The Ryder Cup: Fighting Tiger makes his point

Putting touch continues to desert Woods but that familiar air of certainty at last returns to his stride; Andrew Longmore sees an unlikely partnership rise above the strain
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IN TIME, Tiger Woods might look back on his early struggles in the Ryder Cup and laugh at his own fallibility. But not just yet. Woods' travails continued yesterday, in the unlikely company of Steve Pate, his fifth partner in as many days of Ryder Cup play between Valderrama and Brookline.

The pair did beat Miguel Angel Jimenez and Padraig Harrington to level the second morning's foursomes, but having begun as if determined to be back in the clubhouse for a late breakfast, winning the first three holes, they barely had time for a lunchtime sandwich so stout was the European resistance. Match play golf is still probing the flaws in Woods' psyche. At long last, though, Woods might have found a suitable foil for his talent.

"Our personalities gelled really well," said Woods. Given his accident- prone nature, the idea of placing your prized asset into Pate's custody seemed about as sound as letting your teenage son borrow the new car for the weekend. But Pate is a tough character and a solid pro when the temper which has earned him the nickname "Volcano" is held in check. Cries of "Come on, Steve" have not exactly echoed round the golf courses of his life, so the absence of any noticeable personal support for him yesterday would not have dented his ego. His years of anonymity did not end just because he was the guy playing the shots that Tiger didn't play. And Pate had a score to settle with the Ryder Cup himself, having injured himself driving to the banquet on his last appearance in 1991

Finding a suitable partner for Woods has exercised the mind of Ben Crenshaw, the US captain, more than he would care to admit. After a lengthy team meeting, picking over the bones of a shattering opening day, Crenshaw asked Pate to take the next dance, though the rationale was a little convoluted. Steve's brother John had once played with Tiger, knew him well and was a fair player himself. It seemed as good a reason as any.

To be fair to Woods, Crenshaw has been guilty of talking up his No 1 player to an almost unhealthy degree. As if the natural adulation which accompanies him every step of the way round the Brookline Country Club was not enough of a burden, Crenshaw had turned his star turn into the unwitting totem of a team expected to dominate what has been quaintly referred to in the local press as "the little team that couldn't".

Woods' stride from the start betrayed an ominous jauntiness and there was a familiar air of certainty in his opening approach shots. He seemed genuinely comfortable in Pate's company, smiling, laughing and taking notable interest in the line of his partner's putts. The Americans' digestion over breakfast would not have been helped by the disdainful tone of the coverage in the national press. "Putt up or shut up" was the headline on the back of the Boston Herald. Woods was not spared the general flak. His Ryder Cup record of won one, lost five was widely ridiculed.

A six-iron to within conceding distance at the first, a tee-shot to 10 feet at the second for Pate to roll home the birdie, and an immaculate mid-iron from the left-hand rough at the third were shots fashioned by the need for revenge. Pate simply rolled home the putts. All was sweetness, if not light in the morning gloom. The crowd sensed the urgency and hollered their support. With a screech of brakes, Mark James, the Europe captain, arrived to see the trouble for himself. Sadly, for the home team, no one had told the Europeans they were to be the conductors for the Woods spark.

On the fourth hole, as the rain beat down, Woods rolled in a 15-foot putt for birdie, which seemed certain to put the Americans four up. But from somewhere in his memory bank, Harrington, a fringe figure to that moment, summoned a hole-saving putt of similar length to stem the momentum. It was still 8.40 in the morning.

The Irishman holed another 10-footer to lessen the gap at the sixth after Woods had tried to drive 310 yards to the green and ended up in the pine trees to the left of the fairway. A half-hour break for heavy rain and threatened lightning further disrupted the Americans' rhythm and Harrington rammed home a critical putt to cut the lead back to a single hole.

By the ninth, the impromptu American pairing were showing the first signs of strain, a terrible second shot by Woods being compounded by a ragged approach from Pate. By the 12th hole, the three-hole lead had evaporated and Woods had resumed his Ryder Cup face, a mixture of disbelief and injustice which has become all too familiar to the American public these past two days. But just as the Irish-Hispanic combination were starting to sense the chance to complete a momentous comeback, Woods produced another fleeting moment of magic, a monstrous putt for an eagle on the 14th putting the Americans back into the lead.

That seemed to be decisive, except that given the chance to finish off the match with a straightforward birdie putt on the 17th, Woods' sure touch on the greens deserted him again. A wayward drive, matched by Harrington, on a nervy final hole needed a paternal rescue shot by Pate to seal a breathless victory for the world Nos1 and 11.

Wisely, having found the ideal partner, Crenshaw paired Pate and Woods again in the afternoon, where they came up against the robust Scottish pairing of Colin Montgomerie and Paul Lawrie. It proved another ding-dong battle.

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