When I spent some time with J.J. Henry right after he won the Buick Championship this summer, he seemed almost flabbergasted that he'd jumped into sixth place in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings. No question, he appeared apprehensive about the possibility of playing in golf's most pressurized event and about whether he actually deserved to be on the team. To say Henry had doubts about the situation would not be an overstatement.
A phone conversation with J.J. last week revealed an entirely different guy -- confident and eager to take on the Europeans later this month in Ireland. The longer Henry and I talked, the more it became obvious that, by taking the four Ryder Cup rookies to dinner last month at the Bridgestone Invitational, Tiger Woods totally changed the mental disposition of this squad.
How much this Tiger Effect will help the Americans once the matches begin is anybody's guess, but I think it could be huge. Henry, for one, has always struggled to realize how talented a player he is. "The biggest thing I got out of [dinner] is that all four of us earned our way onto the team," he said. "Tiger made that very clear. It's not like we were captain's picks. Say what you want about the system, but we played our way in, and Tiger really emphasized that."
As much as people tend to overvalue the importance of team chemistry at these events, Woods obviously is a special player whose attitude is felt by everyone around him. His stepping forward and finally taking the initiative as a leader makes this U.S. team at least two points better than it was in mid-August. The Yanks still face a very difficult task in beating the Euros in Ireland, but I'm no longer among those who don't think this squad has a chance.
And as much as I like the idea of Woods and Jim Furyk playing together in all four partnered sessions, a Tiger-Henry victory in a four-ball match could prove to be one of the biggest points of the week. The Europeans have taught the U.S. all about the value of momentum at this gathering. It's time the U.S. finally got the snowball rolling in the right direction. So far, so good.
John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.