MEDINAH, Ill. — The best players don't always make the best partners in the Ryder Cup.
It worked for Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, not so much for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. U.S. captain Hal Sutton made partners out of Woods and Mickelson, rivals on and off the golf course, and the experiment failed miserably as they lost both matches. Overlooked was the fact that Woods was in the middle of a major swing change in 2004, and Mickelson was in poor form.
An argument can be made that Europe has an easier time forming natural partnerships with players coming from different countries. That's a crutch. Nick Faldo (England) and Ian Woosnam (Wales) were formidable, as were Jesper Parnevik (Sweden) and Sergio Garcia (Spain). Bernhard Langer didn't have another German to have as a partner.
Ultimately, it's all about winning. And that's what makes the following the best partnerships in Ryder Cup history.
5. ARNOLD PALMER AND GARDNER DICKINSON
Arnold Palmer and Gardner Dickinson would seem to be nothing alike. One honed his game in Latrobe, Pa., and was known as "The King," a winner of seven major championships and 62 tournaments overall on the PGA Tour. Dickinson, raised in Alabama, was known as "Slim Man" because of his 5-foot-10, 130-pound build. He won only seven times on the PGA Tour and never finished better than fifth in a major.
As a Ryder Cup tandem, they proved to be unbeatable. Both were part of the 1967 team, considered the best ever in a Ryder Cup, and they beat Peter Alliss and Christy O'Connor Sr. in the opening foursomes session, and then whipped Malcolm Gregson and Hugh Boyle. This was not Great Britain & Ireland's strongest team.
Four years later, Palmer and Dickinson won all three of their team matches, twice against Peter Oosterhuis and Peter Townsend, another against Oosterhuis and Bernard Gallacher. They were the only Ryder Cup partnership to play at least five matches and win them all.
4. COLIN MONTGOMERIE AND BERNHARD LANGER
This is not the flashiest pair, though they were reliable even against some of the toughest, albeit understated, American tandems. Montgomerie and Langer were 5-1-1, their only loss coming at Valderrama in the opening fourballs against Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods, who was making his Ryder Cup debut. This European partnership was at their best as Europe began its dominance.
Their finest performance came at The Belfry in 2002. They easily beat Scott Hoch and Jim Furyk in the opening fourballs, earned a halve against the best U.S. team that week (Phil Mickelson and David Toms), and then beat Hoch and Scott Verplank.
Plus, there's that wonderful story that Langer denies, when they first played together at Kiawah Island and Langer asked Montgomerie to step off the yardage from a sprinkler head to the front of the green. Monty told him it was 183 yards. "Was that from the front of the sprinkler or the back?" Langer supposedly told him.
"The Germans might be precise," Langer said in trying to quash a rumor. "But not that precise."
3. PETER ALLISS AND CHRISTY O'CONNOR SR.
This is the only tandem on the list with a losing record, although some perspective is in order.
Alliss and O'Connor played on seven Ryder Cup teams together from 1957 through 1969, after which Alliss decided to grace golf with his presence in the broadcast booth. What must be noted about this era is that Great Britain & Ireland won only one Ryder Cup. Much like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson today, a losing record goes along with not winning the cup. So this GB&I mark of 5-6-1 was quite strong.
They won in their partnership debut in 1959 against Art Wall and Doug Ford, two of the past three Masters champions. And they were at their finest in 1965 at Royal Birkdale, when they were 3-1 despite a 19½-12½ win by the Americans. Among their victims that week were Billy Casper and Gene Littler on the opening day, and Arnold Palmer and Dave Marr the next day.
2. JACK NICKLAUS AND TOM WATSON
A team like this is what U.S. captain Hal Sutton had in mind when he put Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together in that ill-fated pairing of 2004 at Oakland Hills. Only that one didn't quite work out like Nicklaus and Watson, two of the greatest players of the last 50 years.
Nicklaus and Watson played on the same Ryder Cup team twice, and they were partners in only four matches, winning all of them. Otherwise, this might have been the greatest partnership in Ryder Cup history.
They played once in 1977 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, ending the foursomes match on the 14th hole. Even more dominant was Walton Heath in 1981, when they played three matches together, won them all, and none so much as reached the 17th hole. That included a 4-and-3 win over Nick Faldo and Peter Oosterhuis. There was one story of Watson having about 6 feet for birdie, with Nicklaus just outside him. Nicklaus is said to have told Watson to pick up his coin then put his ball into the cup to win the hole.
1. SEVE BALLESTEROS AND JOSE MARIA OLAZABAL
The partnership was so strong that it was known only as "The Spanish Armada" and it was fearsome. Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal played together in 15 matches, a Ryder Cup record. They lost only twice, and halved two other matches, and the halve always felt like a win.
They set the standard for Ryder Cup partners with a record of 11-2-2.
Ballesteros was the face of the Ryder Cup for Europe, capable of leading any partner around. With another talented Spaniard at his side, they were close to unbeatable. Olazabal remembers one of their early matches his first year at Muirfield Village when there was a dispute about whether Olazabal could putt out for par to give Ballesteros a free run at his birdie chip. Ballesteros ended the argument by chipping in, anyway.
The badge of honor goes to the only two U.S. teams to defeat the Spaniards — Hal Sutton and Larry Mize in fourballs at Muirfield Village in 1987, and Tom Kite and Davis Love III in foursomes at Kiawah Island in 1991. The Spanish Armada faced Kite and Love in the next two matches and won them both.