Search for the perfect Presidents Cup pairings

By Rex HoggardNovember 14, 2011, 1:05 pm

SYDNEY – Like Cal Ripken Jr. for all those years in the heart of the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup, Fred Couples and Greg Norman long ago penciled in the top of their pairings sheet for next week’s Presidents Cup matches.

As long as Steve Stricker can pull himself free of the chiropractor’s chair he will join Tiger Woods on the first tee Thursday afternoon at Royal Melbourne. For the Internationals the lock of the week will be veteran Adam Scott and Jason Day, a match rookie who is the highest-ranked player on Norman’s squad.

What combination of twoballs fill in the rest of the captains’ cards, however, is still very much a work in progress.

Unlike Jack Nicklaus before him, Couples doesn’t do lists. Four-time captain Nicklaus had players write down potential partners. “Boom Boom,” taking his second turn in the captain’s chair, is more of a feel guy, which seems about right considering that pairing players together is much more art than science.

“I don’t know if there’s a science, but you have to have chemistry. You have to have a flow, kind of a rhythm about how each guy plays,” said Hunter Mahan, who will be making his third Presidents Cup start this week at Royal Melbourne.

Conventional wisdom suggests you pair players with similar games during the foursomes (alternate-shot) sessions, while the fourball (better-ball) sessions promote more diversity – aggressive players with more conservative partners – for best effect.

That thinking worked in 2003 when Nicklaus marched out the diminutive duo of David Toms and Fred Funk for Friday’s foursomes matches in South Africa and they shut down Robert Allenby and Stephen Leaney, 4 and 3.

But if mixing and matching were that easy it wouldn’t have taken U.S. captains more than a decade of experimentation to marry Woods and Stricker.

As captains huddle this week to plan, the ever-present question is whether you pair based on style of play or compatible personalities.

Jim Furyk, who has played on 13 Presidents and Ryder Cup teams and is a consensus captain in waiting, said over the years he’s learned that it’s an amalgamation of the two.

“I used to say it is style of game only. I used to say in fourball give me a guy who doesn’t play like me. A guy like Mickelson, an aggressive guy and I will knock it down the middle and play my style of game,” Furyk said. “In a foursome match-up give me a Justin Leonard or a David Toms. A guy who works his ball around the golf course like I do and hits it about the same distance.

“But I have veered away from that in recent years. Tiger and I don’t have similar styles of games and we clicked together very well in foursome matches. A lot of it has to do with the personalities.”

It was a harsh lesson famously learned by U.S. Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton at the 2004 matches when he sent Woods and Mickelson out in an uber-pairing and America’s top two ranked players went 0-for-2.

For all those who try to read tea leaves this isn’t about matching bombers with plodders or players who use the same golf ball so much as it is a study in human psychology.

“Phil and Tiger, they are two great players but they’re different,” Mahan said. “They don’t mesh. They’re oil and water. You need two guys who will mesh, have the same flow, same spirit.”

In 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger took the matching game to an intense and logical extreme, grouping his team into “pods” based on personality and the potential to play together. The result was one of America’s most spirited victories in the modern era of team competition.

Don’t expect Couples, or Norman for that matter, to be as scientific as ’Zinger, but neither needs a sports psychologist, or a reminder of Sutton’s 2004 match-play miscue, to tell them that the key to good pairings is chemistry.

“I think you can look at records when guys get paired together on the Tour and do they play well together?” David Toms said. “As superstitious as golfers are, they might be good friends but they just don’t play well together.”

It at least partially explains why Woods-Stricker seemed to work so well two years ago at Harding Park when the tandem went undefeated in team play and led the U.S. to a 19 ½-14 ½ victory. Although the two don’t spend much time together off the golf course, between the ropes there has been an obvious connection.

Chemistry may also explain The International side’s pedestrian record in the matches (the U.S. leads the series 6-1-1). Although a stronger team based on the World Golf Ranking most years, the Internationals haven’t won since 1998, the last time the matches were played at Royal Melbourne, and some contend it’s because of a lack of chemistry between players from vastly different backgrounds.

This year’s International squad features 12 players from four different countries, although the presence of five Australians may help Norman piece together this week’s puzzle.

“America plays for their flag and Europe has embraced one Europe,” said International assistant captain Frank Nobilo. “For us rugby is the No. 1 sport and it’s hard to put a kiwi, five Aussies and a two South Africans together and expect them to bond. We usually do toward the end of matches, but by then it’s normally too late.”

In many ways a captain’s role is dismissed after he makes his wild-card picks, but finding the right combination of players may be even more challenging and have a greater impact on the outcome.

“Ultimately what a captain’s trying to do is find the best five or six teams,” Furyk said. “He’s not trying to find the very best one, if that makes sense. It’s a puzzle you’re trying to put together and you’re trying to get six really good teams out there and as a player you have to realize that’s the struggle for the captain.”

For Norman and Couples it was easy filling out the top of the lineup card; now comes the hard part.

