Tiger still searching for Ryder Cup glory

At some point during the third round of last month's NEC Invitational, Jim Furyk turned to his playing partner that afternoon and suggested U.S. Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton would do well to pair them together in a four-ball match at Oakland Hills. Before his sassy headcover could utter a word, Tiger Woods quipped, "You might not say that if you knew my record," to which Furyk replied, "I don't care what your record is. I'd still like to partner up."

It's worth noting that Furyk was specific about a four-ball alliance; only a sadist would want to hunt down Woods' errant drives of late, much less play them, in the alternate-shot format. But even when he was presiding high and mighty over golf's universe, hitting fairways and holing every putt he had to make, Woods never approached that same level of dominance in the Ryder Cup.

His 5-8-2 mark is the only real blemish in a career full of astonishing statistics. A member of the last three U.S. teams, Woods has lost five consecutive matches on the first day of competition. Not until 2002 did he win back-to-back matches of any kind; those victories occurred with Davis Love III. Prior to the Love connection, Woods played 10 rounds of four-ball and foursomes with seven different partners. He won just twice.

This is hardly what anyone expected from a kid who entered golf's conscience as a match-play magician, a guy who captured three straight U.S. Amateurs with a greater flair for the dramatic than Bette Davis on a bad hair day. "He gets everybody's best shot," says Mark O'Meara, the first of those eight Yanks to team with Woods. "I can remember playing some of my best rounds with Jack Nicklaus when I was younger. He's also had some matches where he shot seven or eight under on his own ball and didn't win. I can't recall a single match where he played poorly."

That hasn't stopped skeptics from questioning Woods' commitment to the Ryder Cup, a relationship that has endured several rough periods and gotten little help from the myopic musings of America's mainstream media. There was ill will before Woods ever struck a shot in the competition -- the PGA of America wouldn't allow Tiger's father, Earl, to fly on the team charter to Spain in 1997. Despite Woods being the only player on that U.S. squad without a significant other in attendance, his attempts to justify his dad's inclusion were summarily denied. In a metaphorical sense, this amounted to a triple bogey on the opening hole.

On this and all other matters involving the biennial matches against Europe, Woods declined an interview request with Golf World, saying, "I don't want to talk about the Ryder Cup." He said it neither maliciously nor mischievously, as if he long ago realized speaking candidly on such a volatile topic does nobody any good. Tiger's silence forces us to examine the game's most visible player and golf's most intense week through the eyes of others. What emerges is a portrait of bright and dark colors, an incomplete canvas that leaves perspective in the eye of the beholder.

"All I can tell you is, the negative press he's gotten from the Ryder Cup is very unfounded," says Curtis Strange, the 2002 U.S. captain. "Nobody is a better team player, (but) he's not a rah-rah guy. He was the very first one to sign the memorabilia every morning at 6 a.m. We're talking about something like 200 items -- he'd get it out of the way and get on with business, and I can tell you, there were a couple of players, who shall remain nameless, I had to pester right up to the end of the day."

As was the case in his first three Ryder Cups, Woods will be the youngest player on the U.S. team at Oakland Hills. This has created an unusual dichotomy -- the world's most talented and accomplished golfer dropped into an atmosphere where seniority rules, where protocol dictates older players communicate directly with the captain and assume overt leadership responsibilities. By all accounts, Woods has done an excellent job of maintaining a low profile while still dealing with the burden of being himself.

"He's good at taking a role when it's his turn to take it," Love says. "And he's very good at not overstepping his boundaries."

Although Woods obviously knows his teammates better now than in his '97 debut, he didn't exactly hand out boxes of chocolate when he arrived at Valderrama. Some couldn't help but consider him standoffish, but as Love points out, "He was basically a rookie on a national team." Adds Furyk: "Tiger's first Ryder Cup was my first Ryder Cup. He was 21 years old and (O'Meara) was his only close friend. He didn't know (captain) Tom Kite very well. He hadn't been around very long."

