James Lawton: Tiger Woods' fall appears to have made him a team player at Ryder Cup
Published 26/09/2012 | 09:54
It really did sound like the first day of the rest of the Tiger's Ryder Cup life yesterday. The man who once said that he had a million reasons – all of them bearing the official stamp of the United States treasury – to prefer the hand-to-hand conflict of the tournament golf he had come to dominate so profoundly to the camaraderie of team sport, sounded rather more like the most earnest of cheerleaders.
Maybe it is because somewhere on the road from the 2002 contest at the Belfry to this week's collision at Medinah, Chicago, Tiger Woods has had a glimpse of a burning bush. Or perhaps it is more a vivid sense that his old days of immortality, the belief he was indeed the greatest golfer of all time, may have already gone up in smoke.
Certainly now that his extraordinary ascendency appears to be the new property of Rory McIlroy, the Tiger's appreciation of the challenge, and the rewards, of the Ryder Cup appears to have deepened quite dramatically.
Back at the Belfry, the Tiger was candid enough in the wake of the FedEx bonanza triumph he never seemed likely to reproduce last weekend. Yes, he sighed, it was true he had certain difficulties with the concept of a team sport. As a precocious young contender in southern California, and a college boy star at the prestigious Stanford University, the idea of team sport always left him not so much cold as puzzled.
Yesterday in Chicago, he made it sound like one of his fondest memories, a matter of varsity pride that might have come off the faded pages of a Scott Fitzgerald short story. At the Belfry, he likened it to the futility of canoe racing.
"I've found it difficult to understand how you can commit yourself to something you cannot dictate with your ability. How ever hard you paddle, it doesn't matter either way if there are stronger rowers in the other canoe. Of course I want to do the best I can in the Ryder Cup but it isn't the most comfortable format for me. I like to be in control of my own fate."
Maybe like many superior golfers before him, the warmth of a locker room, the comfort of an arm around your shoulder in a common cause, has developed a new level of appeal.
It is no doubt true that Colin Montgomerie's despairing pursuit of a major title – a new experience for the Tiger after stockpiling 14 – was regularly buttressed by superb Ryder Cup performances, a record that was crowned two years ago in Wales when he captained Europe to victory.
Montgomerie is one of 24 players who stand above Woods in the all-time list of point-gatherers. At 25, one behind another Briton, Tony Jacklin, Woods can point only to a losing record of 13 wins, 14 losses and two halves. A winning percentage of .483 was inevitably raised again when he faced the world yesterday.
It came with a hard question about whether he – and fellow veterans Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk – accepted responsibility for Europe's growing edge in the contest. "Yes, I do take responsibility," he said. "I didn't get the points I was put out there for. I played five games but I didn't go 5 and 0."
However, he insists that old disconnection with the meaning of the Ryder Cup is a matter of history and certainly he can draw a graph of improved performance. In his last two Ryder Cups, he collected six of an available nine points and when he was ruled out of the American triumph at Valhalla in 2006, he did muster the passion to send captain Paul Azinger a message of quite blunt encouragement. "Kick their f****** asses," he texted.
Two years ago, there was a strong sense that Woods saw the Ryder Cup action as an important part of his rehabilitation after the year of deep-running scandal and a growing feeling that he may have separated himself permanently from the years of glory – and a relentless pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record major title mark of 18 victories.
When the Welsh fans cheered his name, his demeanour warmed noticeably. It was as though he had been reminded of his status in another life.
Yesterday, he could hardly have been more enthusiastic about the challenges and the rewards of playing alongside his countrymen.
"It was fun to get together with the team last night," he said. "We [Woods, Mickelson and Furyk] can help out the guys who have not been here before. We have been put out a lot in the Ryder Cup and it's a great experience, so much of it is about what we did in college, and for us to represent the United States of America is something else. And then when players gather, say on Friday night, to see a late match and you're involved, well, you feel the heat. We're playing for our country, our team, and we have been to all those practice sessions to put things right. It is something that in our sport we don't normally experience."
American captain Davis Love III is emphatic that Woods has grown into a pivotal presence. When they joined together in Ryder Cup action – in 2002 – it might just have been the point where the Tiger found an impressive stride. They won back-to-back matches after Woods had been pointless in his first two games but that chemistry disappeared – along with 12 partners – before he benefited from the support of Steve Stricker two years ago.
The American captain says, "I think he realises he was trying too hard when he first came into the team. He couldn't do it all by himself, he had to be part of the team and win points with his partners, become part of the team rather than the team.
"Tiger and I do things differently but we are both passionate about winning and he's going to be a big part of it. Believe me, he cares. He will be one of our leaders."
One thing at least is true. He seems so much less inclined to throw away his paddle.
Tiger feat: Woods' Ryder roster
Ryder Cup appearances Six
Debut 1997, Valderrama, Spain [Europe won 14½ - 13½]
Matches played 29 [Won 13, Lost 14, Halved 2]
Points won 14 [4½ in singles, 4½ in foursomes and five in fourballs)
* Woods' struggles to take his individual talent into the tournament were evident from his first appearance, at Valderrama in 1997, where he lost three of his five matches. His worst Cup performance came at Oakland Hills in 2004, where he lost four of his five matches – two each with Phil Mickelson and Davis Love lll, as Europe comfortably retained their title.