American Accent: Bad Belfry memories stir feelings of revenge in Toms

David Toms is determined to shake off a two-year-old memory and the wind-out-of-your-sails feeling that accompanies it, beginning tomorrow.

David Toms is determined to shake off a two-year-old memory and the wind-out-of-your-sails feeling that accompanies it, beginning tomorrow.

Mention golf's most prestigious sterling silver team prize to Toms and he grimaces, giving the impression that he has just swallowed something distasteful. In this instance, it is the bitter taste of defeat.

Toms' most vivid memory of his first date with the game's most heated competition is his slow stroll away from the 18th green at The Belfry, minutes after Paul McGinley had holed a 10-foot par-saving putt that sealed Europe's unexpected victory. Toms watched the Europeans twist, shout and practically knock themselves out in celebration when McGinley's putt disappeared. It created a knot in the pit of his stomach, one that remains today, and one he wants to untie this weekend.

"We were leaving The Belfry when I told Scott [Gneiser, his caddie], 'The goal is to get back to the Ryder Cup and the next goal is to win,' because I didn't like the feeling of losing," Toms said. "That's what I'm looking forward to the most, the opportunity to bring it back to the US. The last time wasn't very enjoyable. Even though the experience was great, losing wasn't a whole lot of fun."

So here Toms is at Oakland Hills' South Course, a member of his second consecutive United States Ryder Cup team. Toms, whose boyish looks belie a player in possession of a killer instinct, is hell-bent on repeating his performance in 2002 when the Ryder rookie played near flawless golf, leading the USA with a 3-1-1 record. Trouble is, Toms describes his play in 2004 as "inconsistent", despite the fact that he owns a victory in Memphis.

Toms got off to a slow start this year because of off-season wrist surgery that kept him away from his golf clubs for three months. Uncharacteristically, he has missed seven cuts and his top 10s have dwindled to a mere four. Much of his on-course trouble can be traced to the driver.

"The weeks I hit it well off the tee I've played well," said Toms, who ranks 132nd in driving accuracy on the PGA Tour. "But it has been a little frustrating."

It also has been an unsettling year off the course. Toms said his wife Sonya has experienced two miscarriages, a matter that naturally has disturbed the player.

"I don't want to use that as an excuse," he said. "But there have been weeks when my mind wasn't on my business. It was with my wife. There was just a lot going on outside of golf."

Toms is buoyed for the competition by his play of late. He finished 17th at the PGA Championship, sixth at the NEC Invitational and 13th at the Deutsche Bank Championship. He said his swing now "feels fine".

"I'll be prepared," Toms said. "Opportunities like this, to play with an elite group for your country, don't come along that often. It is the ultimate as far as I'm concerned. And I think my game will be right there."

The United States captain, Hal Sutton, agreed.

"David Toms may be unpretentious but he's a fighter through and through," Sutton said. "I expect him to be a leader again. I know he's someone the team can lean on."

Toms credits Phil Mickelson, the man he beat in a duel to win the 2001 PGA Championship and his partner at The Belfry, for helping him settle into the realities of the Ryder Cup.

"Whenever I would get mentally out of it or not know what to do, not know the strategy, he was always right there to help me through it," Toms said. "I can't say how much that helped me, and obviously we had a lot of success."

Will there be more of the Mickelson-Toms partnership at Oakland Hills? Toms said he has received "no insight" from Sutton about the pairings.

"I can't tell you," Toms said. "Really, [Sutton] hasn't said anything. I don't know how he's going to do it. But Phil is playing great. Obviously, I would like to be paired with him. Given that opportunity, I think we'd do well."

Toms looks forward to one other aspect of the competition. This time the match is on American soil, and the 35,000 spectators who are expected each day at Oakland Hills should be very vocal in support of the red, white and blue.

"That will be huge," he said. "Playing in front of our crowd, you can't help it - you're sure to get fired up. If you were to get down, instead of having somebody there hoping you're going to hit a bad shot or lose a hole, there are going to be people trying to pump you up. I don't mind admitting I let some of the fans at The Belfry get under my skin a little bit.

"So this is going to be a different feeling. I can't wait."

Dave Lagarde is the golf correspondent of the New Orleans Times-Picayune

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