U.S. quickly behind 8 ball in Ryder Cup


SUTTON COLDFIELD, England - Tiger Woods lost both times he played, the United States dropped three of its first four matches on opening day, Sergio Garcia won twice and you figure the Ryder Cup is maybe some easygoing European vacation? Anything to declare?

Yes, a blowout.

Actually, it was beginning to look that way yesterday at The Belfry, but the U.S. team got some help from unexpected places (Stewart Cink-Jim Furyk), wrung out a crucial half-point from Phil Mickelson and David Toms after they were 3 down through 14, and by nightfall trailed by a little instead of a lot.

Europe still leads the U.S. team, 4 1/2 -3 1/2 , but it probably should have been by a lot more than that. And it seemed to be heading in that direction after Woods and Mark Calcavecchia were dropped, 2 and 1, by Garcia and Lee Westwood in the alternate-shot format.

"I thought I hit the ball well," Woods said. "I can't remember the last time we were up after the first day."

As it turned out, Woods' day was a washout. He also lost his morning better-ball match, paired with Paul Azinger, as the U.S. team fell behind, 3-1. "If anyone thought this was going to be easy, they were proven wrong," U.S. captain Curtis Strange said.

Strange used everyone he had, just as he said he would, and it was a wise decision. Hal Sutton might be in a slump, but he teamed with Scott Verplank to score a 2-and-1 decision over Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn in the first alternate-shot match of the afternoon session.

Garcia, who won both his matches paired with Westwood, pulled away from Woods and Calcavecchia beginning at the 11th hole. Woods and Calcavecchia had three bogeys in a four-hole stretch, and Woods also missed a two-foot putt for par at the 12th.

There were other bad moments for Woods, such as going without a birdie from the fifth to the 17th.

The way things were going, Strange was going to have trouble putting on a bright face at the end of the day.

But Cink, who had never before played in the Ryder Cup, and Furyk, who had never won a cup match with a partner, gave the U.S. team some momentum with a relatively easy, 3-and-2 victory over Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley.

Mickelson and Toms were sinking fast in their match against Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer. But Mickelson sank a three-footer to birdie the 15th, Mickelson holed another putt from the fringe to birdie the 16th and, after Langer drove into a bunker at the 17th, Montgomerie conceded a birdie putt to Mickelson to square the match.

Mickelson drove into the rough on No. 18, but Toms managed to get the ball onto the front of the green, about 120 feet from the pin. Langer missed the green with his second shot. Mickelson decided to play a chip shot instead of putting and sent the ball about 12 feet past the hole.

Montgomerie nearly holed his chip shot, but the ball rolled 10 feet past. Toms missed the putt for par, but so did Langer and the hole was halved with bogeys. "We would have liked to win that point. I think we really deserved it. But we're still in the lead," Garcia said.

Said Strange: "The half-point was huge for our psyche."

Getting off to a slow start isn't exactly a new approach for the U.S. team, which seems to begin every Ryder Cup in reverse.

If it hadn't been for a 1-up victory by Mickelson and Toms over Harrington and Niclas Fasth in yesterday morning's better-ball matches, the U.S. team would have come up empty before lunchtime. That hasn't happened since 1989, but it was a close call.

In fact, the Americans have won the better-ball format on opening day only once since 1979. With a 3-up lead through 12 holes yesterday, Mickelson and Toms looked like a sure thing, but it nearly turned out differently. Harrington's putt that spun out of the hole at the 18th would have halved the match and taken away the only U.S. victory.

"It was a little disappointing start," Love said.

Love was correct in his assessment, but he could have been talking about the match he played with David Duval against Westwood and Garcia. Love didn't make a single birdie as the Europeans won easily, 4-and-3.

Woods and Azinger had no trouble making birdies and shot a better-ball score of 63, only to lose, 1 up, to Clarke and Bjorn, who shot 62.

Said Clarke: "We were making birdies all over the place.'

Azinger said that with the score he and Woods shot, they'd win "95 of 100 matches," but this wasn't one of them.

'You just shrug your shoulders and say we did great, but they did better," he said.

Thomas Bonk is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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