- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — U.S. captain Hal Sutton has decided to start the 35th Ryder Cup Matches with the ultimate mismatch.

In one of the most unconventional moves in the event’s history, the dictatorial Sutton is sending out bitter rivals Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in today’s opening four-ball match — the first time the two well-known foes have been paired.

“I told these two guys that I felt like the perception of the world was that the U.S. team didn’t bond and we didn’t come together as a team,” Sutton said of the partnership between the two rather distant teammates. “I said, ‘I can’t think of any other message that we could send any louder [to dispel that notion] than to put the two of you out first.’”

The message was pure Sutton: Put your personal differences aside and go kick some tail. In some respects, it was a perfectly predictable move from the first U.S. captain who claimed from the start he didn’t care about ego politics or the personal preferences of his players.

But there is a reason that in six former mutual appearances by Woods and Mickelson in Ryder and Presidents Cups, no U.S. skipper has ever had the temerity to pair the nation’s two best players: Woods and Mickelson just don’t like one another.

The behind-the-scenes stories involving their mutual dislike are legion. The fissure supposedly started when Woods hit into Mickelson during a practice round shortly after the former turned pro in August 1996 amid a storm of hype. Lefty supposedly reacted by delivering a patronizing lecture on etiquette, and the rift has grown exponentially ever since. Woods reveled in besting Lefty head-to-head in the first two majors of the 2002 season. Mickelson then responded by chuckling at Woods in print for using what he suggested was inferior equipment last season.

If you ask Woods agent Mark Steinberg if his client and Mickelson are friends, his stock response is, “They’re competitors.”

Basically, there is just a major personality conflict at play. It runs deeper than simply saying Mickelson is a family-first guy and at times a painfully straight arrow while Woods is a golf-first guy who enjoys swapping dirty jokes and gambling road trips to Vegas. Mickelson is famous for winning a fortune on his preseason bet on the Ravens to win the Super Bowl in 2000. The difference is that Woods does his gambling on the floor while Mickelson prefers the phone.

Mickelson cares as much or more about his public perception as his record. The single-minded Woods views the public as a nuisance, another potential distraction en route to Jack Nicklaus’ major record. Mickelson is golf’s Eddie Haskell, a man who spends his on-camera life dispensing a compliment a minute with a goofy grin. Tiger is golf’s Wally Cleaver, grinding away and smirking at Mickelson with “do-you-believe-this-guy?” dismissal.

Their reactions to the pairing were typical of their personalities.

“We’re fine with it,” said Woods.

“I love the pairing of Tiger and myself,” said Mickelson.

Look carefully and the subtle signs of their mutual animosity are everywhere. After playing in the four previous World Cups with Mark O’Meara and David Duval, Woods cited a scheduling conflict in 2002 and skipped the event when Mickelson was the nation’s No.2 qualifier. In the handful of made-for-TV Bighorn/Sherwood competitions, the pair have always played against one another. And then there’s always that huge 0-for-24 mark in possible Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup pairings.

The captains of those teams (Tom Kite, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Ken Venturi and Curtis Strange) no doubt all considered the awesome potential of a Woods/Mickelson partnership. Both are match-play mavens with U.S. Amateur titles on their resumes. Woods, of course, would remind you he won a record three straight. Mickelson has the best Ryder Cup record on the U.S. team (8-5-3). Woods has won two World Match Play titles and two World Cup titles (one each with O’Meara and Duval). And both probably made a couple of birdies before they were even wheeled out of the delivery room.

But until Sutton, no captain had ever had the guts to send the two out as a team.

By about noon today, about the time Mickelson and Woods should be completing their four-ball match against Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, we’ll know if the move qualifies Sutton as a genius or a goat. Because if the two top-ranked players in attendance (No.2 Woods and No.4 Mickelson) lose to an aging Monty and his Irish sidekick, the damage to U.S. team morale might be monumental.

“I’m not worried about that,” said Sutton, who is also likely to keep the two married for the afternoon foursomes after sending Mickelson out to Oakland Hills’ secondary course yesterday to sort out his yardages with Tiger’s Nike balls. “The way I look at it, I can’t imagine anything that would aggravate those two guys more than to get beat.”

Regardless of whether the Woods/Mickelson experiment winds up as Team Titan or Team Titanic, watching the two interact today should make awesome theater and kick off the 35th matches in epic fashion.

“I don’t know how many people that first hole can hold, but we will find out tomorrow, won’t we?” said Sutton, who made up his mind to pair the two together the day he was selected as captain in October 2002. “I wasn’t really concerned with whether they were bosom buddies or anything. They know what the job is, and they are going to go out there and get it done.”

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