Tiger Found a Partner in Howell

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GEORGE, South Africa -- Tiger Woods stood off to the side on the 12th tee and studied the stance, the setup and the swing of the junior member on the U.S. team.

The ball shot off the tee, boring through the stiff breeze off the Indian Ocean, splitting two bunkers and landing safely in the middle of the fairway on a hole called ''Sheer Murder,'' reputed to be among the toughest in Africa.
 
Woods smiled and nodded approvingly.
 
''This kid can really hit it,'' Woods said.
 
Woods is playing on a U.S. team for the sixth time at the Presidents Cup. Charles Howell III is the first teammate he can call ''kid.''
 
When the matches begin Thursday on the Links Course at Fancourt, Howell figures to be next in a long line of partners for the world's No. 1 player.
 
''That's what Tiger has requested,'' U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus said. ''If you have two guys who want to play together, and they're playing reasonably well, I see no reason why they shouldn't play together.''
 
Woods, 27, and Howell, 24, first squared off in the quarterfinals of the 1996 U.S. Amateur, which Woods won, 3 and 1, on his way to a record third straight title.
 
Their friendship began to take root when they started playing early morning practice rounds at the British Open this year.
 
''I stand to learn something every time I'm around him,'' Howell said.
 
A practice round at Fancourt was no different. They stood in a swale to the right of the ninth green and took turns hitting flop shots that trickled down the green to an imaginary hole, and bump shots into the hill that skipped and stopped near a tee in the ground.
 
How this partnership will pay off in match play remains to be seen.
 
Woods already has had 11 partners in the two Presidents Cup and three Ryder Cup teams on which he has played.
 
Only once has he had the same partner all four team sessions -- Notah Begay, his former teammate at Stanford. They went 2-2 at the 2000 Presidents Cup.
 
Good friends don't always make a good team. Woods and Mark O'Meara were 1-2 in the '97 Ryder Cup at Valderrama. A powerful tandem isn't always the answer. Woods and David Duval, at the time Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, were beaten at Brookline in 1999.
 
Woods has played with shorter hitters (Justin Leonard and Steve Pate), big hitters (Davis Love III and Fred Couples), guys who make a lot of birdies (Mark Calcavecchia and John Huston) and those who grind out pars (Tom Lehman and Paul Azinger).
 
The results vary. His team record is 7-12-1.
 
Woods produced the most dominant stretch ever in U.S. Amateur history, winning his final 18 matches over three years.
 
When he played in his first Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne in 1998, someone asked him the biggest difference between match play as a professional and as an amateur.
 
''The field,'' Woods replied.
 
True, there are better players. Finding the right partner is also important.
 
So far, it hasn't been easy.
 
Nicklaus used to pair up with Arnold Palmer, then Tom Watson. Curtis Strange often played with Tom Kite. Love and Couples were a good fit.
 
Woods has had enough partners to fill a team.
 
''I wouldn't think it would be that hard,'' Leonard said. ''He's so disciplined. He seems to do everything pretty well.''
 
Leonard and Woods played together twice in alternate shot. They halved their match in the '97 Ryder Cup and lost in the '98 Presidents Cup.
 
''I enjoyed playing with him,'' Leonard said. ''I think there's a lot of guys that can play with him. That's probably the reason he's had 11 partners.''
 
Strange planned to pair Woods with Scott Verplank last year at the Ryder Cup, but decided on Love at the last minute because of the golf ball; Love had a similar launch angle as Woods, important in alternate shot.
 
''I play the same game he plays -- maybe not the same club, but I understand what he's doing,'' said Love, who won both his matches with Woods at The Belfry. ''It's hard for a guy who doesn't play that way.
 
''But I've been around him since he was 15,'' Love said. ''If you throw a guy in there that hasn't played under the gun with him that much, who doesn't know him off the golf course, it might be a little disconcerting. That's true with any of the top players.''
 
Strange also mentioned the comfort level.
 
Woods was daunting as an opponent in stroke play during his first five years on the PGA Tour, especially when he started winning majors by double digits.
 
''As far as personality? He's the easiest guy to pair,'' Strange said. ''Everybody would like to play with him, but you don't want somebody who's intimidated by him.''
 
Woods and Howell flew to South Africa together on Woods' plane and spent a few days together in Cape Town.
 
They have spent equal amounts of time needling each other and working with each other on club selection off the tee and shots around the green.
 
''I feel comfortable around him,'' he said. ''I can't fault anything about him. I'm trying to do the things he's done. And the fact he call me 'kid' probably changes the dynamics of the relationship.''
 
Related Links:
  • Meet the Teams
  • Full Coverage - The Presidents Cup
     
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