- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

STRAFFAN, Ireland — The United States found itself in an all too familiar hole after the opening day of the 36th Ryder Cup.

The power pairings of Tiger Woods/Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson/Chris DiMarco combined to slump to a 1-2-1 record yesterday at K Club, and the Americans concluded play trailing the Europeans 5-3.

“I’m sure they expected more,” said U.S. captain Tom Lehman of the two partnerships that posted a 5-0-2 record en route to carrying the Stars and Stripes to a victory in the Presidents Cup last year. “I know they are very disappointed they didn’t get more points. You know, I’m sure tomorrow they will be extremely motivated.”

They’ll need more than a little motivation to make up the deficit against the favored European squad, which once again looked more relaxed and meshed better in the team formats that have long been an American weakness in the Ryder Cup.

On a day that was short on the anticipated nasty weather and long on American underachievement, Woods and Furyk played below their summer standard in posting a 1-1 record. The world’s top player began the matches with an ominous first stroke, yanking a 3-wood into the water left of the first fairway and then never found the unparalleled form that saw him collect five straight PGA Tour victories (including two majors) heading into what was supposed to be his history-reversing Ryder Cup.

“Well, I thought we kind of ham-and-egged it pretty good in the morning,” said Woods, who leaned on Furyk during a 1-up victory over Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington in the four-balls before Sergio Garcia almost single-handedly defeated the pair in the afternoon foursomes (2-up). “This afternoon we got down early. I missed a short putt there on the 10th hole, we rallied, got it back to level. Then Sergio hit beautiful shots into numbers 16 and 17, and we just weren’t able to get it together.”

If Furyk was more responsible for the morning victory, the world’s third-ranked player also was more culpable for the afternoon loss. After Garcia scorched back-to-back irons to kick-away distance for birdies at Nos.16 and 17 to send the Euros 1-up, Furyk put an exclamation point on a poor foursomes performance by snap-hooking a hybrid into the water lining the 18th hole to seal the pairing’s fate.

“I have no excuse there. I made a bad swing,” Furyk said. “My partner striped it this afternoon. He hit a lot of iron shots at the pin, and I struggled to get some 15-footers for birdie. … It just wasn’t to be. If we left anything out there in the round, I had a lot of putts and opportunities that I didn’t convert.”

If the Woods/Furyk pairing was a disappointment, the Mickelson/DiMarco tandem rates as a debacle. Both men sprayed drives all over the 7,335-yard, par-72 layout for 36 forgettable holes, combining to card just six birdies over 10 hours of aesthetically toxic golf. They scrounged a half-point from a weary Montgomerie and Lee Westwood in the afternoon but would have lost to almost any other pairing on the property.

Mickelson made just one birdie in the morning, a shocking output from one of the world’s most explosive players. And DiMarco spent the entire day exploring the right-side rough with short, crooked teeballs.

Meanwhile, Europe got at least a half-point from all 12 members of its roster for the first time in Ryder Cup history. And in what must now be considered Cup tradition, Garcia led the charge, winning both of his matches to run his record in the two-man formats to an insane 13-1-2.

“Today there was one secret, and that was Sergio Garcia,” countryman Jose Maria Olazabal said after the Spanish Armada sunk the U.S. pairing of David Toms and Brett Wetterich 3&2 in the four-balls.

Garcia hit 14 fairways and 17 greens en route to carding five birdies in the morning and was almost as scintillating in carrying Luke Donald around the track in the afternoon.

“You attribute it to great partners to start,” Garcia said of his play in a rare and unnecessary moment of modesty. “And just loving it. I just love the Ryder Cup. I couldn’t live without it, definitely, and it’s just amazing.”

The lone bright spots on the day for the Americans were provided, ironically, by rookies J.J. Henry and Zach Johnson. The squad’s four first-timers were considered to be the decided weakness of the U.S. team, but Henry and Johnson both led rousing comebacks, rallying their respective pairings in the four-balls and foursomes to a pair of unexpected gut-check halves.

“Phenomenal,” Lehman said of the trio of rookies [Henry, Johnson and Brett Wetterich] who scratched out a 0-1-2 mark on the day. “J.J. played great. I think [Zach] grew up out there on the last three holes [all birdies]. … And Brett gave it everything he had.”

The young players will try to repeat that performance today, and both power pairings are back on the board for today’s morning four-balls. But the United States has come back from a first-day deficit in the Ryder Cup just once (1999) in a decade in which it has lost four of five Cups to Europe.

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