- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

Future U.S. team captains now have the template for partnering the squad’s dynamic duo.

No matter what happens over the next three days at the Presidents Cup, Paul Azinger and now Fred Couples finally seem to have answered the question that dogged U.S. captains at Ryder and Presidents cups past: With whom do you pair world Nos. 1 and 2, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, to maximize their talent and impact?

Woods and Mickelson played brilliantly Thursday at Harding Park Golf Course in San Francisco, partnering with Steve Stricker and Anthony Kim, respectively, to spearhead a 3 1/2-2 1/2 U.S. victory in the opening foursomes series of the eighth Presidents Cup.

U.S. skipper Couples can thank Azinger for the Mickelson-Kim pairing. Looking to shake Lefty out of a slump in these biennial team match-play events at last year’s Ryder Cup, Azinger sent the enthusiastic Kim out with Mickelson at Valhalla, and the duo responded by teaming for a 1-1-1 record in the United States’ 16 1/2-11 1/2, drought-snapping rout of Europe.

Trusting the chemistry that developed between the two in Louisville, Couples decided to lead off the 2009 Presidents Cup with the Mickelson-Kim tandem. And after a sluggish start in which Kim missed two putts inside of six feet on the first two holes, chunked a wedge at the sixth and shanked a short iron at the seventh, the two turned it on down the stretch, posting the first point of the matches with a 3 and 2 victory over the International pairing of Mike Weir and Tim Clark.

“We all know that I weighed about 400 pounds on those first couple of holes,” said Kim, who like Mickelson is a California native. “But Phil did a great job carrying me around and keeping us in the match, and we got the ‘W’ in the end.”

Surging from 1 down through 12 holes on the 7,137-yard, par-71 course, Mickelson and Kim erupted with the match in the balance, carding four consecutive birdies to dispatch the Internationals when Weir failed to match Kim’s midrange birdie salvo at the 16th. The comeback set the tone for an afternoon in which the U.S. rallied to win or to halve after deficits in three of the six alternate-shot matches.

No rally was necessary for Woods and Stricker, who played the best golf of any duo on either team en route to dismantling Australian Geoff Ogilvy and 18-year-old Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa 6 and 4.

The two had not been teamed together in previous Presidents and Ryder cups, but they gelled instantly Thursday, missing just one fairway and one green while cruising to 6 under through only 14 holes to demolish the International pair.

Woods missed last year’s Ryder Cup while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, which perhaps took some pressure off a U.S. roster that always seemed too overwhelmed by the concept of Woods as a teammate to perform by his side. And while the 33-year-old world No. 1 is a natural leader, he never felt comfortable asserting himself in U.S. team rooms typically populated by older players with more Ryder Cup experience.

The result was a series of attempted and mostly failed partnerships with Woods, whose victory evened his career Ryder and Presidents cup record at 24-24-3.

While the most notable debacle was 2004 Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton failing with the “new rope” fiasco of Woods and Mickelson (0-2), only Jim Furyk has enjoyed any sort of success in tandem with Tiger over the years (5-3-1).

That could be about to change thanks to Stricker. The 42-year-old Wisconsin grinder is precisely the kind of competitor Woods respects most. Stricker has twice pulled his career back from the abyss over the last decade and recently completed the finest season of that career, winning three times to ascend to world No. 3.

Woods is extremely familiar with Stricker and his game after playing with him routinely down the stretch in the recently concluded FedEx Cup playoffs. And if Thursday’s performance is any indication of things to come, Woods and Stricker could get to know each other quite well in future Presidents and Ryder cups.

“Strick’s just a great dude to play with,” Woods said after the two meshed seamlessly during their bogey-free blasting of Ishikawa and Ogilvy. “We never gave them a chance to get anything going. We put the hammer on them pretty good.”

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