- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

The FedEx Cup has resurrected U.S. team golf. Riding the coattails of the players who finished in the top four slots of golf’s recently completed playoffs, the United States posted yet another solid performance Saturday at Harding Park Golf Course to forge a 12 1/2-9 1/2 lead on the International squad heading into Sunday’s singles finale at the Presidents Cup.

“I helped out like three holes all day and just tried to stay out of this guy’s way,” Tiger Woods said after running his record with new partner Steve Stricker to 4-0 on the 7,137-yard, par-71 layout in San Francisco. “I was just out there cheerleading [for Stricker].”

Woods and Stricker finished first and third in the FedEx Cup, and they entered this event on a tear. Nos. 2 and 4 in those playoffs were Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk, who also have proved to be standouts for U.S. captain Fred Couples. The quartet have combined to produce a 13-1-2 mark at Harding Park.

Four years ago, before the introduction of the season-ending series of playoff events, U.S. teams routinely showed up rusty for the Ryder and Presidents cups. The best players, namely Woods and Mickelson, usually played only once in the six weeks between the PGA Championship and Ryder or Presidents cup. As a result, they regularly played pedestrian golf in the team-play events.

Following 2006, one season before the inaugural FedEx Cup playoffs, losing records haunted Woods (20-21-3) and Mickelson (18-24-11) in the Ryder and Presidents cups, a startling disconnect given their otherwise glowing resumes.

Then came PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem’s season-closing concept. Suddenly, Woods, Mickelson and the rest of the U.S. team began stringing together stretch-run starts in pursuit of the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus, peaking just in time for the annual match-play contest against the Europeans or Internationals.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the U.S. team has won both of the events since the inception of the FedEx Cup, battering the Internationals 19 1/2-14 1/2 at the 2007 Presidents Cup in Montreal and snapping the team’s skein of losses to Europe with a 16 1/2-11 1/2 victory at last year’s Ryder Cup in Louisville, Ky. Throw in this week’s strong showing, and the United States is well on its way to notching a 3-0 record since the introduction of meaningful late-season golf.

Just two weeks after Woods and Mickelson wrapped up the FedEx playoffs by capturing the Cup and Tour Championship, respectively, the two have been almost invincible. Woods, 33, enters Sunday’s singles with a spotless record in San Francisco, thanks in large part to the assistance of uber-sidekick Stricker.

Long one of the game’s purest putters, Stricker put on a once-in-a-career show during Saturday afternoon’s four-balls, carding an unthinkable seven birdies on his own ball in the first 12 holes as he and Woods dismissed Y.E. Yang and Ryo Ishikawa 4 and 2.

“I hope he’s not sick of me yet,” said Stricker, who claimed three of his seven career victories this season en route to rising to No. 3 in the world rankings. “It’s been a blast.”

Courtesy of a putting tip from Dave Stockton, Mickelson has been a birdie machine, maintaining his momentum from East Lake by posting a 3-0-1 record in San Francisco despite erratic play from partners Anthony Kim, Justin Leonard and Sean O’Hair. And teaming with Kim and Leonard, Furyk racked up two more victories Saturday.

Though a three-point lead doesn’t sound like a massive margin, no squad in the brief history of this event has trailed entering the singles and rallied to victory.

• Barker Davis can be reached at bdavis@washingtontimes.com.

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