Woods' play in Ryder lacking even before his major drought

Former No. 1, Mickelson paired in opening match


September 17, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. - The 35th Ryder Cup matches will feature some of the best players in the world, but not the No. 1-ranked player in the world. While Tiger Woods won't regain that distinction this week here at Oakland Hills, he could remove one unsightly blemish on his still remarkable record.

Long before he began what has become a 27-month, 10-tournament winless drought in major championships, Woods had to deal with questions about his performance in this biennial team event. In three previous competitions beginning in 1997, Woods has won only five and tied two of his 15 matches.

When the three-day golf marathon between the U.S. and Europe begins this morning on this fabled course known as "The Monster," the focus won't be mainly on Woods, as was the case in 1997 at Valderrama in Spain, as well as at The Country Club outside Boston in 1999 and at The Belfry in England two years ago.

But the pressure for the Americans will again start with Woods.

"All I know is I've tried my best," Woods said earlier this week. "Unfortunately I just haven't got more points for our team. Hopefully, this year will be a different story. Hopefully, I'll be able to get more points for our team where we can win this thing."

This year has been different already, with U.S. captain Hal Sutton not revealing his pairings - even to some of his players - until yesterday. But the reason for Sutton's secretiveness became evident when he announced that Woods and rival Phil Mickelson would play in this morning's foursome matches.

It marked the first time in 24 opportunities to pair Woods and Mickelson at either the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup that they'll be playing together.

"I told these two guys that I felt like the perception of the world was that the U.S. team didn't bond and we didn't come together as a team," said Sutton. "I said, `I can't think of any other message that we could send any louder than to put the two of you guys out first.' "

It is just the latest twist in what has been a strange year for Woods.

Not only did Woods recently lose his No. 1 ranking to Vijay Singh, but he has seen Mickelson usurp much of his popularity this year by winning the Masters - the first major of Mickelson's previously star-crossed career - and then being in contention at the other three majors.

Woods and Mickelson put on a unified front at the opening ceremonies, patting each other on the back when they were introduced and shaking hands before returning to their seats. Woods and Mickelson will take on Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington in the day's opening match.

It could set the tone as the Americans try to regain the Cup they lost at The Belfry in 2002.

"If we do win that game, it will have a dramatic effect on the day," said Montgomerie, who is here as one of Europe's two captain's picks. "It would be huge for the European team and everybody here to see that we can cope with their best."

The move by Sutton to pair Woods and Mickelson is reminiscent of what U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw did in 1999 by teaming Woods with David Duval, who had previously held the No. 1 ranking. It didn't work, as Woods and Duval lost to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood in the first afternoon four-ball matches.

In that case, Woods and Duval were friends.

Woods and Mickelson have never been close, and earlier this year Mickelson chided Woods for playing what he called "inferior equipment." Mickelson recently left Titleist and took a day off from practice here. It turned out he was practicing with the Nike ball Woods has used for a couple of years.

Asked yesterday about their pairing, Woods said, "We're fine with it. We're totally excited about it. We're geared up for it. We can't wait to get out there and play."

Fred Funk, who will sit out this morning's matches for the U.S. team, said that making a pairing with Woods is not as easy as it looks.

"I think the nature of the matches, the nature of best ball and definitely of alternate shot dilutes your talent a little bit when Tiger's overwhelming talent is put with another guy," Funk said recently. "If Tiger played all singles matches, I think he'd have a much better record."

That isn't necessarily true, since Woods' record in singles is a pedestrian 1-1-1. Compared to some of the game's legendary players such as Jack Nicklaus (17-8-2) and Arnold Palmer (22-8-2), and even compared to very good ones such as Tom Kite (15-8-4) and Hale Irwin (13-5-2), Woods' overall record is weak.

Sutton said earlier this week that he didn't have to give Woods a pep talk.

"All we have to do is just say, `Hey, Tiger, it's time you felt this is important,' " said Sutton. "I want you to realize that this is going to be an area that guys are going to judge you by down the road, whether you like it or dislike it. ... Let's give it all you've got and lead this team."

Ryder Cup

When: Today-Sunday

Course: Oakland Hills Country Club (7,077 yards, par 70), Bloomfield Township, Mich.

TV: Today, USA, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; tomorrow, NBC, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, NBC, noon-6 p.m.)

Today's matches

Fourballs (better ball)

8:10 a.m.: Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, Europe, vs. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, United States.

8:25 a.m.: Darren Clarke and Miguel Angel Jimenez, Europe, vs. Davis Love III and Chad Campbell, United States

8:40 a.m.: Paul McGinley and Luke Donald, Europe, vs. Chris Riley and Stewart Cink, United States

8:55 a.m.: Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, Europe, vs. Davis Toms and Jim Furyk, United States

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