Tiger and Phil form a pair of aces
BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- On Sept. 20, 1973, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jackie Burke did the unthinkable. He paired two of the brightest stars the world had ever seen in the last of that morning's foursomes matches. The U.S. gained only a half-point in the first three matches, but in that final match -- the one in which Burke put all his eggs in one basket, laid all his cards on the table -- Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer won, 6 and 5, to start the U.S. team toward a 19-13 victory at Muirfield.
It was a notable move in its decisiveness and attacking philosophy. After all, Hagen and Sarazen had never played together. Neither did Hogan and Snead. And no U.S. captain has paired stars of such magnitude since.
Almost 31 years to the day of Burke's legendary decision, U.S. captain Hal Sutton -- with Burke, interestingly enough, at his side as assistant captain -- announced that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will be paired together in the first match of the day (8:10 a.m. ET) in Friday's opening four-ball competition.
"When they asked me to be the captain of the Ryder Cup team and when I responded yes, I walked out the door and I said, 'Well, this will be the first time that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson ever played together,' " Sutton said after the pairings were announced on Thursday.
Differences abound, however, between the relationship of Tiger and Phil and that of Jack and Arnie. Whereas Nicklaus and Palmer enjoyed a healthy rivalry, they remained friends throughout. Woods and Mickelson have not always been on such terms.
"I wasn't really concerned with just if they are bosom buddies or anything," Sutton said. "Tiger and Phil are friends. They are competitors and they are friends."
You'll recall Mickelson's comments in March of 2003, in which he addressed Woods' woes off the tee as such: "He hates that I can fly it past him now. He has a faster swing speed than I do, but he has inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he's stuck with."
Ironically enough, it is now Mickelson who will be forced to "overcome" his equipment at the Ryder Cup. Just two weeks ago, the Masters champion mutually ended a deal with Titleist, signing days later with Callaway. In his first tournament using Callaway clubs, Mickelson finished T-57, including a third-round 79, which topped his previous worst score of the season by four strokes.
"Last week, it's tough to say because I had not had time to prepare for the event. I had a lot of stuff going on and didn't practice," Mickelson said on Wednesday. "It was evident in my final round (a 3-under 71) and it's been evident to me early this week that my game is as sharp as it will be."
There was speculation that Mickelson skipped a practice round with teammates for a second straight day on Thursday. Instead, he was at Oakland Hills' North Course -- the one not in use this week -- practicing with Tiger's Nike golfball, fueling specualtion that the two may also compete together in the afternoon foursome (alternate shot) match as well.
But first things first, and Woods and Mickelson have to do more than simply show up to collect a point on Friday morning. The world's No. 2- and 4-ranked players face a formidable foe in Ireland's Padraig Harrington and Scotland's Colin Montgomerie. Of course, Monty has made a career of this event, compiling a record of 16-7-5 in six total Ryder Cups. Four-ball is his weakest event however (he's only 5-4-2), and the Tiger/Phil duo have something to prove.
This heavyweight matchup will be lost in the dust of the opening foursome. Four of the world's top ball-strikers will be competing in this one, so expect plenty of makeable birdie opportunities.
Love is the senior member of the U.S. squad, with five Ryder Cups under his belt (with a record of 8-9-4 overall, but just 2-5-0 in four-balls). Campbell is a rookie at this event, but has been built up as America's next great golfer. Don't expect the pressure of a Ryder Cup to get to this cool customer, just like it didn't at last year's PGA Championship (where he played in the final group and finished second) or the Tour Championship (which he won).
Clarke has long been known in the States as the cigar-smoking, Guinness-drinking, sharp-dressed man, but he's also a terrific player and quite accomplished in international competitions. If you wake up early enough to catch the European Tour events on television, then you know all about Jimenez. He has four wins across the pond, including the prestigious BMW Open just three weeks ago.
Quite an interesting duo that Sutton puts out here in the third pairing -- expect Cink and Riley to be rolling the rock, as they always do. Cink is currently first in the PGA Tour's putting average statistic and he may well be the hottest American player not named Tiger or Phil. Six days after being named to the team, Cink ran away with a wire-to-wire victory at the NEC Invitational, which pitted the best international players in a high-profile event. Riley's become the media darling of the team. Called a class clown and a kid brother by teammates, Riley brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the team.
McGinley is known around the world for one thing, and one thing alone: the winning putt at The Belfry in the 2002 Ryder Cup. True, the six-foot putt only halved his match against Jim Furyk, but that half-point clinched the overall title for Europe. Donald is a tough-as-nails Brit who's accustomed to playing the United States' Midwest courses, having competed collegiately at Northwestern. He's been hot lately, but it's doubtful this duo will be as deadly with the flatsticks as their American counterparts.
Perhaps Sutton's feeling on this one was that Toms and Furyk would have something in common to talk about during the round; both have battled wrist injuries that kept them from competing on tour for the earlier part of this season. Though fully healed, Toms has only two top-10s in his last 16 starts on tour. This will be the first Ryder match Toms plays sans Mickelson (other than singles), with whom he went 2-1-1 in '02. Furyk says he's "95 percent" healed from his wrist surgery, but 100 percent would be even better.
Garcia and Westwood were lights-out as partners two years ago, finishing 3-1-0 in four matches together. Even though this is four-ball and not alternate shot, don't underestimate the importance of players having been paired together before. This should give the Euro duo a distinct advantage.
EDGE: Garcia/Westwood Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
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