Having turned pro 13 months earlier amidst a Beatlemania-like buzz, Woods won the Masters by 12 strokes the following April. At that point, hope had become larger than hype, but Tiger was leery and defensive by the end of his first full season. He already had alienated some of his PGA Tour brethren that May with comments about winning in Dallas with his "C" game, then caused additional friction by refusing to sign other players' charity donations.

Throw in the dirty-joke fallout from a GQ profile, and the snub of an invitation to attend Jackie Robinson Night at Shea Stadium, and the early diagnosis was that Woods swallowed too much fame. "He had a reputation for separating himself from the tour, sort of the way (Greg) Norman did," Furyk adds. "It can be unfair. He's like myself in that he's a bit of a loner."

It's also hard to imagine a more adverse setting in which to begin your Ryder Cup experience than at Valderrama. Each morning featured a torrential downpour, delaying matches that would take almost six hours to play. Although his players, to a man, still defend Kite's performance as captain, Valderrama is where questions regarding the U.S. team's effort and preparation started to surface.

Only a handful of team members accompanied Kite on a scouting trip to Valderrama earlier that summer, Woods among them. But when the team arrived in Spain that September, they discovered a quirky, position-friendly layout on which local knowledge could not be obtained in a couple of practice rounds. The U.S. trailed by five points after two days, an insurmountable margin despite a noble Sunday charge.

You wouldn't have known it two years later in Boston. Woods was beaten twice Friday before splitting his Saturday matches alongside Steve Pate. Having lost with Tom Lehman and David Duval, two players of much higher profile, Tiger's partnership with Pate came about after some typically abstract thinking by skipper Ben Crenshaw. "To pair Tiger with anybody drove me nuts," Crenshaw recalled in May 2001. "It was funny when someone mentioned Steve Pate. I can't remember whether Steve came to me or somebody else, but Tiger knew his brother [John Pate, a high-level California amateur]. They had played some golf together, and it worked.

"From Saturday afternoon on," Crenshaw has said more than once, "everything just kind of fell into place."

If there was a point when Woods finally came to terms with the Ryder Cup, it would be that same evening. Facing a four-point deficit and in serious danger of losing to Europe for a third consecutive time, the U.S. squad gathered for two hours of intense reflection and unprecedented soul searching. Many in the team room that night recall seeing a Tiger they never had seen before: communicatively accessible, unusually spiritual, perhaps even a bit vulnerable.

Woods spent those two hours sitting atop a piano with a can of "whoop-ass" -- a novelty item Ben and Julie Crenshaw had bought for him that summer. "The whole thing started in Spain," Julie would later say. "They were going around the room Saturday night (at Valderrama) and Tiger said, 'See that can over there? That's a can of Whoop Ass. Let's go out and whoop some ass tomorrow!' He said it as a joke -- I think Amy Mickelson (Phil's wife) told us about it. So we were in Telluride (Colorado) on vacation, and in a storefront window was this can of Whoop Ass. I said to Ben, 'We've got to get this for Tiger!' I wrapped it in the worst brown paper you can imagine, and he probably wondered what on earth we were giving him.

"Tiger opened it and had everybody sign it. He said it was the best present anybody had ever gotten him."

Things had not been so wonderful six weeks earlier, when Crenshaw implicated four of his players as being greedy and financially consumed at a news conference prior to the PGA Championship. Although Crenshaw didn't name names, you didn't need access to the team diary to know Woods and O'Meara were among those campaigning for reallocation of millions of dollars in Ryder Cup revenue. Crenshaw's public acknowledgement of the disagreement drove a stake through the team's delicate psyche, leading to one of the most fractious internal squabbles in the event's history.

If the Yanks hadn't won 8½ of 12 points in the Sunday singles to complete their miracle comeback, who knows how the teary-eyed events of Saturday evening might have played out? "To me, Tiger always seems guarded," Sutton would later admit. "He wasn't guarded on that piano. It was like, 'OK, I'm going to let you all know me for a minute.' People saw some things in him that they'd never seen before."

