By Mitch Phillips
NEWPORT (Reuters) - Golfing lore has it that Tiger Woods does not like the Ryder Cup and his recent form has been so dire that the world number one could be forgiven a wry smile after impressive wins in his opening two pairs matches on Saturday.
In a peculiar day for the American wildcard selection, he recorded his best-ever Ryder Cup start without ever playing remotely close to his best, thanks mainly to partner Steve Stricker, and then suffered a hammering on the front nine of his third match before bad light brought blessed relief.
Previous American captains have not always got it right in finding the right partner for a player so famously focused on his own game but, on paper, his combination with world number four Steve Stricker, which had produced four wins out of four at the Presidents Cup, looked like a gold-plated pairing.
However, the doubts swirling around Woods on and off course, his checkered Ryder Cup history and the surprise decision of captain Corey Pavin to put him out third in the first-day order -- or "hide him" according to Colin Montgomerie -- have certainly dimmed his aura.
After 10 holes of unfinished foursomes on Friday, Woods and Stricker were level with English duo Poulter and Ross Fisher but Stricker, who struggled badly with his putting leading into the Ryder Cup, regained form to play the anchor role in a tight two-up victory following Saturday's resumption.
After the quickest of turnarounds, the American duo returned to the course to face Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez and Swede Peter Hanson and Woods, as he had in the fourballs, hooked his first drive into the rough.
Stricker was again the senior partner and Woods' struggles were summed up on the 10th when he left the ball in the sand after fluffing a straightforward bunker shot.
However, Woods' iron play remained solid and with Stricker's putter getting hot, the Americans always looked comfortable on the way to a four up win on the 15th green.
With two points in the bag from two matches, it represented Woods's best ever start in six Ryder Cups but he was the first to give credit to his partner.
"His (Stricker's putting) stroke is so good," he said. "It's fun to watch. All you have to do is put him in position, and he's got that go-in look. Even putts that don't go in, it's like, 'how did that miss?'"
Stricker, in classic foursomes style, was delighted to have been given so many birdie opportunities by Woods.
"We are comfortable with one another," he said. "Our games complement each other nicely. I try to get him in the fairway and he hits some unbelievable iron shots, and fortunately I've been knocking a couple of the putts in.
"We gel well together and hopefully we can do it some more."
Pavin was delighted to see his two highest-ranked players chalking up their sixth successive pairs win together.
"They play a lot together and they like it," he said. "I was always planning on playing them together for the first two matches and it went well so I kept them together.
"I think the foursomes is a good format for them, especially on this course."
The ultimate test for Woods, however, came in his third match against his Ryder Cup nemesis Lee Westwood, who had won five of his six previous matches with the American, and the in-form Luke Donald.
The early indications were that it was not going to be three out of three wins for Woods and Stricker. Although Woods crashed his opening drive 330 yards to find the first fairway, the Americans were swept aside on the front nine.
The Europeans raced into a remarkable five-up lead after seven holes as Woods in particular endured an horrific hour, though Stricker's birdie at the par-five ninth reduced the overnight deficit.
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)