Has Woods found his ideal partner?

IT WAS in the gloom of a cool October Sunday five years ago when Tiger Woods stood to the back of the 18th green at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club and watched his American teammates celebrate a Presidents Cup win over the International Team.

Though the bulk of the good cheer was being led by the likes of Chris DiMarco and Fred Funk, Woods had provided much of the muscle. The smile was proof of that and as he basked in the joy of the moment, Woods pushed his hat back, smiled brilliantly, and said, “I’ve finally found a partner.”

He meant the man to whom he stood next to, Jim Furyk. They had gone undefeated in three matches at RTJ and thus had this team business finally turned out in a positive way for Woods. Prior to 2005, Woods had been at the focal point of seven team competitions and there had been just two victories, the 1999 Ryder Cup and the 2000 Presidents Cup.

What had annually gnawed at Woods was the imbalance of it all. Because he was the world’s top individual player, he was assigned a huge chunk of the blame for the failures of the American team. Forget that in four-ball and foursomes, it is sometimes too much for one man to carry the load, Woods was an easy target and media members unloaded.

Realising it was a fruitless battle, that his inferior record in these cups – be it Ryder or Presidents – was a difficult thing to defend, Woods kept mostly quiet. But on those occasions when he would find a sympathetic ear in the press, Woods suggested he would be helped greatly by an allegiance to a formula that Europeans had embraced for years. That is, find him a steady partner and keep him there.

On the eve of the 2005 Presidents Cup, what was fresh on everyone’s mind was the complete disaster of the Woods pairing with Phil Mickelson at the previous year’s Ryder Cup. Ranked second and fourth in the world at the time, Woods and Mickelson were America’s best two players, the strongest personalities, and it was hoped by US captain Hal Sutton that they’d melt together into an unbeatable team.

Instead, they got thumped badly, losing to Pádraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie in fourball and by Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood in foursomes.

Though everyone in red, white, and blue played poorly in an embarrassing 18½-9½ defeat, what resonates still is the way Woods and Mickelson were thumped. So when captain Jack Nicklaus at the Presidents Cup in 2005 said he was pondering a repeat of the pairing because he thought it would be good for the event, a stunned US player shook his head. “You can do that,” he said, “or you can try and win the Ryder Cup.”

Instead, Woods lobbied for Furyk, got him three times, and helped the US win, 18½-15½. So as he stood in the middle of that American celebration at RTJ, Woods sensed that a trend had perhaps started, that much as the Europeans had found success with established pairings (Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal being the most famous), American captains realised it was best to anchor the team around their best player and a steady partner. Woods and Furyk were paired four times at the 2006 Ryder Cup (2-2) and twice more at the 2007 Presidents Cup (1-1), but after missing the 2008 Ryder Cup because of knee surgery, the game’s best player made the blueprint pay off in massive dividends in 2009 – alongside Steve Stricker each time, he went 4-0 to spearhead a rousing triumph.

That is why not an ounce of surprise was expended when US captain Corey Pavin revealed yesterday that Woods and Stricker would be out in the third match in the opening session of fourball when the 38th Ryder Cup Matches finally – and most blessedly after an excruciatingly painful build-up – gets under way this morning.

It is not only the sensible thing for Pavin to do, it is the only way this US team can possibly win this competition. Underdogs, and justifiably so, the Americans’ only hope is to get serious production from Woods, and given that he’s been off form for most of the year, that is not the sure thing that it usually has been.

What could elicit some firepower from Woods is a comfortable pairing, and Stricker provides just that. Long-time friends who for years shared the same agent within the IMG empire – Mark Steinberg – Woods and Stricker complement each other beautifully.

The emphasis will be put on the fact that Woods is in the third match, not the first (even Colin Montgomerie suggested that Pavin “hid” Woods), but ignore that trivial point. The matter of greater importance is this: After years of bouncing from partner to partner (he had 11 different ones in his first five Ryder Cups), Woods has been extended a blueprint for success that worked well for Ballesteros and Olazabal, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam, and Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.

Now, to see if it works for Woods and the Americans.

Jim McCabe is a senior staff writer with Golf Week magazine

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