US finds a comfort zone at Ryder Cup with Woods-Stricker pairing and leads Europe by 2 points

By Paul Newberry, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010

Troubled year for Tiger gets better at Ryder Cup

NEWPORT, Wales — A troubled year for Tiger Woods has gotten a whole lot better at the Ryder Cup.

Teaming with Steve Stricker in what has become a formidable duo, Woods helped the Americans build a two-point lead over Europe on a busy Saturday at Celtic Manor.

After a seven-hour rain delay on the opening day threw the schedule out of whack, Woods and Stricker returned on a chilly morning to finish off a 2-up win over Ross Fisher and Ian Poulter in fourball. After a quick break, it was right back to the first tee for an alternate-shot match with Miguel Angel Jimenez and Peter Hanson.

That one was no contest. With Woods hitting pinpoint irons and Stricker making all the putts, the Americans romped to a 4-and-3 win.

The Americans also got plenty of key shots out of their Georgia Tech pairing, Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar. The duo squandered a lead in fourballs but held on for a half-point against Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell during the rain-delayed morning matches.

The teams faced each other again in alternate shot, and this time it was the Americans taking a full point when Rory McIlroy’s game collapsed over the final two holes. First, the 21-year-old McIlroy missed a 6-foot putt at No. 17 after Cink had holed a 30-foot birdie. Then, with an easy wedge over the water at 18, McIlroy watched his ball slide off the green into a back bunker, ensuring the U.S. a 6-4 lead heading into the third session.

Woods and Stricker were the only players to earn maximum points over the first two rounds, a heartening development for an American team trying to successfully defend the Cup for the first time since 1993.

In a sport individual at its core, Woods has struggled to find a partner he could be comfortable with in this team setting. He’s been paired with 11 other players in the Ryder Cup, including that ill-fated attempt at teaming with rival Phil Mickelson in 2004, but all it produced was a 7-12-1 mark — the major blemish on Woods’ career record.

Then, at last year’s Presidents Cup, Woods and Stricker were paired. They won all four of their matches, the first team in 30 years to do that in a major team competition.

Woods had finally found his man.

“His stroke is so good,” Woods said of his new BFF. “It’s fun to watch him. He’s got that ‘go-in’ look.”

The world’s top-ranked player picked a good time for his first 2-0 start at a Ryder Cup. Not only did he boost the Americans’ chances of keeping the trophy they won without him at Valhalla two years ago, he took some of the sting out of the troubles that began nearly a year ago.

His marriage and reputation crumbled with the revelation of numerous affairs, and he returned from a five-month layoff without his usual dominance on the course. He went winless in the majors this year — he even failed to win a tournament of any kind — and is in danger of losing his No. 1 ranking.

But he’s smiling again in Wales.

“We’re comfortable around one another. Our games complement each other nicely,” Stricker said. “He hit some unbelievable iron shots and, fortunately, I’ve been hitting some putts.”

The opening fourballs finished nearly 24 hours behind schedule because of Friday’s torrential rains, which led to a delay of more than seven hours. The conditions were much better Saturday, which warmed up nicely with plenty of sunshine and just a brief shower.

But the players faced a couple of grueling sunrise-to-sundown days with a mishmash of a schedule that officials rigged up in hopes of avoiding the first Monday finish in Ryder Cup history. While matches were finishing on one side of the course, others were getting started at the amphitheater-style stadium at No. 1.

After completing the fourballs and getting in revised second sessions composed of six alternate-shot matches, the players headed back out again for two alternate-shot games and the four remaining fourball matches. There was no chance of finishing those matches before nightfall, requiring another early morning start Sunday.

If all goes according to plan and the forecasted rain isn’t too heavy, the 12 singles matches will be played Sunday afternoon and someone will get the Cup — either the Americans, who need 14 points to keep it, or the Europeans, who must win at least 14½ to get it back.

“We’re pumped,” Cink said. “The Ryder Cup brings out the most energy in golf. We’re all riding the wave. We won’t be tired until we get to the dinner table tonight.”

The Americans got off to a good start, leading 2½-1½ after fourballs, and extended their margin in the afternoon. Only twice since the current U.S.-vs.-Europe format began in 1979 has a team that won the opening session gone on to lose.

Lee Westwood and PGA champion Martin Kaymer teamed up to give the Europeans 1½ points, beating Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson 3-and-2 in fourballs but missing a chance to add another full point in alternate shot.

Kaymer missed a 12-footer to win the match at No. 17, then left a wedge about 20 feet from the flag at the final hole. Jim Furyk knocked his approach to 4 feet, Westwood missed the Europeans’ birdie try and 21-year-old Rickie Fowler made the Americans’ to halve the point.

The Americans also got an unexpected point out of Jeff Overton and Bubba Watson, who romped to a 3-and-2 win in fourballs over heavily favored Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington.

“It’s pretty awesome out here,” Overton said.

But Donald switched partners in the afternoon, teaming with Ian Poulter for a 2-and-1 win over the American rookies. Donald stuck his tee shot at the par-3 17th to 2½ feet, and Poulter tapped it in to win a match that was close all the way. Donald improved his Ryder Cup record to 5-1-1 in team play.

But Italians Francesco and Edoardo Molinari, the first brother duo to play at the Ryder Cup since 1963, lost the final two holes to Zach Johnson and Hunter Mahan after rallying to square the match at the 16th.

“It’s very disappointing when you’re so close,” Francesco said. “It’s hard to go away with not even a half-point.”

The biggest disappointment for the Americans was the play of Mickelson and Johnson, who never got as far as the 17th hole in their two matches. They also lost 3-and-2 to Harrington and Ross Fisher in alternate shot, prompting captain Corey Pavin to break up that pairing for the third session.

Mickelson switched to play with Fowler in fourballs, while Johnson teamed with Furyk.

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