Tiger is the United States' point man

So much has changed since Tiger Woods' ill-fated partnership with Phil Mickelson at the 2004 Ryder Cup, the most obvious difference being in Woods himself. Although Mickelson took most of the blame for America's superpower-gone-sour, Tiger arrived at Oakland Hills that September having not won a stroke-play tournament in almost a year. His commitment to swing coach Hank Haney six months earlier was under heavy scrutiny, panned by many as a move of high risk and questionable reward.

Woods wasn't even the world's top-ranked player at the time -- Vijay Singh had knocked him off his throne in Boston three weeks earlier. United States captain Hal Sutton thought he was doing everyone a favor by sending Mickelson and Tiger out together. Not only had he violated the laws of compatibility, he paired a guy who had just made a major equipment change with another in the process of altering his mechanics.

It led to the worst U.S. loss in Ryder Cup history and makes for an unsightly backdrop as the Yanks head to Ireland with four new faces, five if you count Woods. Criticized in recent years for his perceived indifference to the event, for his 7-11-2 record and reluctance to step forward as a take-charge leader, Woods --- the club-slamming, pressure-damning warrior with 12 major titles - now sports a brand-new set of pom-poms.

"I know he's looking forward to it," says Haney, who refers to this particular battle against Europe as "a different kind of challenge. Being an underdog is something Tiger is really enjoying. He doesn't have much experience at it, you know."

Indeed not. Although five consecutive victories will brighten anybody's mood, Woods already had come a long way in embracing the Ryder Cup for what it is: an overhyped, flag-friendly test of stamina and nerves made more demanding by a procession of functions that require a jacket and tie. These social obligations are a big reason Tiger has struggled to come to terms with the event. During the week of a major championship, he does little more than relax, work out and play golf. This is the one instance when his competitive cocoon is turned upside-down.

If you don't win much, that might be a good thing. If you're Tiger Woods, it's a radical departure from a successful routine. "I like getting my rest and being fully charged, ready to go," Woods says. "It's not just the [matches], but everything else going on around it. You don't get the sleep you want, but, hey, it's an adjustment you have to make."

In his pre-tournament news conference at the Deutsche Bank Championship, Woods was pelted with Ryder Cup inquiries. Two years ago, he probably wouldn't have tolerated a barrage of questions about an event several weeks in the distance, but on this occasion, he answered them all and even added several touches of rare insight, though we probably shouldn't get too used to such depth.

Woods on his successful partnership with Jim Furyk at last year's Presidents Cup: "Believe it or not, Jim and I play the game the same way -- I just hit the ball farther. Our beliefs strategically, how we read greens, how we go about getting around the golf course, we're almost identical. Our speed [on the greens] is generally the same. We read putts and pick our spots through our feet. We're trying to get a feel for the terrain in our feet and with our sight."

On taking the four Ryder Cup rookies to dinner after the second round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational: "I think people read too much into it. I just wanted to explain to them some of the things I went through at my first [Ryder Cup, in 1997], some of the things they can expect. There are a lot of different things that go into it before you get to play golf."

On assuming a greater leadership role with the '06 squad: "I think I've earned my right. When I first played on these teams, I hadn't. I was still wet behind the ears and hadn't earned my stripes. Davis [Love III], Freddie [Couples], Jay Haas and Payne [Stewart], those guys were the leaders. They had been out here for 15 or 20 years."

Say what you want about Woods' prior reticence, but to understand it, consider who he is and where he came from. His mother, Kultida, was born and raised in Thailand, meaning Tiger quickly grasped the concept of respecting one's elders that is so essential to Asian culture. It's worth adding that his late father, Earl, was 43, and a career military man when Tiger was born. His son always has felt comfortable around people two or three times his own age.

So the kid wasn't about to walk into his first Ryder Cup meeting and start telling his teammates what to do. It's simply not his style. "Davis filled that [vocal] role for quite a while," says Furyk, who isn't exactly a fanny-slapper himself. "Leadership comes in different forms. Tiger isn't the cheerleader type or a rah-rah guy, but just because he's not that way doesn't mean his leadership isn't felt."

Still, perception has to count for something, and there have been times over the years when Woods projected himself as unenthused about the Ryder Cup. In 1999 he was among four players (with Mickelson, David Duval and Mark O'Meara) who openly campaigned for the reallocation of Ryder Cup revenue. However righteous the cause, the players were castigated for what many considered a self-serving stand. The mainstream media did its part, leading the public to believe the four players wanted to stuff the money in their pockets, not earmark it to the charities of their choice.

