Gusto or Busto for US on Friday

By Kraig KannSeptember 17, 2004, 4:00 pm
04 Ryder CupBLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- As you wake up to the morning four-ball matches on Friday and ready for the potential of a big U.S. lead, slow yourself down. Take your time to think this out rationally, sip your coffee a bit longer, grab an extra bagel to chew on while you think clearly.

Hal Sutton has gone for the gusto with the pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the four-ball format. He's made it clear that this was in the works for the better part of two years since being named captain. He said it was 'good for golf' and 'good for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson' that they join forces to lead the Americans here at Oakland Hills Country Club.

I agree that it is good for the game. I agree that it is good for each of the men that they play together. And I completely agree that it is a good step toward sending a message that his team is just that...a team. Mickelson and Woods are easily the Americans most individualistic players. They do their own thing, at their own pace and have their own game plan for 'the big ones.' Uniting them this week unites the team and unites the American faithful.

BUT...Woods and Mickelson are, in fact, part of a collection of four Americans (Love III and Furyk) to have played in every Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup since 1997. And during that time, the U.S. has gone 2-3-1 in those six team competitions. While I like the thinking of Hal Sutton on this one, I'd suggest you brace yourself for the worst possible scenario.

In no way am I suggesting that Woods and Mickelson are a lock to shake hands with Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington as losers in the match. BUTit is quite a gamble should that in fact happen. In this one there is EVERYTHING TO GAIN...but also EVERYTHING TO LOSE.
I firmly believe that a Woods-Mickelson loss to perhaps Europe's best team would send a daunting message to the other 10 members of Team USA. They'd quickly realize once again that World Rankings are worth nothing in a Ryder Cup. And they'd also realize that their collective role in regaining the Ryder Cup had an extra dose of pressure added to it.

And as for Montgomerie and Harrington? Tell me they're NOT ready for the moment and I'll tell you you're crazy. Monty arrives feeling like his importance has never been greater. Currently 62nd in the World Golf Rankings, Montgomerie was selected because Langer knows he's built for moments like this. He's been the 'man of the match' in Ryder Cups gone bye, and he's earned it with huge putts under the greatest of pressure. And in his press conferences Colin has talked like a man gushing with confidence over the fact that Langer has put so much faith in his opportunity to rise to the occasion. As for Harrington...he arrives having just won. And for more good karma, he's playing in the town where his cousin (Joey Harrington) quarterbacks the home team Detroit Lions. He's also Europe's highest ranked player at 8th.

Do the paper math and Woods and Mickelson average out at third in the World. Monty and Harrington combine for 35th. But this is golf, not a computer print-out of what's supposed to happen.
It might go terribly bad for America in Match No. 1, and if I'm right, Woods and Mickelson are still a lock to play again in the afternoon foursomes. After all, how do you tell the World's second and fourth ranked players 'thanks for the effort, sorry I can't give you another chance.' I don't think you can. And I think Woods and Mickelson would be so peeved by the loss that they'd skip lunch all together in order to get back out and beat somebody, anybody. Not to mention, Sutton didn't send Mickelson out to beat Tiger's Nike golf balls for no reason. In fact, given the secrecy of Phil's visit to Oakland Hills' North Course, I'm beginning to think Mickelson's excused absence on Wednesday was a smokescreen for more 'off-site' work for Mickelson with Tiger's golf ball.

Anyway, deemed 'beatable' by Europe after a morning debacle, they could go down again. And then you've got quite a mess on your hands if youre Captain Hal. Two points lost as a team, as opposed to a potential four points gained if they'd been paired with others and played a role in four matches instead of just two. Basically, you're taking your top two guns and firing them at the first thing you see. If they fire blanks, you might see the U.S. ship go down before Day 2.

The flipside of all this is that Woods and Mickelson make the plan work. And then I could see them playing together for four matches. All the more reason that the other 10 men on Hal's squad had better be ready for anything. Who knows? Fred Funk could end up playing a bigger role than he expected, and dealing with a whole lot more pressure to pick up the slack for.....gulp.....Woods and Mickelson.

Sutton said he will play all of his men on Friday. That's great for team morale. But just remember, team morale could and should hinge on the results we see from America's top ammunition. Better have Bob Rotella on stand-by.
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