- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 28, 2002

SUTTON COLDFIELD, England Tiger Woods pressed his thumb to pursed lips as he surveyed the shot. It was the final match yesterday at the Ryder Cup. A crucial point and valuable momentum were riding on the outcome.

This is Woods' stage. Only this time, he was a spectator.

The Americans didn't need the world's best player to stay in the game, relying instead on three Ryder Cup rookies and a gutsy shot by Phil Mickelson in the last match of a thrilling opening round at the Belfry.

Europe wound up with a 4½-3½ advantage, despite saddling Woods with two more losses to send his Ryder Cup record even more out of kilter with his other golfing feats.

The momentum belonged to the United States, thanks to Mickelson and David Toms rallying from 3 down with four holes to play to scratch out a valuable half-point.

"If anybody ever thought this was going to be easy any time, ever they were proven today it never is," U.S. captain Curtis Strange said. "They know it's going to be tough."

It certainly was for Woods.

The two losses dropped his Ryder Cup record to a paltry 3-8-1. Woods now has lost as many Ryder Cup matches as he has won major championships.

"He doesn't feel real good right now, and that's good," Strange said. "He's disappointed, which is good. He probably feels as though he let the team down a bit, which is good. It makes you come back hungrier the next day."

The opening day certainly whet everyone's appetite for more. The Ryder Cup was postponed one year by last year's terrorist attacks.

It proved to be worth the wait.

Strange ran fingers through his gray hair as his team stumbled to its largest opening deficit in 31 years. European captain Sam Torrance went through a pack of cigarettes as his guys gave most of it back.

"We're ahead, aren't we?" Torrance said. "That will do me."

After Toms cleared the water on a shot out of thick rough, Mickelson left his putter in the bag for a 90-foot birdie try. Instead, he hit a wedge taking a divot from the smooth putting surface about 10 feet beyond the hole.

Woods was standing next to Strange when they saw the 90 feet, two tiers and a piece of fringe that separated Mickelson's shot from the hole.

Strange said to Woods, "He's liable to chip this thing."

"He's going to hit the shot that he thinks he can get closest to the hole," Strange said. "It takes a lot of guts. In that atmosphere there's a lot of people around. It's getting dark. I'm not going to say what I would do, but I'd be damned nervous."

After Colin Montgomerie nearly holed his chip from the rough and Bernhard Langer missed the 8-foot comeback, Mickelson made the nervy 3-footer that Toms left him.

The Europeans still played better on the opening day.

They can attribute that to an awesome performance from Thomas Bjorn and Darren Clarke and a perfect record by Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood two teams that added to Woods' miserable record in the Ryder Cup.

Bjorn made five birdies on the back nine of the morning fourball match, including a 20-footer on the 18th for a 1-up victory. Garcia and Westwood beat Woods and Mark Calcavecchia in the afternoon foursomes match, taking control when Woods missed par putts of 4 and 3 feet on the 11th and 12th.

"It turned the entire momentum of the match on 11," Woods said. "It looked like they were making bogey, and we were making par to take the 1-up lead, and exactly the opposite happened. That's the epitome of match play."

Match play also brought out the best in Hal Sutton, the star of 1999 whose game has deteriorated in the year since the Ryder Cup was supposed to have been played.

He and Scott Verplank won four of the last five holes for a 2-and-1 victory over Bjorn and Clarke in foursomes.

The best display of all might have come from the gallery, especially after what happened three years ago outside Boston, when partisan cheering turned into vulgar taunts.

They screamed loud and long for the Europeans at the Belfry so loud that several players had to back off shots. The fans showed a sense of humor, too, yelling in unison, "Fore," when Azinger's opening tee shot sailed to the right.

"I wish it wasn't my player," Strange said with a laugh. "It was something I've never heard before."

The rest of the yelling had a more positive purpose three straight birdies by Clarke, a tremendous tag-team effort by Montgomerie and Langer, a crucial turnaround by Westwood and a late rally by Padraig Harrington that could have given Europe a morning sweep.

Mickelson and Toms held off Harrington and Niclas Fasth but just barely.

Harrington birdied the 17th to get to 1 down, and the Irishman had a chance to earn an unlikely halve with a 15-foot birdie putt on the last. Celebration turned to disbelief as the ball circled 270 degrees around the cup. Torrance fell over backward and laid on the grass.

Still, the 3-1 lead was Europe's largest after the opening series of games since 1971. They now have outscored the Americans 42½-25½ in fourball matches since 1985.

"Brilliant. Magic." Torrance proclaimed. "We've waited a year longer for this, but after that show out there this morning, I'm sure everyone would agree it's been worth the wait."

Woods and Azinger also had nine birdies and lost.

"There's nothing you can do," Azinger said. "We were 9 under par. That would probably win 95 out 100 matches. But there's an occasion when you run into some guys that play well. Those guys played terrific."

In the most intense match of the morning, the Americans simply had no chance against Bjorn and Clarke, two of Woods' best friends in golf and the only two Europeans who have beaten him head-to-head in tournament play.

Bjorn made four birdie putts of at least 12 feet and one from 18 inches on the 16th hole that put Europe 2 up with two holes to play. All the Americans could hope for was a halve, and they almost got it.

Needing birdie on the final hole, Azinger hit 7-iron within five inches from 178 yards. It was one of the magical shots in Ryder Cup lore, only this one might be forgotten because of what followed.

Bjorn capped his spectacular putting performance by holing his 20-foot birdie putt, hopping into the air and raising both arms to set off the celebration.

It wasn't the first point of the matches, but it certainly set the tone.

The Ryder Cup is back.


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