Couples succeeds with different strategies for his hard-to-match superstars

Fred Couples, Presidents Cup
Robert Beck/SI
Fred Couples, center, found the right playing partners this week for his two best players.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - So far, so good for U.S. skipper Fred Couples. He has tried two opposing strategies in managing the top two players in the world, and both have worked almost flawlessly.

This week Couples has treated Phil Mickelson like the Type O-negative of golfers, the universal donor. Through four sessions of the Presidents Cup at Harding Park, he partnered Mickelson with Anthony Kim, Justin Leonard and Sean O'Hair. Mickelson and his partners won convincingly in the first three sessions; none of the matches went past the 16th hole. On Saturday afternoon, he and O'Hair halved with Vijay Singh and Tim Clark.

Mickelson would have had a chance with Saturday's ceremonial coin-flipper, Ken Venturi, or so it seemed.

Couples is treating Tiger Woods, on the other hand, like a very rare type who fits perfectly with just one player, Steve Stricker.

After Woods and Stricker won, 6 and 4, over Ryo Ishikawa and Geoff Ogilvy on Thursday, Couples kept them together rather than break up a good thing and allow other players to soak up the magic of Tiger. "Stricker thought they would be a great best-ball team," Couples said, "and Tiger thought they would be a great alternate-shot team."

They've been great at both, posting a 5-and-3 win over Ogilvy and Angel Cabrera in best-ball Friday, and rallying for a 1-up comeback over Clark and Mike Weir in alternate shot Saturday morning. They pushed their record to 4-0 with a thumping of Ryo Ishikawa and Y.E. Yang in the afternoon.

"Strick" and "Tig" played so much together in the FedEx Cup and are so close that their partnership may have seemed like a natural fit. But friendship doesn't always translate. Woods and pal Mark O'Meara had a 1-2-0 Ryder Cup record.

Ironically for Woods and Mickelson, the greatest American players of their generation, it's been hard for them to find success in team events. This Presidents Cup has been a reversal of fortune. Phil's combined four-ball and foursome record is 7-10-6 for the Ryder Cup and, before this year,10-10-6 for the Presidents Cup; Tiger's record is 7-12-1 and 10-9-1. And they were terrible together at the 2004 Ryder Cup, going 0-2 as the Americans lost, 18 1/2 - 9 1/2.

Such are the factors to consider when making up four-ball and foursomes duos: formats (alternate-shot, best-ball), history, egos and personalities. The process can make or break a captain, and can be the invisible X-factor in who wins and loses.

Couples, who last partnered with Woods in a 4-and-3 loss to Adam Scott and Retief Goosen in the '05 Presidents Cup, knows it's been hard to find a suitable partner for Tiger — he's had 16 different ones in Ryder and Presidents Cups. At the 1999 Ryder Cup, Woods did better with Steve Pate (a win, a loss) than David Duval (0-1), which defies logic. Who can blame Couples for sticking with Stricker?

Other matchmaking strategies include marrying the wily veteran with the young, unpredictable phenom (Stewart Cink and Hunter Mahan), and the power player with the position player.

Then again, sometimes you've got to break the rules, like the one that says to never break up a winning team. Sensing that Mickelson is so hot he could get a win or at least a halve with most pros, Couples and his assistant, Jay Haas, let the lefthander's magic rub off on O'Hair and Leonard, who needed a pick-me-up.

(In retrospect, Couples and Haas might have been smarter to pair Mickelson with the unsteady Lucas Glover on Saturday afternoon, not O'Hair.)

International captain Greg Norman and assistant Frank Nobilo have shined, as well, one reason the matches remained relatively competitive. Their masterstroke was pairing Asian sensations Ishikawa, 18, and Yang, even though the former is from Japan and the latter South Korea.

"They enjoy playing with each other, simple as that," Norman said, but if it were so simple they would have been together from the start.

Ishikawa and Ogilvy lost badly on Thursday, while Yang and Retief Goosen halved their match. On Friday, they found each other and clicked, dusting O'Hair and Kenny Perry, 4 and 3, before taking out Zach Johnson and Perry, 3 and 2, on Saturday morning. (They couldn't overcome the unstoppable Woods and Stricker on Saturday afternoon, losing 4 and 2.)

"I'm not able to speak Korean, and I'm not able to speak English," Ishikawa said, "so Y.E. has been using a lot of Japanese, and we have been able to communicate great."

Ryo said Y.E. has been "like an older brother," and while the pairing could have backfired, we may someday see them as the Seve Ballesteros/Jose Maria Olazabal of the Presidents Cup.

Stricker is 42, making it unlikely that he and Woods will form a long partnership. Or maybe they will. Every partnership is a roll of the dice, and good captains know they'll make mistakes. They just hope to make one more right move than wrong, and to break up winners before they become a drag.

We'll see how long Woods and Stricker last. Davis Love III looked like the right match for Woods when they went 2-0 at the 2002 Ryder Cup, but they lost together two years later.

Woods and Jim Furyk were a nice fit when they went 2-0-1 in the 2005 Presidents Cup, and copped two Ws at the '07 Ryder. But it seems they've quietly parted, like Norman and Chris Evert.

That's the other thing about pairings. They're a bit like marriages — complicated.

 

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