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Woods All Wet at Ryder Cup Opening

September 22, 2006

STRAFFAN, Ireland (AP) _ Tiger Woods knocked his first shot into the water Friday, but Jim Furyk won the hole anyway _ a nice ham ’n egg start to the Ryder Cup for the Americans in their quest to win back one of golf’s most prestigous trophies.

Playing it safe on the 418-yard, par 4, Woods took 3-wood on the tee box, but yanked it into a lake that is so far left, it’s barely in play at the K Club.

Furyk, however, was safely in the fairway on the first hole of the best-ball match against Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, and he knocked his second shot closer to the hole than either of the Europeans.

Both Harrington and Montgomerie missed their putts. Then, after getting help from Woods on the read, Furyk made his 6-footer to put America’s No. 1 team 1-up after one hole.

That clutch play dampened the blow from the inauspicious sight of Woods taking a drop and hitting 3 near the lake, well to the left of the first fairway. Almost everyone agrees Woods must be at his best for the U.S. team to have any chance this week.

American captain Tom Lehman put the two top players in the world together in the first pairing, hoping to set the tone. It was hardly surprising _ the decision to put his best player with the partner Woods both wanted and has succeeded with in the past, going 2-0-1 with him at last year’s Presidents Cup.

``Of course, the first point is important, so I think you want to lead with your best,″ Lehman said Thursday.

And the European team’s reaction was predictable, too. Figuring Lehman would pair the world’s top two players in the first group, captain Ian Woosnam went with the team that combined to beat Woods and Phil Mickelson to open the 2004 tournament.

Game on.

``When you play the best player on the planet and his No. 2, it’s a very exciting challenge for Padraig and I,″ Montgomerie said. ``We were up for it two years ago and I do believe we will be up for it tomorrow morning again.″

Two years ago at Oakland Hills, American captain Hal Sutton surprised many by pairing Woods and Mickelson, two players who have never really gotten along and who displayed very little chemistry on the course. That ``sure thing″ resulted in a 2-and-1 loss to Monty and Harrington in the opener and set the tone for what turned into an 18 1/2-9 1/2 European rout, the worst thrashing in Ryder Cup history.

``Obviously, it’s going to be a big boost for us if we can beat that pairing,″ Woosnam said. ``It’s just going to be fantastic for us, and that will give the confidence to the rest of the team. But obviously, if you lose it, you know, there’s three more matches to go.″

While Woods, Furyk and Mickelson hold down the top three spots in the world ranking, it is the makeup of the rest of the teams that make Europe slightly better than an even-money favorite _ hardly common in an event the Americans dominated until the middle of the last decade.

To wit: Woosnam is benching Luke Donald, Henrik Stenson and David Howell _ ranked 10, 11 and 12 in the world _ for the four opening matches. And Lehman is going with Brett Wetterich and J.J. Henry, a pair of rookies, neither ranked in the top 60.

``That’s the trouble we’ve got,″ Woosnam said. ``Everybody is playing well. Someone is going to be dropped.″

Such a problem to have.

Teeing off after the Woods foursome were Henry and Stewart Cink against Paul Casey and Robert Karlsson. Scheduled next were Wetterich and David Toms against Sergio Garcia and Jose Maria Olazabal. The final match of the morning pits Mickelson and Chris DiMarco against Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke.

Clarke’s first shot figures to be the emotional high point of the morning. A native of Northern Ireland, he’s playing just five weeks after his wife, Heather, died of breast cancer. Westwood was a wildcard pick onto the European squad as much for his close friendship with Clarke as for his play, which has not been great of late.

``I think there will be a fairly large cheer when we step on the first tee,″ Westwood said.

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