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Search for the perfect Presidents Cup pairings

Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods
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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)