In battle of wills, Monty's strength lies in team spirit against lone Tiger

If the 35th Ryder Cup wanted to produce at least one sure-fire human drama here this week it would surely bend the rules of its most intriguing ritual. It would have the American and European captains, Hal Sutton and Bernhard Langer, break from the usual "blind" listing from one to 12 of their last day singles line-ups and place, by prior arrangement, the same number against the names of Tiger Woods and Colin Montgomerie.

If the 35th Ryder Cup wanted to produce at least one sure-fire human drama here this week it would surely bend the rules of its most intriguing ritual. It would have the American and European captains, Hal Sutton and Bernhard Langer, break from the usual "blind" listing from one to 12 of their last day singles line-ups and place, by prior arrangement, the same number against the names of Tiger Woods and Colin Montgomerie.

In 83 years of competition for the trophy put up by the St Albans garden-seed merchant Sam Ryder - quaintly, what he had in mind was the "friendly" development of understanding between professionals operating on opposite sides of the Atlantic - we would never have had quite such a golf match. It would be about golf only in the way that the pursuit of Moby Dick was about angling. At its heart would be the exploration of old wounds, in the case of Montgomerie the deepest he has ever sustained on a golf course.

As it is, the prospect of a mano a mano duel cannot be much better than an 11-1 shot in all the other lurking, and potentially lurid, controversy here at this beautiful and treacherous course in one of the more opulent suburbs of Motown.

But whatever form it takes, a shoot-out on the last day of spiralling, and maybe chauvinistic, tension or a careful measuring of the level of momentum they supply to their teams in the fourballs and foursomes of Friday and Saturday, there is no doubt about it: the meaning of Tiger and Monty, as golfers and men dealing with the most critical phases thus far of their careers and their lives, transcends any other points of interest here leading to Sunday's climax.

Old Sam Ryder's idea of a warm Anglo-American stroll to the rose bushes is, on this occasion, nothing so much as a backdrop for a battle of wills, and in Montgomerie's case, perhaps even for survival as a front rank, world-class golfer.

Woods, too, has much to prove despite his foundation of eight major trophies at the age of 28. Last week his advisers, and increasingly his protectors, the International Management Group issued a formal denial that his recently announced engagement to Elin Nordegren, a Swedish model, had been called off, a rumour which came along with his displacement as the world's No 1 by Vijay Singh.

His captain Sutton, though, believes that this week will see a powerful reaction to that loss of status. "I've been watching Tiger play today, and man, I'm licking my chops," Sutton declared yesterday. "I aspire to be in one of his slumps. I've been talking to him for two years, since I was appointed Ryder Cup captain and I've told him this is an area where maybe he is going to be judged one day and that it was nobody else's fault except his - it was he who went out and made himself as great as he is. Nobody gives Tiger a pep talk, but I have told him what's at stake."

Still, Woods has to produce some sharply improved numbers. Two years ago at the Belfry Monty was Europe's winning hand, a masterful performer who led from the front - and in No 1 position on the last day as the Tiger trailed in, irrelevantly, in the last match with Jesper Parnevik.

The Tiger's reluctance, in any context, to yield the high ground is famous enough. It is one reason why he has been known to throw tantrums at the ping-pong table, and it is also, you have to believe, why he will be sharply reluctant to yield still another Ryder Cup stage to the man he assumed he had killed off seven years ago. Then, Woods won his first Masters blazer and, if all of golf was ravaged by the sheer scale of his brilliance, there was no doubt who was the principal victim.

Montgomerie had made a critical mistake in the build-up to Woods' stunning triumph. He had told an audience of largely American golf writers that, whatever brilliance a young man brought to the golf course, he would inevitably be limited by his inexperience. When the really big tournaments came, Tiger, for some time, would have to serve an apprenticeship.

Later, as the Tiger reflected on victory, he was asked if it gave him any particular satisfaction that after his lecture Montgomerie was obliged to suffer, at first hand, the emergence of the player who is, seven years later, still seen as the natural heir, and perhaps even the superior, of Jack Nicklaus. Woods' answer was shocking in its brevity and brutality. "Yes," he said. "Big time."

Yet, if only for Monty's sake, the record of the Ryder Cyp could stand on its own as a barometer of golfing merit. Then, maybe one day we might not be obliged to bury his golfing heart amid the dogwoods of Augusta. Monty's Cup record: played 28, won 16, lost seven, halved five. Beside that, the Tiger's appearances at Sotogrande in 1997, Brookline 99, and the Belfry in 2002, have created only a molehill: played 15, won five, lost eight, halved two, and with a strike-rate of only 50 per cent in singles action. In head-to-head play, Montgomerie has not lost, winning four and halving two. How can this mockery of all that we saw in Augusta be? Maybe it offers us the simplest of all guides to the natures of these men who, for one reason or another, stand out so dramatically from all the other golfers here. Perhaps we ought to consider what the Ryder Cup represents to both men.

Could it be that for Montgomerie it is nothing so much as a safe harbour from the roaring pressures of major tournament play, where all his brilliant technique has perished under the weight of self-doubt? In the Ryder Cup Montgomerie is part of a team and perhaps he feels there is a certain safety in numbers and shared responsibility.

And the Tiger? He says that the trouble with racing a boat is that you cannot depend on the efforts of the rest of the crew; or maybe if you can, it might just take away your need to deliver everything you have. Maybe it takes away an edge.

Whatever the theorising, the European team cannot take too much comfort from the Tiger's record, something they will not do if they listen to Nicklaus. "The secret of great performance," he has said, "is that when things have gone wrong, you can immediately put it behind you and reinvent yourself. In Tiger's case the reinvention is that he is a great player, unbeatable at his best."

Perhaps a mano a mano might not be in Montgomerie's best interests, after all. Last time the wounds were so bad they may never heal.

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