Woods' hug for friend Clarke only heightens anticipation

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The Independent Online

It will be the image of Ryder Cup 2006, no matter what is to unfold here in the next five days. Tiger Woods hugging his friend and opponent Darren Clarke. There was barely a dry eye in Co Kildare.

Of course, there were a few cynics suggesting that it must have been staged, occurring as it did in front of so many fans, not to mention photographers and cameraman. But when the pair did see each other their actions were indeed spontaneous.

Woods, having finished his morning round on the Cup's first official practice day, was the lone figure he so often is on the driving range, waging war with his boomer when Clarke stepped off the nearby ninth green on his way to the 10th tee. Spotting each other, both dropped their clubs and walked 50 yards to meet in the middle. And so a thousand cameras clicked. Woods had not seen Clarke since the latter's wife died of cancer last month.

It was an emotional beginning to a week that always promised to be. Clarke is here as a competitor, nothing more, nothing less, although the extra perspective his presence brings is inevitable. The tension that usually precedes the Ryder Cup has been replaced by anticipation. These teams are here for the experience as well as the win.

It was a fact best evidenced by Woods' willingness to enjoy it. At the first night's bonding session, Tom Lehman, the American captain, asked each member of the side to stand up and sing their college anthem. Unable to bear doing it, Woods made his excuses and left. But then when they all got back to the team room he relented. "He wasn't good and he didn't like doing it, but he did," revealed his team-mate Scott Verplank. "I wouldn't recommend he go to a recording studio or anything. Tom got him a little on the embarrassed side, which was good, and everybody had a good laugh."

That incident exemplifies what personal sacrifices Woods is making for the team effort. Of course, just by going out with the rest of the team to practise, Woods has proved this as he used to go out on his own at dawn. "He is less reserved and is asserting himself a little bit more socially than he has done in the past," added Verplank. "He's kind of buying into this having 11 buddies with him for a week instead of just this 'me against the world' thing. I can see how it is hard for him to let down some of his guard and fall under somebody else's schedule. But I think he understands that to play well in this event that's what he's got to do and I think he's making some steps to do that."

Playing with Jim Furyk in the partnership that seems guaranteed for the first two days, Woods went off first and led the way. Lehman's main-name pairings were what everyone thought they would be - Woods-Furyk, Phil Mickelson-Chris DiMarco, David Toms-Chad Campbell - and it was left for Europe to raise the eyebrows.

They did so with their garish costume - bright pink shirts, black and pink-trim trousers - and Ian Woosnam's pairings. Sergio Garcia was not expected to play with his fellow Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie not with David Howell. But was the European captain bluffing? Two more days until we find out.