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Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods will pair off against Englishmen Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher on Friday morning. (Getty Images)

Eubanks: Picking apart the pairings for Friday morning's crucial opening session

The pairings are out for Friday's morning fourball sessions, and Steve Eubanks breaks down each individual match. Both captains are taking a gamble or two, he says, and someone's going to look very smart.

By Steve Eubanks, Special to RYDERCUP.com

NEWPORT, Wales -- No Ryder Cup session is more important than the first. The side that wins early sets the tone, and puts the opponent on the defensive. Strategy changes once you’re down.  And while golfers in stroke play will prattle on about it being “early” and just wanting to put themselves “in contention for the final round,” a slow start in match-play, especially in a pressure-cooker setting like the Ryder Cup,  can send things south in a hurry. 

For that reason, European Captain Colin Montgomerie was smart to change the format, moving fourball back to Friday morning and foursomes (alternate shot) to the afternoon. Europe is 9-3 when it wins the Friday morning fourball session.  That was one of the reasons then U.S. Captain Paul Azinger flipped the format in 2008. “Getting momentum early is so important,” Zinger said. “You don’t want to be playing catch-up right out of the gate.” 

All of those factors made the pairings for the first session crucial to the rest of the week. 

MATCH ONE: The first match will be one of the best with the long-hitting duo of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson taking on Lee Westwood, just back from an almost two-month hiatus after a calf injury, and PGA Champion Martin Kaymer.

Westwood was a last-minute decision on Monty’s part. The pairing with Kaymer was never in question, but the order of play was not decided until Wednesday night. “It was going to be Graeme (McDowell) and Rory (McIlroy) or Lee and Martin to go first and second, and I fell that the honor to should be given to Lee Westwood to hit the first shot tomorrow morning for Europe,” Montgomerie said. 

A stalwart for Europe since his Ryder Cup debut at Valderrama in 1997, Westwood is 14-10-5 and has a 2 ½ to 1 ½ record in his four matches against Mickelson. Even with the injury, the Westwood/Kaymer team should be favored. 

But the Americans have to quietly love their chances in this one. Mickelson and Johnson are great friends with aggressive personalities. Phil is playing in his eighth consecutive Ryder Cup match (the first since Billy Casper to go eight straight without sitting) and this will be his 14th fourball match, the most of anyone on the team. 

“Dustin and I know we have a very tough team in Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer because Lee is one of the best players in the game and Martin just won a major championship,” Mickelson said. “Dustin and I wanted to get out off early. We enjoy playing first. And we enjoy the challenge of playing a very difficult European team.” 

Ryder Cup rookie Kaymer and Westwood, while getting along fine, are as disparate as two personalities can be: Kaymer the quiet German, and Westwood the gregarious Englishman.  “For me, as a rookie, it is great to have a strong and experienced player next to me tomorrow,” Kaymer said.

A barn-burner of an opener, but this is Team USA’s best shot at getting on the board early. 

MATCH TWO: This one is Europe’s to lose. U.S. Open Champion Graeme McDowell is playing with fellow Ulsterman and young phenom Rory McIlroy. They are taking on Stewart Cink, one of Corey Pavin’s captain’s picks with 4-7-4 overall Ryder Cup record, and rookie Matt Kuchar, who had nine top-10 finishes in 2010, but shot 5 over in The Tour Championship a week ago. 

Of course, Cink clawed his way back from three down in the opening session at Valhalla, and the hardest match to win is the one you are supposed to, so there could be an upset. “You can feed off the crowd a little bit,” Cink said. “If there is a negative crowd, you can feed off that.” 

But given McDowell’s knowledge and confidence on the Twenty Ten Course (he also won the Wales Open here last summer) and McIlroy’s talent, the Americans are massive underdogs in this one. 

MATCH THREE: More than a few eyebrows were raised when Captain Pavin announced that Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods would be going out third against Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher.  Among them was Colin Montgomerie. “I was expecting Tiger to go first or fourth,” Monty said. “I think Tiger being hidden is a different move. But, as know, every point is important wherever it might be.”  

That quote will filter back to Tiger, which is not what Poulter and Fisher want. Tiger certainly is behaving as if he has something to prove at this Ryder Cup, and he has been all business since arriving. 

“Looking forward to it,” Woods said in his typical succinct fashion after the opening ceremonies. “Steve and I have obviously had some success in the past and we’re looking forward to getting out there. The whole idea is to get a point, and that’s what we are going to try to do.”

This is the Team USA’s strongest morning pairing. Stricker has played well all year and, even though he didn’t win all year, Tiger showed signs of his old self in his last three events. Plus, Poulter seems to want it too much. In an event like this, the guy whose emotions get away from him is usually the one who ends up on the losing end. 

Take the Americans in this one.   

MATCH FOUR: A shocker from Pavin: he put two rookies, Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton, out as the anchor match in the morning, choosing to sit Jim Furyk, who won the $11.35 million FedExCup a week ago, and Hunter Mahan, the leading point getter for the U.S. Team in 2008.  “Four guys have to sit out every round,” Pavin said. (The other two are Zach Johnson and Pavin’s most controversial captain’s pick, Rickie Fowler.) 

As for having the rookies go out last, Pavin said, “Those guys are so excited to get out there and play. I really wanted to get them out in the morning to experience the Ryder Cup. I felt like waiting to play them that they would probably go crazy. They are just chomping at the bit to get out there.” 

Their opponents are no doubt chomping at the bit as well. Luke Donald was one birdie away from an $11 million payday last week, and Padraig Harrington is playing in his fifth Ryder Cup and considered a team leader. 

“I can honestly say to you that Luke and Padraig were not expecting that last game, which is an important game,” Montgomerie said. “Say we are down 2-1 and to go back 2-all or 2-1 up to get to 3-1. I did not expect Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington to be playing two rookies in the last match. I don’t think you guys did, either.” 

If Watson and Overton win, Pavin will look like a genius. But this is Europe’s point to lose.
 

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