Sutton makes gutsy call in first pairing

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- When the cute pink sheets were finally handed out and the opening round pairings for the 35th Ryder Cup Matches were released Thursday afternoon, the first two names on the right column -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson --spoke volumes about U.S. captain Hal Sutton.

He doesn't care what people think.

Want to plaster a giant, red, white and blue target across his back? Fine. Want to tell him he's shoving all of his golf eggs into one not-so-big basket? Go ahead. Want to call him a fool? A genius? It all means nothing. He knows he's dragging you out of bed early Friday morning to see one of greatest pairings in match play history. And he doesn't care what you think.

"I'm either going to get criticized or praised over this," he said. "But my pairing is down. And I'm damn proud of it."

Woods and Mickelson have played in three previous Ryder Cups but not once has a captain put them together. It's like leading off an All-Star game with Bonds and Sosa. Throwing a double reverse halfback pass on the first play of the SEC title game. The country hasn't seen this sort of sports buzz this early in the morning, with a bagel in one hand and a Starbucks in the other, since the U.S. Soccer team advanced to the second round of the 2002 World Cup.

"I don't know how many people that first hole can hold tomorrow, but we'll find out," Sutton said.

It's all sort of fitting, in a way, because Sutton, a Louisiana native is captaining this team and talking trash like he's channeling Nick Saban himself. In the first match of the opening round of the biggest golf event out there, the 46-year-old captain is laying everything on the line. And he couldn't be more enthusiastic about his decision.

"It's the greatest pairing we've ever seen," he said. "These guys may go out there and shoot a 58."

Sutton said he's had the pairings in mind since the day he was named captain in October of 2002. He walked out of his meeting with the PGA and said, "This will be the first time that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson play together."

But for the most part, he kept it a secret. After Wednesday night's team dinner he pulled both players aside individually and told them they'd be playing together. Sutton said both players thanked him. And not just to be polite.

"You've got to look a guy like that in the eye when he says thank you and you can tell if it's sincere," Sutton said. "They boiled with the sincerity in their eyes. It was boiling. It wasn't lukewarm. It was boiling over the edges."

One by one Thursday morning, the American groups teed off on Oakland Hills's 10th hole, and ping by ping, nirvana inched closer to reality. As names were crossed off and numbers crunched, it became apparent that the only three players that had yet to tee off were Woods, Mickelson and Chris Riley. The gallery swelled. The anticipation built. Could it be? America's two most popular players in the same practice pairing?

And then there was this announcement, some fifteen minutes after the previous pairing had teed off: "Tiger Woods and Chris Riley are in the locker room. Phil Mickelson just pulled up. He's headed to the range and then he'll be out."

Only he never came back to the South Course. Instead, Mickelson went to the range and didn't come back. Woods and Riley teed off alone. Little did the fans know that less than 24 hours later, Woods and Mickelson would be together when it counted.

And little did they know that Mickelson was neither injured nor sick (a rumor quickly spread through the grounds that he had contracted food poisoning) he was actually on the North Course -- the one they're not playing the Ryder Cup on this week -- practicing with a sleeve of Tiger's Nike balls in the event that the duo would join forces in tomorrow afternoon's Foursome matches where two players alternate shots with the same ball.

"I know a few of you were worried about Phil, where he's been, what he's doing, but y'all didn't know what we were doing," Sutton said. "It's a damn shame we worked that out, isn't it? Confused everybody."

As secretive as Sutton was, the pairing was of little surprise to European captain Bernhard Langer. He planned for matchup, putting forth his best pairing -- Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington -- in the first match.

"I actually heard rumors somewhere down the road that this might happen," Langer said. "I don't know where it came from and it seemed like a reasonable idea, so why not? He's got two great players who make a lot of birdies."

Mickelson and Woods vs. Montgomerie and Harrington. One of the most anticipated starts -- and certainly one of the largest galleries -- this event has ever seen. While Sutton is hell bent on getting the American team off to a strong start on home soil, that desire doesn't come without risk. And the Europeans know it.

"There is no reason we can't be confident," Montgomerie said. "We can win that game. And if we do, it would have a dramatic effect on the day. And if we do win that game, it will have a dramatic effect on the rest of the day. It would be huge for the European team that we could cope with their top two."

Sutton, though, as one might imagine, isn't exactly knocking his knees in fear. He seems to have an answer for everything.

"I can't imagine anything that would aggravate those two guys more than to get beat," he said. "So, man, there would be some hell to pay if that happens."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.