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Published: Thursday, 9/16/2004

Can Tiger be better?

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
One of Hal Sutton's jobs this week is to figure out how to get Tiger Woods to earn more points for the American team. One of Hal Sutton's jobs this week is to figure out how to get Tiger Woods to earn more points for the American team.
PAUL SANCYA / AP Enlarge

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. - You would think the Americans could pair Tiger Woods with Carrot Top, maybe have him hit alternate shots with Gerald Ford, and still reel in one Ryder Cup match after another.

But it hasn't worked that way.

Woods is 4-7-1 in 12 Ryder Cup partners' matches. Add in the Presidents Cup and Tiger is 2-10 in his last dozen four-ball (team best ball) matches.

This is one of the best golfers in the world. Before turning professional he won three straight U.S. Amateur championships, setting records for consecutive match-play victories, 18, and winning percentage, .909. He has won the last two World Golf Championships match play titles.

Why Woods has produced below-average results in Ryder Cup competition - he is 5-8-2 overall, including singles play - is perhaps golf's greatest mystery.

"I don't go into any tournament or any competition thinking that it would be great to lose," Woods said at Oakland Hills Country Club, where the 2004 Ryder Cup matches begin tomorrow. "That's asinine. You know how competitive I am. I go out there with the intent to win points for the U.S. team.

"I'm not happy with 5-8-2. Heck no. But hey, I've gone out there and played my best each and every time. I've shot 65 on my own ball and lost. And I've played poorly and won. It goes both ways. All I know is, I've tried my best. Unfortunately, I haven't scored more points for our team. Hopefully, this year will be a different story."

Hal Sutton, the U.S. captain, is hoping the same thing. In

fact, he has challenged Woods to deliver the goods.

"Nobody needs to give Tiger Woods a pep talk," Sutton said. "He holds himself to the highest standard. But I've been trying to get him to look ahead to this for two years, since they named me captain.

"What I have said to him is, 'Hey Tiger, it's time you felt this is important. I want you to realize that this is going to be an area that guys are going to judge you by down the road, whether you like it or dislike it. This is going to be another barometer of success for you. Let's give it all you got and lead this team.'‚óŹ"

There's some question whether the message got through.

When asked if it was fair for a player in an individual sport to be judged by his record in a team event, Woods answered the question with a question.

"I'm sure all of you [media] guys probably know what Jack Nicklaus' record is in the Ryder Cup, right? Anybody? No? OK, how many majors did he win?"

Several folks yelled out the answer.

"Oh, really?" Tiger said. "OK."

Woods insists that doesn't mean that he doesn't care when it comes to the Ryder Cup. And there's certainly no reason to doubt his claim that he always gives it his best effort.

So, possibly, it comes down to who he is partnered with.

Maybe it's an uncomfortable mission to leave the first tee with Tiger Woods, feeling the extra pressure of high expectations, sensing, perhaps, that Woods will carry the load and save the day if only you, his partner, stay out of the way and don't screw up too badly. Conversely, trying harder to play at his level may have disastrous consequences.

The answer might be pairing him with someone who is unlikely to be intimidated by his presence, someone who feels his game stacks up quite nicely with Tiger's.

The answer might be Phil Mickelson.

"I'd love that," Mickelson said yesterday.

"I would love to play with Phil," Woods said. "As talented as he is, I mean, how could you not want to play in that pairing?"

Well, there are pros and cons, and Woods has experience with the "con" side.

In the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club, Woods and David Duval were partnered in four-balls when they were ranked 1-2 in the world. They lost 1-up to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.

"If you win, it's a huge plus," Woods said. "If you throw your top two guys out there together and they lose, well, it's kind of tough."

Woods has juggled a lot of different partners in previous team competitions, which may have been a problem.

In 2002, U.S. captain Curtis Strange paired him twice in the same day with Davis Love III and the result was two wins over the Europeans.

Woods isn't sure the consistency of the pairing was the over-riding factor in success, though.

"We were 7-under, I think, in the alternate shot and then 11-under in the afternoon," Woods said. "You do that, generally you're going to win a lot of matches. It all comes down to how you play."

Sutton has indicated he will pair his team for the next two days with continuity in mind, especially in Woods' case.

"I think that's a good thing," he said. "The more you do something, the more comfortable you are with it. If I throw a curveball and put somebody different out there with somebody every time, it creates a new learning curve. We're going to do as little of that as possible."

So the first step in Woods' bid to lead this U.S. team could well be the partnership pairings.

Sutton knows what he is going to do. His players and the rest of us will find out later this morning.

Actually, he feels the Woods situation is the least of his worries.

"I was out there watching him play and, man, I'm licking my chops over it," Sutton said. "If he's in a slump the way some suggest, I aspire to be in one of his slumps. So, no, don't be worried about Tiger Woods. If that's your only worry, you have no worries."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398



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