Team USA Ryder Cup Prep Underway With Intriguing Practice Rounds
By Stephanie Wei under FedEx Cup

While European Ryder Cup Captain Colin Montgomerie is blabbing to the UK press that he’s already told his players their partners for the opening matches (though not to Luke Donald’s knowledge), the Americans are staying mum — per Captain Corey Pavin’s mandate.

Standing next to the 18th green at East Lake on the eve of the Tour Championship, I watched Zach Johnson and Hunter Mahan knock around practice putts. Mahan stroked a beauty from 15 feet. Just before it dropped, Johnson playfully smacked it back to Mahan. Now it sure looked like the type of camaraderie that breeds successful partnerships at Ryder Cup matches. Call me crazy, but could they be prepping — or at least testing — strategies for next week in Wales?

“I just enjoy his company,” Mahan told me with a coy smile. “He’s a good guy to play with, so we’re just playing and having a good time.

“We’ve told Corey the guys that we like to play with, but we haven’t been told what’s going on yet. I told him that anybody would be good.”

I pressed him before he gently reminded me, “You know, we’ve been told not to talk about it.”

Ask just about any other guy and they’ll give you an equally vague response from the Captain Pavin media manual — including Zach Johnson, who replied, “We’re just friends.”

But Mahan readily discussed former captain Paul Azinger’s “pod” strategy when the underdog Americans defeated the Europeans in ’08 at Valhalla.

“You have a guy like Phil [Mickelson], whom I’ve played with a couple of times,” Mahan said. “He’s more talkative. Him and [his caddie Jim] Bones [Mackay] talk about each shot, like it’s so complicated. That’s the way Phil is, he likes to talk things out. A guy like Tiger [Woods] or [Jim] Furyk are more quiet and introverted.

“You need to find that nice match with personality to how the guys play. Because it’s just not going to work if one guy is talking the whole time and one guy is focusing and keeping to himself. It just doesn’t make sense that way. That’s why Paul [Azinger] did such a good job. He put us all in groups and said this is your pod and these four guys are who you’re going to work with.”

Mahan, who describes himself as quiet, but talkative and expressive when needed, found success with Justin Leonard in ’08, where the pair won two of their matches and halved the other.

“This is an interesting team because it’s so new,” said Mahan, who boasts a solid 2-0-3 Ryder Cup record. “The old guard is becoming captains now and the new guard is coming in with myself, Dustin Johnson, Jeff Overton, and probably [Matt] Kuchar. I can play with Kuchar, Zach, Phil, [Steve] Stricker, Furyk. I think I’m pretty versatile.”

Mickelson has been vocal about wanting to play with Dustin Johnson, so consider that team a lock (since, you know, Phil has earned his right to voice his opinions). The two are frequent practice partners and played a round together on Wednesday, as well.

Expect Tiger and Stricker to be paired together because of their success at last year’s President’s Cup (and finally, Tiger has someone he enjoys to play with). And if Mahan were captain, he wouldn’t put someone like Overton with Tiger. I smirked and nodded knowingly (while thinking, Tiger would probably strangle Overton, who would need an extra pair of Depends).

“Just talk to Jeff for five minutes and you’ll know why,” Mahan said chuckling. “He’s high energy and he doesn’t need anymore energy out there. And playing with Tiger out there at the Ryder Cup — it’s too much. I think Jeff is going to be great because he’s going to have that energy. If he gets any kind of momentum, he can make 10 birdies on you.”

Bubba Watson and Overton played together in a practice round on Tuesday at East Lake. According to a colleague, on the first tee, the two chatted about their nerves and discussed which one of them would tee off on the first hole, hypothetically.

In Mahan’s experience, feeling comfortable in a partnership is the key. As an example of poor strategy, he used the example of previous Ryder Cups, where guys were paired with someone they hadn’t played any practice rounds with and had hardly even seen because they didn’t expect to be paired with each other.

“You gotta know who you’re playing with, you’ve gotta have an idea,” Mahan said. “That’s why the pods were so good. It was so easy. [Azinger] made it easy on us and just said this is what you’re doing, go play your practice rounds together. And then when we played, it was like it was one of our practice rounds because we played with these guys all week. We know exactly how they play, exactly what their balls are going to do — it was just comfortable.

“Those couple practice rounds can be really worthwhile or they can be useless if you don’t play with the guy you want to play with. If you haven’t played with them all week, it’s going to take a while to get used to them, no matter who it is.”

Meanwhile, Zach Johnson doesn’t have a preference who he’s paired with in the fourball matches, saying he was sure it’d be someone he has good chemistry with, which shouldn’t be a problem since he has a lot of good friends on the team, including Stewart Cink, Pavin, Mahan, Watson, Stricker, Furyk and Rickie Fowler. But he’s more specific when it comes to the alternate shot format.

“For alternate shot, my game is very strategic,” Johnson said. “It’s simple — it’s actually boring. I need to hit the fairway, I need to hit the green. I don’t like hitting out of the rough. So if I’ve got a guy that bombs it and tears apart golf courses, that’s totally against what I try to play. Now I’m not saying it can’t work depending on the type of golf course or the conditions of the golf course, but I want someone that’s pretty steady and hits the ball pretty straight.”

Well, I’ll be darned — that sure sounds like Mahan. (Or Stricker, but he’s already spoken for.)

[Photos by Kyle Auclair/]