James Lawton: Stricker comes dancing to spare Woods blushes

Unassuming man from Wisconsin takes the lead but Odd Couple find going tough against Westwood and Donald

If Tiger Woods looks back on the 38th Ryder Cup and sees the time when he began to believe in himself again it will surely be with gratitude rather than self-congratulation.

He will, after all, be returning not just to his own resurrection but the remarkable assistance provided by somebody called Steve Stricker.

That might seem like an insulting reference to a golfer riding fourth in the world rankings, but you don't have to go too far into the background of this 43-year-old from Wisconsin, who has been known to park his pick-up truck amid the limousines of his workmates, to discover an unlikely rescuer of someone widely regarded as the most naturally talented player in the history of the game.

At times over the past two days Stricker has stopped short onlyat taking Woods by the handwhile guiding him to his most successful start in Ryder Cup action, victories in the opening fourballs and foursomes.

It's true the revival was under some hard pressure last night when, after defeating Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher on the last hole and then overwhelming Peter Hanson and Miguel Angel Jimenez by 4&3, Woods and Stricker were hit hard by an opening blitz from Lee Westwood and Luke Donald in another foursome collision. However, we had already seen some astonishing effects of the influence of Stricker over Woods, who at times recently had seemed to have lost his way both on and off the golf course.

Last year the Woods-Stricker partnership had created a 4-0 winning record in the Presidents Cup, a second-string version of the Ryder Cup. Here, they went into the match against the currently imperious Westwood and Donald with that record stretched to 6-0 and a growing sense that Woods was receiving vital help in his attempt to remake himself.

Woods, though, could be said to be getting a fierce course in survival by an expert in the business. Six years ago Stricker had slipped so profoundly he lost his place on the American Tour. Yet within two years he was being voted Comeback Playerof the Year. That kind of resolve from the man who has never left his rural background, and who employed his wife as his caddie before she became pregnant, has blazed through the partnership here for the past few days – and was plainly the Tiger's best chance of fighting at least some way from the devastation wrought by the ferocious early pressure from Westwood and Donald in the dusk.

Yesterday afternoon Stricker was virtually Woods's Svengali as, between them, they put Hanson and Jimenez to the sword. On one occasion Woods made a horrible mess of a bunker shot, attempting to find a small pocket of green near the flag but being too ambitious and having to watch the ball bounce back into the sand. Stricker, as his habit has become, simply patted Woods on the shoulder and did some repair work. The consequence was some of the outstanding golf of the day, part of it contributed by Woods but at its foundation there was always the calm and unwavering support from the quiet man from the Midwest.

They made five birdies and an eagle as they headed the tide of American red spreading across the scoreboard, one which Europe was attempting to turn back last night as they claimed the lead in the two foursomes and four fourballs which have to be completed today before the hand-to-hand fighting in 12 singles matches.

Whether Europe will maintain their fightback is the question that was being attacked with some force by their team captain, Colin Montgom-erie. In the American camp there was maybe equal concern that Woods could emerge with some regained confidence from the threatened mauling.

Certainly the American captain, Corey Pavin, had made it clear that he had huge faith in the chemistry between the world's most celebratedplayer and the one who had fought his way back from the wilderness.

Stricker said it was simply a matter of personal chemistry. "I just think Tiger and me are very comfortable with one another," he said. "We enjoy being out there with one another, even though our games are very similar except for the fact that he hits it so much further than me.

"We putt well and we chip well and he's a great iron player. So he's always got opportunities. The bottom line is really that we just are easy with each other – and we are really working on the challenge of getting the best out of each other. Our games complement each other nicely.

"I try to get him in the fairway and he hits some unbelievable iron shots and fortunately I've been knocking in a couple of putts – and vice versa. I'm just hoping we can take this alittle further."

It was a statement of optimism which came under intense fire from Westwood and Donald, but as play ended on the ninth hole there was, once again, evidence of the ability of this Odd Couple partnership to close ranks in the most unpromising of circumstances. Trailing by five holes as they approached that ninth green, there was some heavy reason to believe that the best of the alliance had maybe come and gone.

Then Stricker sank a 10-footer to bring the deficit down to four – and create a glimmer of hope for this morning's return to battle.

When Woods was asked if he would like Sticker to putt for him every day, he said: "It's not a bad deal is it. His stroke is so good. All you have to do is put him in position, and he's got that 'go-in' look. Even when they don't go in, you ask yourself, 'How didthey miss?'"

Stricker and Woods must not miss today – not if the world's most embattled golfer wants to remember this Welsh valley as the place where he found the worst of his days might just be over.

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