James Lawton: A solitary predator learns to run with the pack
Once dismissive of the Ryder Cup, Woods has finally discovered the value of camaraderie
Wednesday 29 September 2010
Tiger Woods once likened the Ryder Cup, derisively, to canoe racing but that was before he found himself up the creek with a very loose hold on his paddle.
He said it at The Belfry eight years ago when almost everything he touched was rolling over and turning to gold. He didn't need the Ryder Cup – he didn't need anyone or anything but the unfettered reach of his astonishing talent.
Here last night the line was different – but then so was the Tiger and his situation.
One interrogator described him as an "ordinary golfer". It was not so much part of a question as the conclusion of a sweeping accusation. Another wanted to know if the wives of his team-mates were cooler to him now that his marriage had foundered under the weight of all those kiss-and-tell revelations.
The Tiger said he had grown older and more mature and that now he gained strength in the company of his team-mates. He could retreat to the camaraderie of the team room. "I was younger when I talked about how hard it was to relate to team golf. It is different now."
Quite how different, was not so hard to conjure.
Back at The Belfry in 2002 he was more of an untouchable than any golfer since the relentless Jack Nicklaus. He had won again the Masters and the US Open and breezed, late, into the build-up to the team battle whose appeal, he admitted, was to him something of a mystery.
He had been delayed at the American Express title, an event which he found compelling for a "million reasons" – each one representing a dollar on his winning cheque.
Later, he would be crowned Golfer of the Year for a fourth straight occasion and, yes, he explained, team play had in comparison to any kind of mano-a-mano golf engagement always seemed as futile as getting in a canoe with some fellow paddlers and burning your way to the finish line. What was the point, if your team-mates just weren't good enough?
Here in this Welsh valley last night no one was unsure about the possible attraction of finding comfort in a numbers of fellow professionals – and no one less than Woods.
The Tiger was claiming his place in the canoe with a relish which just could not have been imagined when, at the age of 26, he ruled every corner of the golf world. The difference between now and then, he claimed, was shaped chiefly by age. "When I said those things about team golf I was a pretty young guy and I was usually the youngest player on the team for basically eight years," he said.
"Most of the guys I played with in my rookie year are now on the senior tour. Those were my team-mates. So there was a difference in age and don't forget I came out of college after playing two years for Stanford [University] every week, and it was harder to relate to these new guys because they were older and I was just out of the college team.
"As the years have gone by, now there are quite a few guys who are younger than me on the team. We have had a good mix over the years and when I was candid about not relating to the team situation it was when I was playing with guys who had been around the block, won major championships and tournaments all around the world – they had been there before.
"The fact is that there has always been significance for me in the team bonding. Once you leave college you don't get the chance to do it very often. So to come here like this and be part of a squad, it truly is fun.
"The things that go on in the team room, that's what we all look back on; there are memories and the friendships you build for a lifetime in just one week. That's the connection we can make this week and I know it would just be great if we can get a win. I'm looking forward to getting out there and contributing and hopefully getting some points as we get the job done."
He will also, he made it clear, be happy to find at some point Rory McIlroy sharing the first tee. The brilliant young Ulsterman's assertion that this is a good time to go in with the world's No 1 player brought a sharp reaction, the kind that another youthful pretender, Sergio Garcia, once provoked. When asked for his reaction to McIlroy's relish for such a collision, he snapped, "Me too."
Woods suggests that he is maybe closer than at any time since his career implosion to earning some parole in his sentence to the wilderness. The Americans are certainly surrounding him with their support and Woods declared: "I feel very much as though I'm getting close to getting back some of the best of my game. Sometimes you have to work hard, do a lot of repetitive stuff, before you get things right but I'm very happy with the way practice went back home in Orlando before coming here."
The sessions with his new coach Sean Foley, he said, suggested a degree of early rapport. "I have an understanding of what he is trying to teach, and now it's just a matter of repetition. It's not just a question of hitting golf balls; he's trying to make sure I understand the movements. Out on the course today I hit some bad ones but I automatically knew what the fix was."
Within the American camp the Tiger's place in the team was, it seems clear enough, never in serious doubt despite his unprecedented failure to win a title in the wake of his disastrous car crash while the rest of America was sleeping off Thanksgiving Day. Captain Corey Pavin said: "In my mind there was only one question to ask Tiger. Was he up for it? Did he want to come here to play? Once he said that he did, the debate was over."
One of Pavin's assistants, major winner Davis Love III, recalled the first time he played Ryder Cup golf with Woods. "It was an amazing experience," he said after a foursome in which he asked Woods several times where he would like him to hit the second shot; did he want it long or short? "I stopped asking him soon enough," Love reported. "He just said, 'you know, I really don't care. I'm happy to hit it from where you leave it'. He may have some problems with his game right now, but no one should forget he is an unbelievable player."
Another major winner, Jim Furyk, said: "We have to be pleased Tiger is in the team. He is, after all, still the world's best player and I get the feeling he is in the right mood to produce some great golf."
Woods insisted that here in Wales over the next few days he will indeed find a strain of an old belief. "I feel it's going to be a great week – it's great to be here."
Still the questions came firing in, about the coldness of the shoulders of his team-mates' wives, his need to regain something like his old aura – and then there was the crushing statement from the floor of his press conference, "You don't win majors anymore, you don't win regular tournaments anymore – and you are about to be deposed by Europeans or Phil Mickelson as the world No 1; where is the Ryder Cup now on your agenda now that you're almost an ordinary golfer?"
The Tiger remembered a similar denouncement at the Open at St Andrews a few months ago, and he managed the semblance of a smile. He did not say it so many words, but the Ryder Cup is right at the top of his calculations because it is now. It is another chance to make contact with the world he inhabited so profoundly back when the Ryder Cup was a canoe ride to the margins of his life.
Last night there could be no doubt that the historic battle occupied an entirely different status in the eyes of the world's most talented – and embattled – golfer. It has become a most relevant test of both his nerve and that elusive talent. It is also his best chance, in a very long time, to touch some of that old gold that seemed to pave his life.
Ryder Cup countdown: 2 days to go
The Ryder Cup has been shared just twice in the competition's 83-year history. The 1969 Cup at Royal Birkdale ended 16-16, while 20 years later the spoils were shared 14-14 at The Belfry.
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