James Lawton: Not so fast, Monty. Tiger looks like his old self again
Despite the scandals and controversy, the world No 1 received a rousing ovation here. Will it inspire him as the action begins today?
Friday 01 October 2010
As the sound of "Bread of Heaven" swept across the Welsh valley no-one seemed to gain more sustenance than the world's most celebrated and embattled golfer.
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 which starts this morning with Europe favourites to win back the gold trophy that was wrestled so roughly 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 alleged serial infidelities. He gave a series of dead-bat answers to a stream of questions that mostly seemed calculated to attack his battered self-esteem. He smiled, coldly, when he was asked how the Ryder Cup figured in his ambitions now that he was almost an ordinary golfer.
But as dusk gathered in the valley yesterday 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 straightforward – 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, who had maybe been soothed into a mellow mood by the voice of their native diva Katherine Jenkins, 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 Tiger Woods, for them at least, was beyond any tribal loyalties. He was somebody who could not be missed on his second visit to Wales. Right or wrong, he was, as some continue to say along the American fairways, still "The Man."
As he absorbed a sense of some of this, 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 over these next few days is to 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 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, it was argued, 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 No 1 player had come to represent one of the less demanding targets for any of the European players?
Such, anyway, was just one strand of the psychological warfare that was hitting new levels last night. Montgomerie, who had previewed his speech at the opening ceremony by saying it represented five of the most important minutes of his Ryder Cup career, waded into Pavin over the slip that came when the American captain introduced his players to the crowd. Pavin forgot to mention Cink, the 2009 Open champion. But though Montgomerie likened the incident to the hapless performance of his predecessor Sir Nick Faldo in Louisville, and claimed that it meant that Europe had gone one up before a ball was struck, he may have been guilty of some over-statement.
Cink certainly reacted in a way that did not suggest he had been consumed with a deadly combination of anger and angst. In fact he brought a rather sedate opening ceremony to life when he bowed deeply to an appreciative audience.
According to Montgomerie, the opening ceremony was supposed to be a set-piece assault on American confidence while at the same time a huge boost to European self-belief.
Going in, he promised something that would make Faldo's speech seem even more like a terrible, morale-sapping aberration. Faldo had stumbled from one gaffe to another, talking about his family to an inappropriate degree, misnaming rookie Soren Hansen as Soren Stensen, asking the proud Ulsterman Graeme McDowell whether he came from the south or north of Ireland and, finally, suggesting that Padraig Harrington had hit more practice balls than there were potatoes in Ireland.
Montgomerie said; "I'm not going to say anything regarding Nick's speech because I wasn't there but you have to say that American captain Paul Azinger was at least one up leaving that ceremony and it showed the next day when we lost the fourballs and the foursome 6 1/2 to 1 1/2 and it was all but over.
"But then I also remember Sam Torrance at the Belfry in 2002. It's so important for the team to have a huge respect for the captain leaving that ceremony. This is a major part of my career – maybe the most important five minutes so far in my Ryder Cup experience. I will have my players standing and leaving that ceremony with the feeling that we are going to win this Ryder Cup. That's all I can do."
However the players reacted – they certainly clapped respectfully – it has to be said that Montgomerie's oratory did not exactly come leaping out of the pages of Henry V. It was more, in all honesty, the competent performance of some seasoned corporate pro on an important business occasion.
Still, it needs to be said that if the European captain had perhaps over-stressed the significance of his time on the podium, all other indicators suggest that he has the team in an impressively committed frame of mind. One insider with access to the team room emerged yesterday to say, "Monty has really got the team on their toes. They can't wait for things to get started. It matters to him and he has persuaded them, if they needed to be, that it also matters to them."
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 against 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 his friend and wild-card selection 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 fevered encouragement to American fans in Kiawah Island 19 years ago, when he – and his predecessor Azingner – set an extremely partisan tone by donning Desert Storms caps and throwing themselves into what was grimly christened "The War on the Shore".
In view of such garish behaviour, there may have been a breath of relief yesterday when it became clear the American captain's military friend had not been persuaded to 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.
Passion, positivity, preparation: How Montgomerie and Pavin have fired up their teams
The opposing captains have displayed different ways of motivating their players for this weekend's competition:
"If any of my players needed motivation, they shouldn't be here."
"The only motivation this team needed was to lose the Ryder Cup two years ago."
"I was after some passion. And by God, I got it." After inviting Welsh rugby legend, Gareth Edwards, to create some 'hwyl' (spirit) in his players.
"The whole team spoke to Seve for about 10 minutes and that was very motivational, very passionate. It was a real inspiration."
"If it's a European Tour set-up, then it's to our advantage. We will be used to the pace of the greens. This is a course where a good shot will be rewarded and a bad shot penalised."
"I've had to prepare a runner-up speech, or the non-winning speech. If the result doesn't go our way I think it's very important to prepare."
"It's been a long time since we won in Europe, since 1993. If there is any motivation, I think that's plenty."
"I like these rookies. They are aggressive, positive players... and they are going to come out firing. I want to have them go out there and try to win for the first time [in Europe] in 17 years."
"I think other people have said things like that to Tiger in the past and have maybe regretted it." Pavin's retort to McIlroy's observation that Tiger Woods had lost his aura.
"It wasn't so much a motivational speech, but maybe a little more awareness on how team unity and accountability to each other is important." After drafting in American fighter pilot Major Dan Rooney to talk to his players.
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