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Dallas-area residents Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan were a force in 2008, but Mahan will need a new partner at Celtic Manor. (Getty Images)

Picking proper pairings is make-or-break task for every Ryder Cup captain

The key to winning Samuel Ryder's golden chalice, every captain knows, is putting together the right pairings. But, Craig Dolch notes, doing so correctly requires more magic than math.

By Craig Dolch, PGATOUR.COM Contributor

When it comes down to it, Ryder Cup captains have one task to perform after they’ve made their wild-card selections: Decide the pairings.

But what a job that is.

Finding the correct combination of partners is what usually leads to which team is drinking from Samuel Ryder’s gold chalice on Sunday night, that’s all. Because picking a bad partnership on the course – see Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at Oakland Hills in 2004 – is like selecting a poor spouse. Sooner or later, things are going to implode. And 18 holes can seem like a lifetime – if the losing team even makes it that far.

This is not an easy chore. Not only do you sometimes need different partners for the two types of matches (four-ball or “best ball,” and foursomes or “alternate-shot”), but the captain doesn’t have a lot of history to look at because the teams change so much every two years. European stalwart Lee Westwood, for instance, has had five different Ryder Cup partners – captain Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke, Nick Faldo, Sergio Garcia and Soren Hanson -- but none of them are on the team this year.

This isn’t like a Major League Baseball manager, who can usually look at reams of statistics when he decides what type of hitter/pitcher matchup he favors in a clutch situation. No, Ryder Cup captains have to rely on their feel, not previous history, to decide the pairings.

Still, Montgomerie must not have had a difficult time pairing his 12 players together for this week’s 38th Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales. Monty claimed last week that not only had he finalized his team’s pairings for the first day’s matches, he had already informed all 12 players. Never mind that was news to Luke Donald, the only European player who qualified for THE TOUR Championship at East Lake (and finished second).

In any event, let’s start with Pavin’s partners choices. Pavin is keeping his decisions close to his vest, but the obvious one appears to be the pairing of Tiger Woods-Steve Stricker, based on their 4-0 record in last year’s Presidents Cup. Of course, Pavin already has said there’s no guarantee Woods will play in all five matches, as he has done in all five of his previous Ryder Cups (Woods missed 2008 after undergoing knee surgery). But if Woods is playing – and you know he will be -- expect Stricker to become his 12th different partner in the Ryder Cup.

The next logical matchup is Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, who share so much in common. Both are big hitters, aggressive players and have experienced their share of heartbreak at major championships. Mickelson will be the perfect calming influence for the rookie Johnson, and they will make buckets of birdies. Whether you would keep them together for alternate shot is another matter.

Using former Ryder Cup stalwart (and captain) Lanny Wadkins credo that similarity in playing styles is a must, Stewart Cink and Zach Johnson would be a logical pairing. Both are low-key, hit it straight and make lots of putts. But they are 0-1 in their only pairing together. The same similarity-breeds-success theory goes for Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar, who always keep the ball in play and usually hit from the same spot in the fairway.

Former European powerhouse Bernhard Langer believes it’s important you pair friends with each other, because that will make them more at ease in the pressure-packed situation. That would reinforce the Stricker-Woods pairing, and also make a good argument for rookies Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler to be partners. Some believe, in fact, Fowler’s friendship with Watson and ability to come close to his prodigious length was a major factor in Pavin making Fowler somewhat of a surprise captain’s pick.

That leaves recently crowned FedExCup champion Jim Furyk and rookie Jeff Overton, which is not a forced fit because Furyk, who has played on the last seven Ryder Cups, can be a calming influence for the sometimes-jumpy Overton, who has struggled with his driving during the past month.

This is how I believe Pavin is leaning heading into the first day’s matches. Of course, once the action begins, then Pavin has to adjust based on who’s playing well, who’s playing poorly or who needs a rest (see Chris Riley at Oakland Hills in 2004).

As for the European pairings, let’s start with the layup pick – Edoardo Molinari and Francesco Molinari. Not only are they brothers, but the Italian stallions teamed up to win last year’s World Cup.

Another no-brainer team seems to be the Northern Ireland pairing of Rory McIlroy and U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell. Not only are they countrymen, but they’re also close friends and won’t have any problems understanding each other’s brogue. 

From here, the European pairings get murkier because Monty has three more rookies to spot, along with the uncertainty of a struggling Ryder Cup veteran, Padraig Harrington, and a recovering Westwood (he’s missed two months with a calf injury).

It’s unlikely Monty would want to put rookies Ross Fisher, Peter Hanson and PGA Champion Martin Kaymer on the same team, so they’d likely be split up. Look for Fisher to play with Poulter (both are Englishmen), Hanson to partner with Miguel Angel Jimenez and Kaymer to play with Harrington.

That leaves the formidable all-England pairing of Westwood and Donald to complete Monty’s side. Monty insists all 12 of his players will see action opening day, the better to have them ready for singles if he has to make changes on Day 2.

When it’s over, Pavin and Montgomerie will no doubt be praised or criticized for the pairings, which goes with the territory. This is simply not a case of “pick a pair, any pair.” Both will admit what proves smashing one day could be disastrous the next. Such is the nature of golf, especially in the white-knuckle competition of the Ryder Cup.
 

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