Watch wall-to-wall coverage of the Presidents Cup live on Golf Channel beginning Monday at 6PM. Tournament air times: Golf Channel Wednesday 9PM-2AM, Thursday 7:30PM-2AM, Friday 3PM-2AM and Saturday 6:30PM-12:30AM. NBC coverage Saturday at 8AM and Sunday at noon. (Note: all times are ET)

Watch: Fleetwood gets emotional with family after Race to Dubai win

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 19, 2017, 5:30 pm

Tommy Fleetwood took home the season-long Race to Dubai title on Sunday after a T-21 finish at the DP World Tour Championship.

He was, understandably, emotional after learning his fate while sitting with his wife and baby following a career year in which he won the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship and the French Open and finished fourth at the U.S. Open.

Luckily for us, cameras were rolling:

Matsuyama after Koepka rout: 'Huge gap between us'

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 4:22 pm

Hideki Matsuyama offered a blunt assessment after finishing 10 shots behind Brooks Koepka at the Japan Tour's Dunlop Phoenix event.

Koepka waxed the field en route to successfully defending his title in Japan, shooting a 20-under par total that left him nine shots clear of a runner-up group that included PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele. Koepka's score was one shot off the tournament record, and his margin for victory eclipsed Tiger Woods' eight-shot romp in 2004.

Matsuyama appeared set to make a final-round charge after a birdie on No. 2 was followed by an ace on the par-3 third hole. But he played the next eight holes in 3 over and eventually finished alone in fifth place following a 2-under 69. Afterwards, he stacked his game up against that of Koepka in a telling comment to the Japan Times.

"I feel there's a huge gap between us," Matsuyama said.

The Japanese phenom entered the week ranked No. 4 in the world, though he will be passed in the next rankings by Jon Rahm following the Spaniard's win in Dubai. Matsuyama won twice this year on the PGA Tour, including the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, but he has largely struggled since missing out on a maiden major title at the PGA Championship, where he tied for fifth.

Matsuyama was a runner-up to Koepka at the U.S. Open earlier this summer, and the 25-year-old seems headed back to the drawing board before defending his title at the Hero World Challenge in two weeks.

"I don't know whether it's a lack of practice or whether I lack the strength to keep playing well," Matsuyama said. "It seems there are many issues to address."

McCormick to caddie for Spieth at Aussie Open

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 2:21 pm

When Jordan Spieth returns next week to defend his title at the Australian Open, he will do so without his regular caddie on the bag.

Spieth and Michael Greller have combined to win 14 tournaments and three majors, including three events in 2017. But Greller's wife, Ellie, gave birth to the couple's first child on Oct. 13, and according to a report from the Australian Herald Sun he will not make the intercontinental trip to Sydney, where Spieth will look to win for the third time in the last four years.

Instead, Spieth will have longtime swing coach and native Aussie Cameron McCormick on the bag at The Australian Golf Club. McCormick, who won PGA Teacher of the Year in 2015, is originally from Melbourne but now lives in Texas and has taught Spieth since he was a rising star among the junior golf ranks in Dallas.

While Greller has missed rounds before, this will be the first time as a pro that Spieth has used a different caddie for an entire event. Greller was sidelined with an injury last year in Singapore when Spieth's agent, Jay Danzi, took the bag, and trainer Damon Goddard has subbed in twice when Greller was sick, including this year at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational.

Spieth's torrid 2015 season traced back to his win at The Australian in 2014, and he returned to Oz last year where he won a playoff at Royal Sydney over Cameron Smith and Ashley Hall.

Rahm wins finale, Fleetwood takes Race to Dubai

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 1:42 pm

Jon Rahm captured the final tournament on the European Tour calendar, a result that helped Tommy Fleetwood take home the season-long Race to Dubai title.

Rahm shot a final-round 67 to finish two shots clear of Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Shane Lowry at the DP World Tour Championship. It's the second European Tour win of the year for the Spaniard, who also captured the Irish Open and won on the PGA Tour in January at the Farmers Insurance Open.

"I could not be more proud of what I've done this week," Rahm told reporters. "Having the weekend that I've had, actually shooting 12 under on the last 36 holes, bogey-free round today, it's really special."

But the key finish came from Justin Rose, who held the 54-hole lead in Dubai but dropped back into a tie for fourth after closing with a 70. Rose entered the week as one of only three players who could win the Race to Dubai, along with Sergio Garcia and Fleetwood, who started with a lead of around 250,000 Euros.

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With Fleetwood in the middle of the tournament pack, ultimately tying for 21st after a final-round 74, the door was open for Rose to capture the title thanks to a late charge despite playing in half the events that Fleetwood did. Rose captured both the WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open, and was one round away from a two-trophy photo shoot in Dubai.

Instead, his T-4 finish meant he came up just short, as Fleetwood won the season-long race by 58,821 Euros.

The title caps a remarkable season for Fleetwood, who won the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship as well as the French Open to go along with a pair of runner-up finishes and a fourth-place showing at the U.S. Open.

"I find it amazing, the season starts in November, December and you get to here and you're watching the last shot of the season to decide who wins the Race to Dubai," Fleetwood said at the trophy ceremony. "But yeah, very special and something we didn't really aim for at the start of the year, but it's happened."