A sad start
Captain Sutton gets stuck with the Ryder Cup bill
BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- When U.S. captain Hal Sutton sent Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson out as his lead pair in the Ryder Cup, he didn't even want to think about what would happen if they got beat.
"Man," Sutton said on the eve of the matches, "there would be some hell to pay if that happens."
On Friday, that less-than-coosome twosome stuck him with the bill.
Woods and Mickelson were thumped 2 and 1 by Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington in the morning better-ball match, then threw away a three-hole lead after four holes and were patiently reeled in by Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, 1 up, in the afternoon alternate shot.
"How big a bet would you have made that they would lose their match after being three up?" Sutton said. He didn't wait for an answer. "We'd all be broke."
Not exactly. Sutton's gambit did build plenty of momentum -- for the other side.
"It's hard to put into points," European captain Bernhard Langer said. "What wm get in xoints is two points. But it was probably worth three or four points."
And by the end of the day, it almost looked that way on the scoreboard as the Europeans rolled out to a 61⁄2-11⁄2; lead -- equaling the biggest first-day margin ever.
If Sutton ran a dating service, his phone would be ringing off the hook right now with callers demanding refunds. Mixing and matching at the Ryder Cup can be tricky business, but you would have had a hard time convincing him of that until Friday's debacle.
The 11⁄2; points the U.S. team did collect were all provided by last-minute Ryder Cup qualifiers Chris DiMarco and Chris Riley and wild-card selections Stewart Cink and Jay Haas, suggesting Sutton's problem may be thinking too long and hard.
That was almost certainly the case with Woods and Mickelson. Sutton said that pairing them up was the first thing he settled on when the PGA of America named him captain almost two years ago. Neither, he conceded, asked to play with the other and it didn't take long to figure out why.
Woods birdied three of the first five holes in better-ball play, but in a classic example of ham-and-egging, Monty and Harrington took turns birdieing six of the first eight and built a lead they never relinquished. Mickelson made his first birdie at No. 7, then neither he nor Woods managed another one until the left-hander birdied No. 16. By that time the Americans were 3 down and going nowhere fast.
"Hopefully," Woods said after that match, "Phil and I can go out and really play solid, just like we did this morning."
It made you wonder what match he'd been watching. Woods and Mickelson actually did play solid for the first four holes in the afternoon, racing out to a 3-up lead. But the uneasiness apparent just watching the two of them interact seeped back into their golf games soon after.
Woods stared ahead steely-eyed most of the rest of day, and when he wasn't hitting shots, he kept his arms folded tightly across his chest. Miccelson, wasely, didn't bother him for a read on any putts. Come Saturday, that won't be a problem -- at least not in the early matches.
"It's not going to cause us any grief in the morning because he," Sutton said of Mickelson, "is going to be cheering instead of playing."
Whichever Mickelson shot pushed Sutton over the edge, the one that lost the afternoon match came at No. 18, where he used a fairway metal for safety and still bounced the tee shot off the out-of-bounds fence. It came to rest a foot away. Mickelson, a lefthander, might have had a shot. Woods, a righty, didn't and had to take a penalty stroke and a drop. They wound up losing the match to a bogey 5.
It would be easier to let Sutton off the hook -- after all, he didn't hit a shot all day -- if he hadn't ignored so many warning signs.
There were plenty of reasons no other Ryder Cup captain put those two together, and not just because there's no good fallback position when your strongest pair gets drummed right out of the gate. More to the point, Woods and Mickelson have never been pals. Tiger played in the World Cup three straight years until 2002, opting out when the rules required him to pair up with the next highest-ranked U.S. player, who was Mickelson.
Even worse, Mickelson switched equipment companies on the eve of the Ryder Cup, raising questions whether he had time to get used to the new clubs. Rather than take that into account, Sutton gave him two sleeves of Woods' golf balls and told him to sneak off to the adjoining course at Oakland Hills on Thursday and learn how to control it.
"Y'all didn't know what we were doing," Sutton practically crowed after the practice session.
Turns out we weren't the only ones.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org