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Honeymoon over for Tiger-Stricker pairing

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MEDINAH, Ill. – The spark that was supposed to propel Tiger Woods to an improbable comeback victory – or at least a half point – occurred on the 16th hole, as you probably know, since your TV sets at home likely shook because of the roar.

At the time, the once-unbeatable team of Woods and Steve Stricker were 2 down to world No. 3 Lee Westwood and a lanky, awesomely talented Belgian named Nicolas Colsaerts, who was playing in his first Ryder Cup. Already on Friday the U.S. pair had lost in morning foursomes, a defeat so uninspiring that it led many to wonder if Woods should sit out a session for the first time in his career.

That seemed a distant memory, however, as Woods faced a slippery 25-foot putt on the 16th at Medinah. He barely touched his putt, the ball picking up speed as it rolled down the slope, and eventually it rammed into the back of the cup for a vintage birdie-3. One down.

Unlike some of his other memorable moments, Woods didn’t scream or pump his fist when the putt dropped. Instead, he simply pointed his finger in the direction of the 17th tee – onward!

This, after all, was the moment that American golf fans had been clamoring for.

Phil Mickelson, who sported a ghastly 11-17-6 record in the Ryder Cup, had gone 2-0 on Day 1, clearly reinvigorated by the stirring play of rookie Keegan Bradley. And now Woods had a chance to ensure that the Americans would not drop a full point in the afternoon session. The teeing ground at No. 17 shook.

But on that watery par-3, where everything was supposed to swing in his opponent’s favor, Colsaerts answered Woods’ tight approach by draining a 20-foot birdie from the front of the green. Woods would make his 5-foot birdie putt too, ensuring the match would indeed go the distance, but it was Colsaerts who had best seized the moment. It was a high-stakes, international game of H-O-R-S-E.

Despite a valiant charge from Woods (five back-nine birdies, seven in all), his comeback ended on a sour note. His 12-foot putt on the final green – the putt that could have secured a half point for the Americans and given his team 3 1/2 points in the afternoon – slid by on the low side. Walking up to the cup, he swatted away the ball in disgust.

It was the lone lowlight on an otherwise sterling afternoon for the U.S. team, which now leads, 5-3, heading into Saturday.

“We had a chance to go all square on the last hole,” Woods said, “and I missed it.”

In an epic anchor match that featured 17 birdies and an eagle, Colsaerts and Westwood held on to win, 1 up, and avoid an American sweep in the fourball session.

Well, no, sorry, that’s not quite accurate.

Colsaerts won, 1 up, after a near-flawless, 1-on-2 performance that rivaled any these biennial matches have ever produced. He was 7 under on his own ball through 10 holes, and he fired the stroke-play equivalent of a 10-under 62.

“It was one of the best putting rounds I’ve ever seen,” Woods said afterward.

The defeat in fading light Friday ultimately will signal the end of the Woods-Stricker Era, at least in 2012.

Tiger single-handedly kept his team in the match – as Colsaerts did his – but the more popular headline Saturday inevitably will be “Woods loses another team match,” and not “Colsaerts thwarts Woods’ late rally.”

The former is true, of course, however harsh the reality. Woods’ record in team play now stands at 9-15-1, after his oh-fer on Friday.

Tiger himself said earlier this week that he accepts blame for the past failures of the U.S. Ryder Cup team; he didn’t earn the points he needed.

He shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for this, though, especially with the U.S. leading after Day 1.

That said, it’s time for a change, for Tiger to test free agency, to find a new partner.

His partnership with Stricker was always predicated on the fact that Stricker’s steady play and otherworldly putting would make the difference. But if suddenly those putts don’t drop, if he begins to waver, what remains? Well, for this U.S. duo, four consecutive losses in team competition. Call that irreconcilable differences.

Perhaps sensing the need for change – or at least a break – Love opted to bench Woods for Saturday morning foursomes, the first time that the world No. 2 has ever sat out a session.

“We really don’t have room for guys to play five (sessions),” Love reasoned. “We don’t have enough basketballs for this team.”

Maybe so, but they do, however, have a surplus of good putters.

Pair Woods with one of them Saturday afternoon, and his disappointing Ryder Cup may be salvaged, after all.