Sutton looks to Woods to lead from the front

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The Independent Online

Hal Sutton revealed one of golf's worst kept secrets in stating his intention to regain the Ryder Cup by pairing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in this morning's top fourball. In a classic opening to the 35th encounter, they will line up to play one of Bernhard Langer's strongest possible combinations: Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie.

Sutton decided on his lead partnership as soon as he had been given the job of US captain almost two years ago, although he only told the two players on Wednesday night.

"There is a perception that the US team doesn't come together as a team and I couldn't think of a louder message than to put those two guys out first," Sutton said. "We came here to win."

Langer strongly suspected Sutton's decision, which brings to mind Sam Torrance's positioning of Montgomerie at the top of the singles order two years ago. "He's done a Sam and all credit for that," Montgomerie said. "Woods and Mickelson, that's the best America can do right now and it's going to be dramatic. But we can win and if we do it will have a dramatic effect on the day. It could be important for Team Europe."

Pairing his team's best two players may appear to be overkill, and also curious given a past in which neither was particularly enamoured of the other. Sutton's thinking may be that Woods, having lost the No 1 spot to the Fijian Vijay Singh and having had his thunder stolen by the left-handed Masters champion, will be trying to beat all three players.

It is a bold theory for fourballs and might have been unlikely to have continued in the foursomes had not Sutton sent out Mickelson to practice in solitude on the North course yesterday with a box of Tiger's brand of golf balls.

Woods played with David Duval, when they were the top-two players in the world, at the Ryder Cup in 1999 but they lost to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood in one of those matches which felt as if Europe won more than just a point.

But Sutton said: "There is always a chance of that happening but I can't imagine anything that would aggravate those two guys more than to get beat. There would be some hell to pay."

While either team's success is not solely dependent on one player's fortunes, Sutton knows he has to get the best out of Woods, who has only won five of his 15 games in the Ryder Cup. The real anomaly is that Woods has only won two of 12 fourball matches in both the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, a quite unfathomable statistic.

Harrington and Montgomerie were put together for the second session on Saturday at The Belfry and beat the Americans' top pairing that week of Mickelson and David Toms. Langer went with another successful pairing from two years ago in the shape of Sergio Garcia and Westwood, who will play Jim Furyk and David Toms.

Finding a partner for Clarke was straightforward as Miguel Angel Jimenez, who is in the form of his life, should prove to be a reliable foil. Luke Donald and Paul Casey were expected to reunite their Walker Cup partnership but instead Langer has opted to pair Donald, the only European rookie on parade, with Paul McGinley, the hero of the Belfry. "McGinley has been awesome the last few weeks and here in practice," Langer said. "I couldn't leave him out."

Sutton's strategy of having his players prepare individually as they would for any other tournament added an intrigue to the practice days which some Ryder Cups have lacked.

It may just be crazy enough that it pays off, but reason and logic suggest it will either have no effect or could go terribly wrong. The American players traditionally have a problem adapting to the fourballs and foursomes and yet Sutton has not addressed this during the preparations.

Foursomes, in particular takes some getting used to, although in the past the US have been better in what they call "alternate shot" than in the fourballs. This morning his team will be under orders to make birdies. "Hal made the comment in the team room the other night that you don't see many holes won with par in the Ryder Cup," Toms said. "We are going to have to be aggressive. There will be a lot of birdies this week.

"It's very important to get off to a good start," he added. "It always seems we leave ourselves a lot to do on Sunday." Europe's hopes usually hinge on building a lead on the first two days, although a four-point advantage at Brookline in '99 did not prove enough.

Since the competition was opened up to the continent in 1979, Europe has won the singles only three times. But two of those occasions brought victories when they were trailing at Oak Hill in '95 and tied after two days at The Belfry two years ago. Langer should use those examples to make sure his players do not expend all their energy by Saturday night.