Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Ryder Cup: Tiger Woods gets back to brilliant best

Just as America's dreams of retaining the Ryder Cup were being extinguished on a glorious afternoon down by the River Usk, a great individual career might just have been rekindled.

Tiger Woods, despite suffering his biggest-ever matchplay defeat on Sunday, ended up as joint-top scorer in the event with Steve Stricker, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter and although it was the last thing on the minds of thousands of rapturous European supporters as they jigged back to the coach parks, it could be that they had been present at Tiger's competitive rebirth.

His card read nine under par when his singles match against Francesco Molinari came to an end on the 15th green.

A pair of birdies had put the younger Molinari brother two up after two holes, causing no little excitement in the exuberant ranks of the small Italian press pack following him. Only one man had ever beaten Woods in Ryder Cup singles and he was an Italian too, the Molinaris' hero and mentor, Constantino Rocca.

E la story si ripete? Could history repeat itself? In the event, history was throttled before it could utter a word.

Having reduced the deficit to one-down with a birdie at the sixth, Woods birdied the long ninth to make the match all-square, the start of an astonishing run of five birdies and an eagle in seven holes, which gave him an emphatic 4&3 victory.

In some ways, the world No 1 could be forgiven for hoping that he never sees south Wales again. As a tyro amateur he was on the losing side in the 1995 Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl and now the Principality has gone and done the double over him. But whatever disappointment he must feel on behalf of his team will no doubt be diminished by the knowledge that, in the intensity of matchplay competition, his swing and his putting stroke — neither of which has looked entirely reliable this year — ultimately held up to the fiercest scrutiny.

With Steve Stricker he was hammered 6&5 in the second round of foursomes on Sunday, by the rampant Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, but yesterday's performance was the response of a champion.

Indeed, if there was a major championship next week, it might once again be safe to wager the mortgage on him.

In truth, his round yesterday was like his entire golfing career writ small, featuring brilliance — not least, a full wedge shot holed for an eagle two on the 12th — as well as petulance, dazzling smiles as well as angry expletives, and even one shot that belonged to a 16-handicapper mucking up the midweek medal.

That shot, a clumsy chip on the par-five second, yielded merely a par when he had all but reached the green, more than 600 yards from the tee, in two. After that he scarcely put a foot wrong.

With Woods these days, of course, there is also the ever-present issue of his not-so-private private life, which the huge crowds at Celtic Manor were, for the most part, too respectful to mention.

True, there was the odd chant of “Elin is a Euro,” a cheeky reference to his Swedish ex-wife, and there were some ironic cheers when he was spotted hugging a couple of his team-mates' spouses once his match was over, but the Tiger-baiting could have been a great deal worse and in fact a highly supportive tone was struck as early as last Thursday's opening ceremony — it already seems like months ago — when his name drew a much bigger ovation than that of any of his team-mates.

He was manifestly moved by that reception and repaid it not only with the quality of some of his golf, but even with some generosity of spirit, not always in plentiful supply when Tiger is a loser.

As he was driven away in a buggy from the celebrations that erupted on the 17th green after Europe had won back the cup, he asked the driver to stop so that he could smilingly sign autographs.

It was a classy thing to do by a man whose class as a golfer has never been in the slightest doubt, but whose class as a human-being has been questioned relentlessly and let's be honest, perhaps rather unfairly. As for his points tally, it thoroughly undermines the notion that he is not really a team man. He missed the 2008 Ryder Cup through injury, but he was the biggest US points scorer four years ago at the K Club, too.

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