Part of the success of the partnership between Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal can be chalked up to their personal rapport. (Getty Images)

There is no rule of thumb when it comes to telling who can succeed with whom

The chemistry required to find a dynamic duo that will perform in tandem is at best experimental and at worst highly combustible. Some pairings have proved over time that the sum can be greater than the parts; the question is how.

By Craig Dolch, Special to

Trying to find the correct Ryder Cup pairing can be like searching for a perfect marriage. In both cases, you don’t know if it’s going to work until you’ve been through “for better or for worse.” At least until the match ends.

There’s no single explanation as to why some of the partnerships of the world’s greatest players have blown up before they ever reached the turn. Or understanding why some lesserknowns can resemble Hall of Famers when they’re paired together.

Talk to many of the players who have been so intimately involved with the elusive nuances of this biennial contest and it seems there isn’t one rule of thumb that can be pointed to when it comes to pairing up talented players.

Who would have suspected, for instance, that Arnold Palmer would mesh so perfectly with non-marquee professionals such as Gardner Dickinson and Dow Finsterwald in Ryder Cup play, while Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson -- clearly the world’s two best players at the time of the 2004 Ryder Cup -- lost both of their opening-day matches that fueled the Europeans’ biggest ever rout against the Americans on U.S. soil?

Palmer and Dickinson, who did win seven PGA Tour titles, hold the overall Ryder Cup record for the most wins (five) without a loss while the Jack Nicklaus-Tom Watson pairing is a step behind at 4-0. Finsterwald never played with Palmer until the last of his four Ryder Cups, but they looked as if they had been playing together their whole lives (which, outside of competition, they had). They won their two matches in 1963 by a combined margin of eight holes.

By comparison, The King was paired with fellow legend Nicklaus just three times. They won their first two matches, lost their third and never played together again.

“To me, the biggest thing is the relationship between the guys,” Palmer said. “I had played a lot with Dow and Gardner over the years. Both guys were very consistent -- knock it on the green and two-putt -- so I could go for the birdies. That’s what I look for: One guy who would make a lot of birdies and the other who would make a lot of pars.”

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson (Getty Images)
Palmer should know. He is still the leading American winner of matches in the Ryder Cup and most of his 22 victories came when he was operating in harness with a teammate. Indeed, Palmer shares the record (with Lanny Wadkins) for the most four-ball wins (nine) and the most foursome wins (seven) in U.S. history.

Wadkins did his best work with an unsuspected accomplice, Larry Nelson. The fiery Wadkins and the laid-back Nelson were as snug a fit as a new golf glove over your hand. They went 4-0 as teammates -- a Grand Slam of sorts -- at the 1979 Ryder Cup at The Greenbrier. What’s more, they beat the vaunted Spanish duo of Seve Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido, making their debuts in the first pan-European team, in three of those matches.

“I can promise you that never happened before,” Wadkins said, “and it will probably never happen again.”

Having played in eight Ryder Cups, Wadkins laughs that he has played with just about everyone as partners. He said he only didn’t seem to mesh with two: Fred Couples (who hit the ball much farther than him) and Tom Kite (“We had grown up trying to beat each other, so we never made good partners.”)

“What makes great pairings are guys who play very similar,” Wadkins said. “It doesn’t matter if their games are too similar. But I don’t think it hurts to have one personality that’s dominant, a take-charge guy, while the other one is more on the quiet side.”

While the Palmer-Dickinson pairing went undefeated, easily the most prolifically successful Ryder Cup pairing has been the Spanish duo of Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. They went 11-2-2 over the four Ryder Cups they played together with each other, being sent out as partners at the first 15 opportunities before Ballesteros was rested for the final doubles matches at The Belfry in 1993.

The next-closest team has just six wins -- Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood were 6-2-1 as a duo. And besides the Palmer-Dickinson combo, just four teams have won five matches: Langer and Colin Montgomerie (5-1-1), Sir Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam (5-3-2), Bernard Gallagher and Brian Barnes (5-4-1), and Peter Alliss and Christy O’Connor Sr. (5-6-1). Not far behind them comes Westwood and Sergio Garcia -- a pairing likely to reform at future Ryder Cups -- at 4-1-2.

