For Tiger Woods the Ryder Cup is supposed to be the last challenge but on a hauntingly beautiful day in County Kildare yesterday we learned, perhaps finally, that it is really nothing of the kind.
No, the great golf match, which for the greater part of a century has been bringing the best out of generations of leading players, is not a challenge for the Tiger, but a trial, an ordeal, even a torment, sent down to counter- balance all the other gifts and blessings that have been so heaped upon his shoulders - a trial from which there is maybe no discharge until he finally puts away his clubs.
The truth is that apart from the odd bolt from the sky, the occasional shot of absolute brilliance, almost everything in the Ryder Cup comes hard to Tiger Woods.
Heaven knows he has tried selflessly enough this time, stopping just short of wrapping himself in the Stars and Stripes and dancing to the tune of "Yankee Doodle-Dandy". In fact he was persuaded the other night to sing his old college song at a team meeting. He has taken rookies out to dinner, he has attempted to "bond" like an eager undergraduate. But always he looks just a little uncomfortable. He is doing something that, however admirable, may not be entirely prompted by his nature, and maybe still less his heart.
As the blue of Europe began to spread all over the scoreboard here, there were times when Tiger looked so out of sorts and out of place he might have been Keith Richards finding himself at the Last Night of the Proms.
It first went wrong a minute or two after 8am when, amid one of the most emotionally charged gatherings any kind of golf will ever know, Woods fired his tee shot into a lake.
His face was so etched in misery you had to believe that nothing else that happened to him before the dipping of the sun would quite so assault his spirit, but that was before the draw for the afternoon foursomes was made. This dictated a long afternoon in the company of Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald, young bucks who had mustered the temerity to attack his Ryder Cup record. Judging by the Tiger's sour expression as Garcia and Donald celebrated some early successes, and a two-hole lead, the fact that he had recently destroyed both of them on his way to his 11th and 12th major tournament victories was not of overpowering comfort.
Yet for all the raw spirit of the Tiger, for all the sense that he may never truly feel at home in team golf, it was impossible not to admire the extent of his determination to do the right thing by a home country which, in golf, had never expected so much. He and Jim Furyk made their stand against Garcia and Donald, which confirmed at least a hint of substance to the optimism that came after the mishap in the lake when the partnership fought back to beat Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, the Tiger's tormentors in Oakland Hills, Michigan, two years ago, by one hole.
It was a feat which involved a serious display of competitive character in that Woods may never have played quite so badly before a paying audience. He found the water again, he snarled and grunted his way into the sand, he agonised over shots that on his good days of stroke play he would dispatch like so many formal inquiries about the most basic of his ability. But from the depth of his discomfort, this long-suffered unease within the boundaries of a Ryder Cup, Woods at least showed that he had not forgotten how to fight, to respond to one of the most basic lessons of his late father, the old jungle fighter Earl.
The Tiger produced three birdies to first save, then win the match both captains - Ian Woosnam of Europe and America's Tom Lehman - insisted was vital to the momentum of the day ... and perhaps the whole event.
It happened again in the foursome duel with Garcia and Donald. Again he produced birdies under the fiercest of pressure to cut back a two-hole lead going into the back nine. Garcia, who shrivelled away under the pressure exerted by Woods while the American was winning the Open at Hoylake recently, was plainly hell-bent on a measure of revenge, at least something he could store for the benefit of his own confidence the next time he came into the company of the man who seems certain to overtake Jack Nicklaus's mark of 18 major tournament wins before the end of this decade.
Every time Garcia talked a fine shot through the air - and no one, not even Tiger, ever said the ageing infant prodigy cannot play some of the most beautifully sculpted shots ever seen on a golf course - there seemed to be a stiffening of the Tiger's body language. Then on the approach to the 16th green, we had the first of what the bull-fight crowd call mano-a-mano, hand-to-hand. Garcia won the first quite beautifully, leaving his shot a few feet from the flag. Woods was required to respond. In stroke play a killer shot would scarcely have raised an eyebrow, but now the Tiger could not get inside Garcia's ball nestling so close. Furyk had to produce a brilliant save, as he was expected to do in an almost identical situation on the next hole. But on the 17th the challenge was too much, and as Furyk's putt failed, once again the Tiger's shoulders slumped.
It meant that the 18th hole was a trial of not just what was left of the spirit of the world's greatest golfer and his most loyally committed partner, but the morale of the entire American team. The possibility was that a little bit too much pressure had been applied as Woods and Furyk strained for the half point that would bring some limit to that tide of blue. Soon enough we knew it had. Furyk hooked the second shot into the water and all but the last of Tiger's hopes had disappeared. All that was left to him was a superb iron shot but his partner could not produce another saving putt.
Garcia and Donald beat Woods and Furyk, the world's No 1 and 3 players, by two holes. It was a result which defied the rankings of individual success, but it perfectly illustrated the strange relationship of the Tiger and three days of golf which generally entrance the rest of the world. What they do to him, if we had begun to doubt it in the last few days of his claims that he had finally understood the point of Sam Ryder's old pot, is make all that normally seems so natural, so easy, almost alien.
For a few hours yesterday it was Sergio Garcia not Tiger Woods who looked like the master player of wonderful nerve and touch. Sergio could do anything he wanted. The Tiger could do, by his own standards, next to nothing. One day Tiger Woods may be freed from his trial, one day he may find the Ryder Cup just another piece of terrain at the top of the game he dominates in almost every other area.
But it will not be one day soon. That was the unavoidable truth as the Tiger walked away in the rain.Reuse content