That isn't to say the Woods of 2004 is an unlocked door. Strange gave Tiger immense freedom in 2002, setting very few rules and allowing the eight-time major champion to prepare for the matches as if he were tuning up for a British Open. Thus, Woods began his practice rounds at The Belfry before 7 a.m., annoying the British press, which only needs a few grains of sand to turn a molehill into a mountain. "He had full permission from me to go early, as long as he played with someone," Strange says. "And he did with (Mark) Calcavecchia."

As for the brushflap that ensued when Woods wore a different uniform than his teammates in '02, Strange doesn't shortchange himself on an opinion. "He could wear pink pants and a purple shirt, for all I care," the ex-skipper says. "As long as he wins, I don't give a rat's ass, and you can print that. He was perfect. He had more fun playing all the games and playing with my kids -- there's nobody you have to worry about less when they get to the first tee. There were some guys who could have been a little more motivated over there, but I can't say enough about how Tiger prepared himself."

Still, the results weren't there. Again, Woods lost both his Friday matches -- a four-ball tilt with Paul Azinger and in foursomes with Calcavecchia. "I made five birdies and carried him," is how Azinger remembers the partnership. "He played well, but I don't think we were a good team. There just wasn't any chemistry. There has to be some camaraderie, some natural conversation. It wasn't like Chip Beck and I (in 1991), chatting the whole time. Tiger went his way, I went mine."

Azinger's frankness sheds light on the fragile blending of personalities -- not just styles of play -- that can make a huge difference in the Ryder Cup. Finding two guys with compatible dispositions is probably more important than matching alternate-shot players who use the same type of golf ball. "Why did we lose [by three points in '02]? We didn't make enough birdies," Love says, referring to the U.S. squad as a whole. "It wasn't because of team chemistry or the captain or because Tiger didn't get along with Davis."

For Love, the most decorated of the Yanks, Oakland Hills will be his sixth Ryder Cup. He has seen how each group of men comes together in its own way and how a loss allows critics to turn a supposed lack of camaraderie into a built-in excuse. "I started playing in '93," Love says. "I thought it was going to be all super-serious, totally about the golf. So I get on the Concorde and Azinger had half the team around a table playing a (dice) game called pass the pig. Tom Watson (the '93 captain) had to make us go to bed every night because we'd be up playing Jenga or pass the pig. Just because we spend a lot of time together on the golf course doesn't mean we don't enjoy each other's company off it."

O'Meara, who has played on five U.S. teams, doesn't see it in such simple terms, saying, "I think it's always been a little awkward for us, 12 guys thrown into a room and having somebody say, 'OK, we're gonna be a team this week. We're gonna do this together and that together, and we're all going to have a lot of fun.' You look at Tiger's personality -- some of the greats to ever play this game have a hard side to them. Ballesteros, Norman, Hogan -- all were very individualistic."

It's fair to say Woods began his career sharing O'Meara's discomfort level but steadily has gravitated toward the healthier perspective owned by Love. At the '02 Ryder Cup, Tiger's Ping Pong battles with Phil Mickelson became one of the social attractions of the week. That both men were superb at table tennis allowed them to forge a common bond outside the ropes. The notion that Woods and Mickelson are highly competitive is not a matter for subjective interpretation.

On the eve of the 35th Ryder Cup, Woods clearly isn't the ultra-intimidating, trophy-raiding presence of a few years back. Still, you need only to look at last November's Presidents Cup for recent evidence of the guy's willpower and ability to perform under extreme pressure. Representing the entire U.S. squad in a sudden-death playoff against Ernie Els, Woods simply refused to lose, holing tough putts on all three extra holes before darkness forced a tie.

Tiger proposed marriage to girlfriend Elin Nordegren the next day. This partnership stuff may not be so difficult after all. An only child with a supreme sense of entitlement and the greatest weight of expectations ever placed on a golfer's shoulders, Woods' improved attitude toward the Ryder Cup might be all it takes to improve his record. At that point, the can of Whoop Ass will assume a more literal connotation. "You've got to pat him on the butt once in a while, remind him how much you need him," Strange says. "I don't care how great a player you are. Everybody needs that."

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