Taking one Hal of a risk

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:13 AM ET

The No. 1 rule of doctors and Ryder Cup captains is "Do no harm." It's way too early to tell if Hal Sutton is guilty of golf malpractice but he's flirting with it. History tells us that the captain can never win the Ryder Cup but he sure can lose it.

Sutton, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, has imported some controversial concepts into his role this year. He has kept most of his players in the dark about pairings, which has rubbed some of the players the wrong way. He has decided to leave certain pairings, once established, together come hell or high water. He has tipped his hand in a way that may give the Europeans a tactical advantage.

And, most controversially, he has decided to throw his two best players together, making one super team that might be able to win four points, but at what risk?

On the day he was named Ryder Cup captain two years ago, Sutton left the room with one thought on his mind.

"I walked out the door and said to myself 'Well, this will be the first time that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson ever play together.' "

This morning, that long-standing determination will become reality. The two best American players by anyone's reckoning will be teamed in the opening best-ball match, limiting the potential points haul for the both of them.

Sutton also made it clear he intends to use Woods and Mickelson in foursomes, or alternate shots. He didn't actually say they will be paired, but he did let the world know that Mickelson spent yesterday practising with Woods' Nike golf ball. And the only reason he would have done that is if he's going to play alternate shots with Woods this afternoon.

"I gave Phil two sleeves of Tiger's balls and said 'You might ought to go out there and get ready to use this ball,' " Sutton said.

Now, in the currency of Ryder Cup intelligence, this is important information for his European counterpart, Bernhard Langer, who can now tailor his tactics to best take advantage of Sutton's desire to put all his eggs in one basket.

Woods and Mickelson are powerful enough players on their good days to carry a pairing on their own. But by patching them together it could be a case of overkill. No matter if they both play brilliantly this morning, all they can come back with is one point. Given different partners, they might be able to come back with two points.

But what about the worst-case scenario? What if the Mickelson/Woods marriage fails? What, gulp, if they actually lose to Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington today?

In that eventuality, it will have given the Europeans a huge psychological lift while at the same time doing damage to the Americans' psyche. Talk about your major backfire.

When the differences between the American and European approaches to the Ryder Cup are discussed, the word chemistry often pops up. The Europeans feel they are a team in every sense. The Americans talk a good game but often the whole of their effort is less than the sum of their parts.

Woods and Mickelson are not good friends. They have only a grudging respect for each other and little more. It could be a potentially lethal combination, especially in alternate shots if one or the other or both starts leaving his partner in some dodgy spots.

To any and all of those arguments, Sutton has responded with his version of "I've got to be me."

"I will be decisive and I will be assertive with what I think is in the best interests of the team," he said. "That doesn't mean I'm going to be a dictator and not listen to reason but, in the end, it's my call. I'm the one who's going to take the flak."

A Ryder Cup captain's productive existence is about as long as that of a butterfly. He has a very short time to make an impression that will stick with him the rest of his life.

Hal Sutton has, more than most of his predecessors, gone out of his way to put his neck on the line. His strategy may turn out to be brilliant. Or it may be fatally flawed. We'll know his enduring legacy by Sunday evening.


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