Woods always has harbored an abnormally strong disdain toward those who benefit financially from his greatness, be it an organization such as the PGA of America or some sportswriter authoring a biography. His feelings about the Ryder Cup certainly weren't bolstered when the PGA never seriously considered O'Meara, his longtime friend, for the 2006 U.S. captaincy.

The appointment went to Tom Lehman, who phoned Woods shortly after being named skipper in late 2004. Tiger never returned the call, however, telling Lehman through a third party that he would see him out on tour. As one might expect, Lehman never said a word about the snub, but it wasn't exactly the birdie-birdie start he was hoping for in his tenure.

As the U.S. squad began to take shape this summer, however, leaving Lehman with too many rookies and a shortage of decorated veterans, Woods knew his presence and support were desperately needed. He rearranged his off-course plans shortly after the team was finalized and accompanied the group to Ireland earlier this month, a mission based solely on building team camaraderie. "He would not have changed his schedule if he wasn't ready to take on a leadership role," Haney confirms.

It certainly wasn't for the frequent-flyer miles. Tiger has played the K Club numerous times and stays at the hotel on his pre-British Open fishing trips. This familiarity with the golf course is yet another reason to believe he will excel next week. And for the first time in five Ryder Cups, there is little wonder as to whom he will be paired with -- Furyk is sure to draw the assignment in at least three sessions, perhaps all four.

Lehman might send J.J. Henry out with Woods in one of the four-ball matches, but if Tiger and Furyk are clicking, there won't be any shuffling. Unlike Mickelson, who uses a golf ball with a very low spin rate, Furyk won't have any problems getting used to Woods' high-spin Nike model. "I wouldn't do well with the low spin because I need to keep the ball in the air," Furyk says. "I've hit his ball in practice hoping we'll play together, and I'll do whatever I have to do to adjust."

This gives the U.S. a superb anchor pairing, although Woods' recent extraordinary form suggests he can handle any two Europeans by himself. "I was paired with Jack [Nicklaus] several times, and we never lost," says Tom Watson. "Jack said once, kind of tongue-in-cheek but with an element of truth to it, 'We're 2 up when we tee off against these guys, Tom.' There is an intimidation factor if you're playing against Tiger Woods."

Maybe so, but it hasn't always been so easy to tell. A large collection of Europeans have beaten Woods and his various partners over the years -- Tiger has won just two of eight career alternate-shot matches. Woods is quick to defend his poor overall record by saying, "I've shot a 63 and two 65s in [four-balls] and come away with only one point," but he knows better than anyone that his putting hasn't been nearly as sharp at the Ryder Cup as it has been at a majority of the majors.

This year, however, the past almost seems irrelevant. Woods has never entered a Ryder Cup on a run like the one he's on now. He did win three of his last five starts leading into the '99 matches, but that's not five straight, nor did that stretch feature the type of versatile dominance we've seen over the last two months. Going into the Buick Open in early August, Tiger led the tour in average proximity to the hole (28 feet) but somehow ranked 191st in three-putt avoidance, a statistical combination you would expect from a 12-handicap.

Four starts later, Tiger jumped to 132nd in the latter category. By Haney's count, Woods has three-putted just twice in those four wins. "Making putts is great, but you can't throw strokes away," Haney says. "Tiger's thirst to improve does not end. It actually gets deeper every time he has some success."

Perhaps the strongest sign of change occurred when Woods took the Ryder Cup rookies to dinner -- in the middle of a tournament, no less. "It was pretty cool," says first-timer Vaughn Taylor. "He definitely had our attention. He went over match-play strategy, which I thought was pretty helpful, and he really made us feel comfortable. Anything he says, you're going to listen."

This party of five could not have come at a better time, as Woods continues to evolve as both a player and a teammate, always on his own terms. Having knocked his final approach that day onto the clubhouse roof, then received a free drop, the least Tiger could do was reach for the check. "You wouldn't believe some of the questions I've been asked about that night," Henry says. "I mean, people want to know what Tiger had for dinner, and I honestly don't remember, but I do know he whipped out a couple of hundos [$100 bills] and paid for it."

Man, things really are different.

John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine