Asked in recent weeks if they would like to be paired with each other in the Ryder Cup, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have each responded, "I'd love it." When play begins Friday morning with four best-ball matches on Oakland Hills's South course, they'll get that chance.
American team captain Hal Sutton said Thursday that he has been contemplating that powerful pairing since the day he accepted the job in October 2002.
Woods, ranked No. 2 in the world, and Mickelson, No. 4, will go off first for the Americans against another marquee twosome, Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie.
"I told these two guys that I felt like the perception of the world was that the U.S. team didn't bond and we didn't come together as a team," Sutton said in explaining his decision to pair Woods and Mickelson, former Cup teammates who are not considered the best of friends. "I said 'I can't think of any other message that we could send any louder than to put you two guys out first.' "
Later at the opening ceremonies, the crowd roared when the Woods-Mickelson combination was announced, and Sutton added, "I felt like history needed it. I felt like the fans needed it. And most of all, I felt like Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods needed it."
Sutton also admitted there was a downside: The Europeans have a chance to steal early momentum with an upset.
"There's always a chance of" losing, Sutton said of Woods, No. 1 in birdies on the PGA Tour, and Mickelson, No. 2. "The way I look at that is I can't imagine anything that would aggravate those two guys more than to get beat. So man, there would be some hell to pay if that happens."
It's far from a foregone conclusion. Harrington is ranked eighth in the world, and Montgomerie has the best Ryder Cup record of any European in history at 16-7-5, including 4-0-1 in Europe's three-point victory at the Belfry in 2002.
Said European captain Bernhard Langer, "If we can get a win out of that [match], that will really pump us up."
Sutton also indicated he might keep Woods and Mickelson together in the afternoon session of alternate-shot play.
"We're fine with it," Woods said. "We're totally excited about it."
"I think I had a decent idea for some time," Mickelson said. "I love the pairing."
In Friday's other morning matches, Davis Love III will pair with Cup rookie Chad Campbell to face Europeans Darren Clarke and Miguel Angel Jimenez. American rookie Chris Riley will play with Stewart Cink against Paul McGinley and European rookie Luke Donald, and Americans David Toms and Jim Furyk will face Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood.
Each match is worth a point for a victory and a half-point for a draw. The first team to get to 141/2 points wins the match. If the teams tie at 14, Europe will retain the cup it won at the Belfry.
Sutton, who often sounds like a tough-talking SEC football coach, obviously wants to win it back. For most of the last year, he has been putting notes and letters in the lockers of players he knew would be on his team or had a chance to qualify.
He spoke to all of them at length, emphasizing a sense of urgency and reminding them that the Europeans have won or retained the Cup six of the last nine, including three of the last four.
And yet, the conventional thinking on the European team is that once again they have to be considered the underdogs, no matter what has happened since 1983, when this event stopped becoming an American walkover.
Prior to 1979, only players from the British Isles were allowed to compete; shortly after the event was opened to players from the entire continent, the European side began to more than hold its own. Since 1987, the total separating the two teams has been 11 points.
This year, the U.S. side has eight players in the top 20 in the world rankings, including Woods, Mickelson, No. 6 Love and No. 10 Cink. The Europeans have four in the top 20 -- No. 8 Harrington, No. 12 Garcia, No. 15 Clarke and No. 20 Jimenez. The Americans have five major championship winners; the Europeans have none.
"Yeah I think we are the underdogs," Harrington said. "You can argue any situation and stats to try and develop it in a certain direction. . . . It's not like we're carrying the major firepower that we would have had in the early '90s, late '80s."
But Sutton isn't buying it, and his players insist they aren't either.
"Being an underdog offers you an opportunity to have the attitude that 'If I fail, everybody thought I was going to fail,' " Sutton said. "That's the position you find solace in."
That's far from the only theory on why the Europeans have been so successful in recent years. The infusion of Europeans such as Langer of Germany and Spanish stars Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Garcia clearly helped. The European Tour also began producing world-class players such as Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Tony Jacklin, Montgomerie and Jesper Parnevik.
Some say that because the European players spend more time traveling the world together, staying in the same hotels, eating and drinking in the same restaurants and pubs, they have more camaraderie and thus better bonded teammates in this sort of competition.
Others say the European team has done well in this competition because a number of its players are members of the PGA Tour and are completely comfortable playing here on the road. The World Golf Championships have also brought European Tour regulars to the United States in recent years, adding to their comfort level. In fact, many of the players from both teams are friends.
The facts point to other, more quantifiable reasons for European success.
Since 1985, Europe has won 43 points in the best-ball to the Americans' 29.
Perhaps most significant of all, the Europeans have been especially effective in winning matches that have gone the full 18 holes, with a 36-19 advantage, a clear indication of their tenacity in this sort of format.
The tight competition has been nothing but a blessing to the Ryder Cup. Though many Europeans were upset in 1999 by loutish fans and the Americans' rowdy celebration on the 17th green after Justin Leonard's clinching 45-foot putt, Harrington insisted the events of that day in Boston may well have taken the Cup to yet another level of intensity.
"It showed the Europeans how hard, how much the U.S. team wanted to win," Harrington said. "If you remember, before the tournament, there was talk about [the Americans] wanting to be paid, and it was a poor build-up to the Cup. But they showed on the 17th green how much it meant to them to win. That was a good sign for the Europeans. It was a sign of respect to us, that they thought we were a worthy opposition whereas I'm sure in past years, it was hard for them to motivate themselves.
"They got over-excited. Isn't that great? The 17th hole proved they were as interested in winning as the Europeans, which is good for the Ryder Cup."