p.m. ET (TGC)
Defending champ:
Annika Sorenstam

This week:
Oregon Classic
Junction City, Ore.
Shadow Hills CC (7,007 yards, par 72).
Defending champ:
Chris Couch

"I told them I wasn't going to set the pairings for the practice rounds," Sutton said. "Don't read anything into anybody you're playing with. Be prepared to beat the other two guys by yourself and if I give you a little help, then that's a bonus. So they have no clue as to who they are going to play with.

"If they know who it is, they start worrying about their partner's game instead of worrying about their own game. So we are worrying about our own game this week."

Interesting. The strategy is different, but it has plenty of merit. The Americans, who lost in 2002 and have just one victory since winning in 1993, seem to get off to a slow start in the team competition. So much thought is put into who will team better with whom that perhaps it is forgotten that in the Friday and Saturday morning competitions, fourball, each player plays his own ball.

What difference does it make who the partner is? The best score among the two counts.

Foursomes is a different matter. That is alternate shot, and having the proper pairings can be crucial. Some players use different styles of golf balls which could be harmful to the partner. There are theories about matching similar style players, or those who are friends, together. Sutton will undoubtedly be tinkering with that before Friday.

But the foursomes pairings don't have to be made until after the morning fourball competition is complete. Perhaps Sutton will be more concerned with who is playing well than who they are playing with.

"Some captains, we've known months in advance what our pairings might be, and they have actually come to fruition," Tiger Woods said. "This is certainly a different strategy and something that I've never experienced. I was talking to Davis (Love) about it earlier and he's been on the team since '93, and he's never experienced anything like that. So I think it's refreshing. We go out there and prepare like we always do for each and every tournament and then when your name is called, you go out there and try and get a point."

Five Things To Bank On

There has been so much attention on Tiger Woods' relatively poor Ryder Cup record that he will do something about it this year.

Colin Montgomerie will again be the star for Europe, despite no longer being among the elite players in the world. Monty is 16-7-5 in six previous Ryder Cups and always seems to be inspired.

Sad to say, but some obnoxious fan (or more) will make a jerk of himself, making everybody suffer for the actions of a few.

Best Ryder Cup twosome? How about Sergio Garcia-Lee Westwood.

It's uncanny how some no-name European always seems to play out of his mind at the Ryder Cup. Two years ago, it was Wales' Phillip Price. Do names such as Eamonn Darcy or Philip Walton or Paul Way ring a bell? So who will it be this week? How about England's David Howell, who has played all of four tournaments in the United States.

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson loves to tinker with equipment, but this sure seems like a strange time to do so. The list of players who changed for monetary gain after cashing in on their success is lengthy, and it is filled with many who later regretted the move.

Last week, Mickelson switched from Titleist to Callaway -- and had one of his worst tournaments of the year. Let's chalk that up to coincidence. And let's also acknowledge that Callaway will undoubtedly provide Mickelson with an excellent driver, ball and, eventually, irons.

But Mickelson might need some time to get the proper shaft in his driver while getting used to a golf ball that might react differently. This is the type of move that might have been better had it occurred in the offseason, not the week before the Ryder Cup.

Bob HarigGot a question about the PGA Tour? Ask ESPN.com golf writer Bob Harig, who will answer your inquiries in each installment of This Week in Golf.

Q. Why is it that Titleist (Aschunet) does not seem to offer the more lucrative contracts to retain their staff players? They have lost Tiger Woods, David Duval, and now Phil Mickelson. Obviously they offer an excellent product, but why do they not compete with the contracts of other companies to keep top players?

A. The guess here is that Titleist figures no player is bigger than the company. Mickelson was paid handsomely to play the ball and clubs (reportedly $4 million a year) and wanted more after his Masters victory. Titleist, apparently, figures it will do just fine without him. Titleist dominates the retail ball market as it is, and has numerous players under contract. It seems to believe that the large numbers of players using Titleist equipment is a stronger endorsement than that of any one player.

Q. Do you believe Earl Woods' illness has had a greater impact on Tiger's game than not having Butch Harmon around?
Los Angeles

A. It is quite possible. Woods' dad recently had a recurrence of prostate cancer and Tiger discussed it at the Deutsche Bank Championship. Perhaps he has known about this for some time, and who could blame him if it didn't occupy his thoughts.

Q. I would like to see the PGA Tour lose the Presidents Cup and have a three-way match for the Ryder Cup. This way, the U.S. professionals don't have to play in one or the other every year, so there's no burnout, and we would get to see a team comprised of Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Shigeki Maruyama, etc. To be honest, the best players are not in the U.S. or Europe right now and I think it would be great for golf.
Merced, Calif.

A. This is not a new idea, and one that has some merit, although it is doubtful the PGA Tour or the PGA of America will go along. First, what you are proposing brings the possibility that there wouldn't be an American team competing in the next Ryder Cup. Say the Americans lose this week, then the next Ryder Cup should be between European and the rest of the world? That will never happen. Same for the Presidents Cup. The PGA Tour would never want a situation in which an American team was missing. But there is something to be said that the same American players are seemingly in this type of competition every year.

Q. What kind of money games do the pros play during practice rounds and what are the dollar amounts?
Albany, N.Y.

A. Although gambling is frowned upon by the PGA Tour, there is typically some action going on early in the week. The games vary, and so do the dollar amounts, although you can bet it's for a sum the average guy wouldn't want to lose. A typical game might be a $100 Nassau with automatic 1-downs. That means the front nine, back nine and overall $18 holes are worth $100 each in match play. But every time a player loses a hole, a new bet for $100 begins on the next hole and doesn't conclude until the nine is completed. Quite obviously, it would be easy for six or seven bets to be going at once, with a considerable sum on the line.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com