Ryder Cup: Warm welcome from Welsh could help Tiger Woods finally show his teeth
After his months in purgatory, as both a professional sportsman and a man with a broken life, Tiger Woods was visibly warmed by the cheers that greeted his name at the opening ceremony for the 38th Ryder Cup.
The tournament starts this morning with Europe favourites to win back the gold trophy that was wrestled so roughly and easily from their grasp in Kentucky two years ago.
The reception for Woods, more enthusiastic than for any other player of either side, was a remarkable pattern-breaker at the end of build-up in which he seemed to be locked into the prospect of fresh humiliation.
He was ridiculed from the floor of an official press conference earlier this week — and asked pointed questions about the attitude of the wives of his team-mates in the wake of his serial infidelities.
He gave a series of clinical answers to a stream of questions that most seemed calculated to attack his battered self esteem.
He smiled, coldly, when he was asked how the Ryder Cup figured in his ambitions now he was almost an ordinary golfer.
But as dusk gathered it was suddenly as though someone had turned back the clock.
Woods waved and smiled perhaps from, as much as anything, pure relief. He seemed almost startled by the strength of the crowd's statement; as though he had suddenly been carried back to another time, when everything was so much more straight forward — when it was so easy to play the part of the maestro rather than renegade from the peaks of achievement and reputation.
What the Welsh fans seemed to be saying was that whatever Woods had done in his private life, however complicated he had made it, and however much he had disenchanted some of his powerhouse sponsors, he remained for them one of the world's ultimate sportsman.
It was a sentiment which flew beyond the barricades of Ryder Cup action. It said that Woods was beyond any tribal loyalties. He was somebody who could not be missed on his second visit to Wales. Right or wrong, he was still, as some continue to say, “The Man.”
As he absorbed a sense of some of this so quickly, there was a clear tug of emotion as he raised his hand in acknowledgement. He did not, however, get the perfect storm of good fortune if it is true — as some close to the US camp are suggesting — that his greatest desire these next few days is meet face to face and beat the Ulster wunderkind Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy plays in this morning's second fourball match, with his compatriot Graeme McDowell, against Matt Kuchar and Stewart Cink — a circumstance that European captain Colin Montgomerie claimed was part of his counterpart Corey Pavin's strategy to protect his famous but perhaps currently most vulnerable player.
The American response to this was was filled with ill-disguised contempt, suggesting that Pavin simply guessed wrong in placing the names of Woods and Steve Stricker against those of Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher.
Why would Pavin protect a man with 14 Majors to his name, and especially one so obviously keen to exact some retribution for McIlroy's claim that the world's number one player had come to represent one of the less demanding targets for any of the European players.
Whatever the reason for the match-up, whether it was shrewd calculation or sheer happenchance, there is no question that the first serious crescendo will come when Woods and Stricker tee off Poulter and Fisher.
“Ian Poulter is ready to play now,” claimed Montgomerie, but perhaps at the risk of inviting in the dark warning of the Tiger when he confronted a McIlroy he considered disrespectful in Chicago a few weeks ago.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Woods.
For Montgomerie pressure is piling around his declaration that his role as captain might well prove as crucial as all those days when he performed with such consistent brilliance. It is a theory that is echoed, though, by Padraig Harrington, who insists, “this is so close that the captains are sure to play a decisive role.”
Pavin's response to such claims were relatively mild until he called up a US fighter ace to lecture his players on the need to “watch each others' backs.”
It was a move which recalled his encouragement to fans in Kiawah Island 19 years ago, when he set the tone by donning a Desert Storm cap and throwing himself into what was christened The War on the Shore.
In view of such garish behaviour, there may have been relief yesterday when it became clear the American captain's military friend had not been persuaded rustle up a stealth bomber for a Super Bowl-style fly-past.
The golf, frankly, cannot come quickly enough. At least that, suddenly, seems to be the belief of Tiger Woods.
Who knows, he may just be revived by the welcome they kept for him in the valley.