- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2005

LAKE MANASSAS, Va. — Nothing will be more scrutinized at this week’s Presidents Cup than the pairing decisions made by the captains and the team chemistry, or lack thereof, that results from those temporary unions.

Last year’s Ryder Cup always will be more memorable for Hal Sutton’s ill-fated decision to cram polar opposites Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together than for the superb golf played by the Europeans.

Though perhaps nobody ever will know what went on behind the scenes between Sutton, Woods and Mickelson, the decision to stick Uncle Sam’s top two players together seemed like a dubious one before the duo took the course at Oakland Hills. And their resulting 0-2 Thursday left the Americans in a huge hole while reaffirming the negative chemistry stereotypes that have dogged U.S. teams for more than a decade.

If Mickelson and Woods are the archetypal bad pairing, what’s the anatomy of a successful pairing? Is it all just an overanalyzed crapshoot, or do the captains and their pairings decisions have a predictable and powerful impact on Presidents Cup/Ryder Cup outcomes?

“You’ve got no idea really how it’s all going to work out, so I do think too much is made of [the pairings], but that’s part of the fun,” U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus said yesterday. “There’s no magic formula.”

But here’s a look at some pairings basics to which most successful captains have subscribed:

• Player input — Unlike recent Ryder Cup captains like Sutton and Seve Ballesteros, both Nicklaus and Gary Player are what you might call players’ captains. Not only have they spent a fair portion of the week polling their squads for pairing input and partnership preferences, both often are willing to give their players the final word.

Three of today’s opening foursomes pairings are a direct result of that ultimate players’ privilege. Using similar games as his guide, Nicklaus favored the teams of Mickelson/David Toms and Stewart Cink/Chris DiMarco. But while understanding Nicklaus’ reasoning, Mickelson and DiMarco were vehement in their desire to play together, and the Golden Bear accommodated them.

“They overruled me,” Nicklaus said. “But that’s fine. I don’t want them to say, ‘Oh, I was at the last Presidents Cup, and I played with a guy I didn’t want to play with or I got drummed and I didn’t enjoy it.’ I want them to have fun.”

Player wasn’t overruled, but he did honor the requests of Vijay Singh and Mark Hensby to play together, though the two have dissimilar games.

• Similar games — Though the partnership preference of both Singh and Hensby trumped this consideration, it’s typically prudent in the foursomes to match players with similar styles. Captains usually avoid pairing a gambler like Mickelson with a conservative fairways-and-greens soldier like Scott Verplank. And rarely will a bomber like Tiger be married to a buntmeister like Fred Funk.

“I always go back to when I got paired with Dave Stockton in the Ryder Cup at St. Louis [1971],” Nicklaus said. “We got drummed 6 and 5. We weren’t even in the match. Stockton wasn’t used to playing out of the rough, and I wasn’t used to playing 2-irons to par-4s.”

The opposite mentality often applies in the four-balls, where having Joe Par in play on every hole might allow a gambler like Mickelson to be even more aggressive, if time and again his steady, though perhaps short-hitting, partner keeps his ball in play and makes par a given.

• Personality — Most players claim the import of this pairing principle is overemphasized, though Woods and Mickelson proved that true oil-and-water personality matches can be disastrous.

“You put a quiet guy with someone who can’t shut up, and it’s going to drive him crazy isn’t it?” International team member Peter Lonard said.

• Like levels — Though every member of the U.S. squad told Nicklaus they would like a game with Tiger, it might not be wise to stick a nonsuperstar with the world’s top player, given Woods’ awe-inspiring game, massive galleries and intense media scrutiny.

“I think one of the reasons Tiger’s record isn’t better in these things is his partners maybe have pressed a little too much,” said Fred Couples, who will team with Woods today. “Nobody wants to let Tiger down.”

The opposite also applies. When relatively unheralded Internationals Tim Clark and Nick O’Hern go out today against Mickelson/DiMarco, all the pressure will be on Uncle Sam’s duo.

• Best friends — Over the years, closest friend have recorded mixed returns in team events. Europeans Mark James and Sam Torrance were best mates but horrid partners.

“We were too close,” Torrance said at the 2002 Ryder Cup. “I would rather have hurled myself under a lorry than put ‘Jesse’ in a position to be a goat. There’s pressure enough at a Ryder Cup without that.’

Couples and Davis Love III are 6-4-1 in Presidents/Ryder Cup play but have played less together in recent years. And at last year’s Ryder Cup, European boss Bernhard Langer split chums Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke for half of their matches, using the confidence they gained playing alongside each other to infuse new partners with positive energy.

• Same ball — Since pairings can use only one brand of ball in the foursomes, combining guys who play the same kind of rock is preferable, if possible.

“I’m pretty easy in that regard,” Couples said. “When I play with Davis, we’ve always used a Titleist. When I play with Tiger, we use a Nike. I’ve been a Maxfli guy all my life, but I’ll play whatever in these things.”

In the final analysis, however, a captain can only do so much. Neither Nicklaus nor Player will strike a single shot this week. And even if their pairings are perfectly contrived, the players will be responsible for the results.

“Golf isn’t played on paper. It’s played on grass,” Player said. “You can play great with the perfect partner and get thumped and play poorly with an ill-fit and win by a tidy margin. That’s why this is the most intriguing of games. Golf is a puzzle without a solution.”


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