Friday, September 17, 2004
Tiger, Phil fight two losing battles
By Wayne Drehs ESPN.com
BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- The ball just sat there, completely unaware of the heartbreak it had just caused, completely oblivious to everything that it meant.
Standing there was Tiger Woods, huddling with his caddy wondering what -- if anything -- he could do to save the hole and, subsequently, the match.
Not far away was Phil Mickelson, standing completely by himself and shaking his head at the disaster he had caused.
Phil and Tiger only led during eight of the 35 holes they played on Friday.
And then there was European captain Bernhard Langer, snaking his way through the gallery, brushing past Mickelson, finding the deeply buried ball under a pine tree, three feet from an out of bounds fence and smiling in approval.
This was the 18th hole. The match was all square. And the long-hitting Americans had an excellent chance at birdieing the longest 18th hole in Ryder Cup history. But Mickelson badly sliced the drive, slamming it off the fence and all but beating down the door to another European victory.
When it was all finished, the Americans walked away from Friday with the worst Opening Day performance in Ryder Cup history, trailing the Europeans 6½ points to 1½ points while the second- and fourth-ranked players in the world lost a three-shot lead in the afternoon and left Oakland Hills on Friday with zero points.
Afterwards, both Woods and Mickelson sped through a media interview area, their women in tow, declining to talk to reporters. And Sutton, his eyes seemingly still watery almost two hours after the matches came to an end, looked like a man who had just lost his life savings in Las Vegas. He felt like one too.
"How big a bet would you have made that they wouldn't have lost after they were three up?" Sutton said. "You could own me today if you would have taken that bet. I'd be broke."
The 18th hole was the culmination of a miserable afternoon for Woods and Mickelson, the pair that Hal Sutton hand-picked as his Ryder Cup dynamic duo. These were the guys that were supposed to get the Americans ahead. The guys who were supposed to get 40,000 fans screaming at the top of their lungs. The guys that Sutton specifically instructed to set the tone for the entire day.
They set the tone alright. Only problem was the message they sent was that the Europeans were better than they. At least today.
"When you put two superstars together like that, it's either good karma or bad karma. There's no gray area. It's either black or white," Sutton said. "And these guys went south in the middle of that round and it was pretty evident on both of their faces. It just didn't work out."
When the pairings were handed to him Thursday afternoon, Sutton said everything came together exactly he wanted. He planned on going to sleep Friday night after his team had jumped out to a comfortable lead. Instead, he's quickly becoming the Larry Brown of international golf.
His Dream Team is dead. The pairing that Sutton spent two years salivating over is no more. The captain announced after Friday's matches that Woods will play with Chris Riley Saturday morning, while Mickelson will sit. That's how badly the fourth-ranked player in the world struggled here Friday.
Nobody -- Sutton included -- had the answer why. But there were plenty of potential explanations. Like the much-hyped equipment switch, with Mickelson jumping from a Titleist to Callaway driver last week. Or the fact that Sutton instructed him to play with Woods' Nike ball during the afternoon's alternate shot format. Or the fact that Mickelson hadn't stepped foot on the Oakland Hills course since Tuesday, getting Wednesday off and using Thursday to toy around with Woods' Nike balls on the North Course.
"We'll all be left scratching our heads on that," Sutton said. "We'll all want the answers to that. But the most important person that's going to have to wonder about that is going to be Phil Mickelson.
"It's not going to cause us any grief in the morning because he's going to be cheering instead of playing."
Sutton hinted yet again after Friday's struggles that he wasn't pleased with Mickelson's decision to switch clubs last week, saying that it's something he never would have done.
"But I'm not in Phil Mickelson's shoes," Sutton said. "You know what, Phil Mickelson is capable of playing good golf with anything. That's what I'll say."
Not only did Mickelson blow the critical drive on the 18th, but he hit just four fairways total. And he blew numerous scoring chances. Like on the 11th, when Tiger unleashed a monster drive, leaving the ball just 112 yards from the pin and Mickelson's approach shot fell short and rolled down a hill in front of the green. The European tee shot went in the bunker, but Mickelson's blunder allowed the hole to be halved.
Mickelson missed birdie putts at 12 and 13. On 14, his tee shot sprayed errantly to the right, just in the front of the gallery. When Woods and caddie Steve Williams arrived, all Williams could do was shake his head.
"He's just not that consistent with it," said U.S. assistant captain Jackie Burke, a five-time player and one-time Ryder Cup captain, said of Mickelson. "These guys are more interested in balls and divots and things that have nothing to do with putting numbers up on the board."
Burke said the Americans' problems stem from the fact that they aren't familiar with team play in an individual sport. The Europeans, on the other hand, grow up with team golf, play it regularly and thrive in the "Us vs. Them" environment.
Nothing could have been more obvious on Friday, with the Europeans' top tag-team, Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, dominating Woods and Mickelson in the morning and then Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke overcoming a three-hole deficit to beat the two superstars in the afternoon.
One never needed to look at a scoreboard to see how Woods and Mickelson were playing. After a good shot, they walked side-by-side, Woods patting Mickelson on the back, giving him a knuckle-knock after a good shot and the two actually laughing and smiling. But after the 11th hole, when their three-shot lead disintegrated into a one-hole deficit in a span of six holes, the smiling and chitchat stopped. Woods pretty much did his thing. Mickelson did his. And that was that.
One would have thought their opponents, on the other hand, Westwood and Clarke, were at a Jerry Seinfeld concert. Constantly smiling, laughing. At one point, in the middle of play, Clarke even chomped on a lit stogie, while Woods stood stoically on the back of the green, his arms folded across his chest.
"I think Tiger was very frustrated," Sutton said. "I think he felt he was on the verge of getting something going, but it just didn't happen. They just weren't matching up good."
Phil made a birdie putt at 15. And on 17, he tied the match by leaving a long birdie putt a few inches from the hole. But that was followed by the disaster at 18, leaving the Americans in a position where Sutton says they need five points on Saturday or Sunday's singles matches will be moot.
His dream pairing ripped to shreds, Sutton spent an hour Friday night putting together his pairings for Saturday. And even then he wasn't sure about them. How could he be, after the one thing he was sure about fell apart Friday?
The only thing he did know? A stern lecture was in order at the team hotel.
"Oh yeah," he said. "We're going to have a team meeting. I might have to put that cowboy hat back on. This time I may get the reins out too. And make them wet."
Thanks in large part to that one errant ball.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.