In many respects, the phlegmatic Westwood is the ideal partner, having also achieved two wins out of four matches with Faldo in 1997, two foursomes halves in tandem with Montgomerie in 2006, and even a four-ball half with Denmark’s Soren Hansen against J.B. Holmes and Boo Weekley at Valhalla two years ago. The experience, one day, should make him the ideal Captain.

“I’ve played under lots of different Captains, I think Monty will be the seventh,” says Westwood. “I’ve got a lot of experience playing in the Ryder Cup, and a lot of experience of different Captains and the way they’ve all done it. I should be able to look back and know what to do and what not to do. Hopefully one day I’ll get the chance to do that.”

Langer, who ranks second to Faldo among Europeans for the most Ryder Cup appearances (10), the most matches played (42), the most points won (24) and the most matches won (21), agrees with Palmer that it all comes down to personalities in this highly pressurized competition.

“You have to play your own game,” Langer said. “But I think it helps if you are paired with someone you enjoy playing with, someone you can talk to during the round. We can all play the game at a high level otherwise we wouldn’t be on the team. So why not make the players as comfortable as they can be with each other on the course?”

“I think that’s one of the reasons Seve and Jose Maria were so successful, as were Darren and Lee -- because they were such close friends, they were very much at ease playing together.”

Watson believes it also doesn’t hurt when you’re paired with a legend, as he was with Nicklaus during those four wins. “Let me tell you, it wasn’t bad being paired with the world’s best player. That took some pressure off your game,” Watson said. “I don’t think there’s any secret ingredient. The main thing is you have to be playing well going into the week. If the Captain has a bunch of guys who are playing well, he just lets them play.”

Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson (Getty Images)
When asked if he ever changed his game during the Ryder Cup depending upon his partner, Watson became almost defiant.

“Never,” he said. “Never. Never. Never. It doesn’t happen. You can only play the way you play the game. About all your partner can do is help you line up putts and maybe ask him what he thinks about hitting a certain iron. For the most part, you have to play your game. The way I looked at it was that I’m out there doing my job.”

At the 2004 Ryder Cup, just days before U.S. Captain Hal Sutton made the ill-fated pairing of Woods and Mickelson, Woods -- who has an overall 10-13-2 record in five Ryder Cups -- was asked what he saw in a perfect partner.

“Fairways, greens and make every putt,” Woods said, provoking laughter. “It doesn’t really matter. I’ve played with all different types of players, guys who have been just as fiery as I am, like Steve Pate [at Brookline]; guys who are pretty mellow, like John Huston [with whom he played in the 1998 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne]; guys who don’t really show any emotion like David [Duval, also at Brookline].

“I’ve played with them all. As long as you’re playing well, it’s great. If you go out there and you’re not playing well, both of us, it makes for a very -- well, long day, but short match.”

Sutton was heavily criticized for being the first U.S. Captain to pair Woods and Mickelson, but Watson, who captained the winning U.S. Team in 1993, defended his actions, despite the disastrous results.

“Too much is made of all that … ‘This player isn’t sure he wants to play with this player because they’re not the best of friends’,” Watson said. “Grow up, people!”

Of course, the pairings become more relevant in the alternate-shot format because they have to use the same ball and one player is constantly leaving his partner in either a good or bad spot. Steve Stricker, who will be playing in his second Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor and went 4-0 with Woods at last year’s Presidents Cup, says he makes just one request with foursomes.

“It’s difficult if you’re playing with a shorter hitter,” Stricker said. “It’s always nicer if you’re playing with a longer hitter. But if you’re playing with a short hitter, you’ve got to hit shots that you haven’t been practicing because you’re a little farther back.”

The last word, as ever in golfing discussions, should perhaps rest with Palmer, who insists that friendship, not strategy, usually makes the difference whenever Samuel Ryder’s Cup is contested. “It’s all about compatibility,” he said. “If you’re all in the same, good frame of mind; that is what matters most.”

This story appears courtesy of the 2010 Official Ryder Cup Guide. Click here to view the online version or click here to purchase your own copy for $5.95. The 2010 Official Ryder Cup Guide is also available at all Barnes and Noble bookstores.

©2003-2012 The PGA of America / Ryder Cup limited / Turner Sports Interactive. All rights reserved.
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