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Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Pondering possible U.S. pairings


NEWPORT, Wales -- Two years ago, Paul Azinger changed the game.

Whereas the role of Ryder Cup captain had for years mirrored that of first-base coach -- pat on the butt for a job well done, quick pep talk for any struggles -- the previous U.S. skipper implemented a pod system adopted from Navy SEALS, which grouped players based on similar philosophical and emotional attributes.

The process helped earn the team a victory at Valhalla, but by all accounts current skipper Corey Pavin has chosen not to institute a similar format.

That doesn't mean there won't be plenty of thought put into pairings for the four opening sessions, each of which features four matches. Pavin will likely attempt to place players together based on chemistry -- maybe even fulfilling their own requests -- and there's nothing wrong with that.

If Pavin really wants to find the right formula, though -- and this goes for his European counterpart Colin Montgomerie, too -- he should pair them based on a rule which seems so simple that it's shocking more captains don't follow it.

Similar players for foursomes matches; opposite players for four-ball matches.

For the uninitiated, "foursomes" is Ryder Cup-speak for the alternate shot format. Meanwhile, in "four-ball" each player plays his own ball and finishes the hole, and the winner of the hole is the team that has the individual with the lowest score.

Having like-minded players competing together in foursomes gives each a level of comfortability, as they're able to strategize their way around the course in a similar manner. By contrast, it's advantageous to pair different players -- say, a big hitter with a fairways-and-greens type -- in four-ball, so the latter can keep it in play and make pars, leaving the former to be aggressive and go for birdies.

As it turns out, Pavin's roster is perfectly suited to play by this strategy.

In Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Jeff Overton, the captain has four bombers; in Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker, Zach Johnson and Jim Furyk, he has four steady guys; and in Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler, Stewart Cink and Hunter Mahan, he has four hybrids -- players who can be paired with those from either group or one of their own.

Don't believe it? Let's evaluate their driving statistics from the current season, showing their PGA Tour ranks in distance and accuracy, with team rank in parenthesis in the table to the left.

Not surprisingly, nearly every player's driving distance stats are inversely proportional to his accuracy numbers. In layman's terms, no one bombs it into the fairway very often nor does anyone drive it short and crooked.

Based on these findings, someone from the group of Watson, D. Johnson, Mickelson and Overton should ideally be paired in four-ball with someone from the Kuchar, Stricker, Z. Johnson, Furyk quartet, though the four hybrids -- Woods, Fowler, Cink and Mahan -- can each fit into either of those roles, as well.

Meanwhile, those like-minded players should be kept together in the foursomes portion of the proceedings.

Of course, let's not allow the stats to cloud our view of reality, either.

While Woods -- as one of those hybrid-type players, though really bordering on being part of the bomber group -- could theoretically be paired with Mickelson in both formats, they've been down that road before to dreadful results. On the other hand, Woods has fared well when paired with Stricker -- they went undefeated together at last year's Presidents Cup -- meaning that they could again make for a legitimate duo, especially in four-ball, considering Tiger is leaning toward big hitter allocation.

Other pairings appear to be coming to fruition, as well. Mickelson will likely play with Dustin Johnson and Fowler might form a rookie alliance with Watson. In some instances, these teams fit this rule, but others could be a recipe for disaster. While chemistry and amiability are meaningful, it's also important to ensure players are technically compatible in each format.

Considering Azinger's complex pod system of two years ago, this strategy for pairing players almost seems too simplistic. And yet, for Pavin -- who has likely spent months poring over the facts and figures of his team members -- following these logical rules could be the key to unlocking early success during the first four sessions of this week's Ryder Cup.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.