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Published: Friday, 9/17/2004

U.S. opens with pair of aces

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. - Hal Sutton said he doesn't know how many spectators can squeeze together around the No. 1 tee, fairway and green at Oakland Hills Country Club.

"But I think we'll find out, won't we?" Sutton said, laughing.

Sutton, the captain of the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup team, pulled the trigger on the "super pairing" yesterday, announcing that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will team up in this morning's opening match.

As circumstance has it, they will meet Europe's most formidable team, Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, in four-ball (best-ball) competition.

"I had a pretty good idea what Hal was going to do and I was right," said European captain Bernhard Langer. "It's a wonderful pairing for spectators and a great way to start the 35th matches."

There's every reason to expect Mickelson and Woods to be paired in this afternoon's alternate-shot foursome matches, as well.

Mickelson spent much of his practice time yesterday away from prying eyes on Oakland Hills' North course - the Ryder Cup matches will be staged on the South course - hitting the Nike One ball that Woods plays.

This afternoon's foursome pairings will not be announced until after the completion of the morning four-ball matches.

The Woods-Mickelson pairing right off the bat shows just how badly Sutton wants his team to get off to a good start. Since 1983, Europe has scored 47 1/2 points in four-ball play to just

32 1/2 for the United States.

"We came here to win," Sutton said. "I don't know that we could pair two guys together that were more matched for one another than these two guys. I want to send a message.

"I told these two guys that I felt like the perception of the world was that the U.S. team didn't bond and that we didn't come together as a team. I said, 'I can't think of any other message that we could send any louder than to put the two of you guys out first.' Both were committed to it."

So are Harrington, ranked No. 8 in the world, and Montgomerie, the old warhorse and workhorse of the Euro team with a 16-7-5 lifetime mark in the Ryder Cup.

"It is what we expected," Harrington said. "And it's the way we wanted it. I don't know if we are the big guns going out against them, but hopefully we'll manage our games against them.

"They are the big stars. It will be an interesting match. Monty has the experience and I'm usually pretty determined."

Harrington is one of three Irishmen in the European lineup for the opening session, joining Clark and McGinley, who was a bit of a surprise.

While Donald got the nod to team with McGinley, Langer decided to sit his other four rookies during this morning's play. Campbell and Riley, two U.S. newcomers, will play while fellow rookies Kenny Perry, Fred Funk and Chris DiMarco sit out along with Jay Haas.

"I'm going to get those four out there in the afternoon matches," Sutton said.

Langer said he wanted his other rookies - Paul Casey, David Howell, Thomas Levet and Ian Poulter - to cool their heels and "experience the whole atmosphere during the morning, then be ready whenever their time comes."

For Mickelson and Woods, however, the time is now.

"We're totally excited about it," Woods said. "We're geared up and can't wait to get out there and play."

Mickelson said he "loved the pairing. It has been put to us to get the U.S. side off to a good start. We're going to have a very tough match, though."

Mickelson has an 8-5-3 career record in Ryder Cup play, but Woods, despite his long residency atop the world rankings, has floundered in this format with a 2-4 record in four-balls and a 2-3-1 mark in foursomes play.

An indication that their alliance would continue during alternate-shot competition came yesterday when Sutton sent Mickelson to the North course range to hit Woods' Nike ball. Partners have to play the same ball throughout a foursomes match and Mickelson recently switched to Callaway balls.

"I gave Phil two sleeves of Tiger's balls and I said, 'You might oughta go out there and get ready to use this ball,'‚óŹ" Sutton said. "I personally felt it would be difficult to tell a guy [Woods] who went 250-some weeks as No. 1 in the world to switch balls when Phil has only been playing his [brand] for a week or two.

"So Phil went out and hit the balls and dialed in the distances. He's a team player and he was fine with it."

Sutton said his second pairing, Love and Campbell, was "as a strong as new rope. I'd be worried if I was playing against them. Stewart Cink is playing as well as anybody on our team and Chris Riley would hyperventilate if I made him wait any longer than tomorrow morning. Toms and Furyk, well, they are kingpins. They yearn to be in this position."

The same could be said of the European duo that will face them. Westwood and Garcia teamed together in 2002 at The Belfry and went 3-1 in partners play.

"That's a very tough match for us," Garcia said, "but Lee and I had some good vibrations at The Belfry and hopefully we can keep it going this week."

Westwood said he was surprised the Americans split up Mickelson and Toms, who played well together (2-1-1) in four matches at The Belfry.

"But [Sutton] obviously is coming out with his two best straight away, Nos. 2 and 4 in the world," Westwood said of Woods-Mickelson. "I guess that speaks for itself."

All the eggs in one basket?

"I'm either going to get criticized or praised," Sutton said. "So be it. My pairing is down and I'm proud of it."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398



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