Tiger Woods proved he belongs

PARAMUS, N.J. -- Steve Williams stored the world-famous golf bag he carries for a living and watched Tiger Woods drive away from the two state troopers guarding him, drive away in a BMW courtesy car leaving Ridgewood Country Club three hours before the leaders came home.

Even before he said some not-so-neighborly things about Phil Mickelson, even before his boss lit a match to the gasoline he poured all over his personal life, Williams was never much of a conversationalist, the caddie often borrowing Tiger's Do Not Disturb sign to hang around his own neck.

But after Woods was done shooting his 67 and finishing The Barclays at 7 under, a country mile behind the eventual playoff winner, Matt Kuchar, Williams agreed to field a few questions about the state of Tiger's game.

Stevie, as he's known around tour, has seen his share of swing changes from his front-row seat, so he speaks from a position of authority when declaring Tiger won't be chasing his own tail for long.

"He has produced better shots quicker than he did with his other swing changes," Williams said. "So the turning point this time will be quicker than a lot of people expect."

In other words, quick enough for Tiger Woods to make himself a slam-dunk qualifier for Corey Pavin's final four.

What looked like a downhill, left-to-right 35-footer for bogey at Firestone was reduced to a tap-in birdie at The Barclays. Tiger belongs in Wales as a member of the United States Ryder Cup team. He should be there, he needs to be there, and Pavin will almost certainly put him there as one of his four captain's picks.

Quick, do a survey of Pavin's little circle of wild-card hopefuls. Zach Johnson. Stewart Cink. Sean O'Hair. Anthony Kim. Lucas Glover. Ben Crane. Rickie Fowler.

You'd have an easier time convincing Colin Montgomerie to return the Ryder Cup to Brookline than you'd have pulling four of those names from Pavin's list ahead of Woods.

"He's No. 1," said Padraig Harrington, among Monty's European picks announced Sunday. "How could you not pick him?"

Harrington went on to answer his own question.

"Mind you, we didn't pick somebody -- Paul [Casey] is in the top 10, right?" Harrington said. "We didn't pick somebody in the top 10. That's a great state of affairs in Europe."

Only Monty's problem isn't Pavin's problem, and Paul Casey isn't Tiger Woods any more than Dan Quayle was Jack Kennedy.

No, the New Tiger isn't the Old Tiger, not yet, anyway. He had everyone going, me included, with a first-round 65 here and then with a reminder that he still plans on breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles, and that Ben Hogan won all nine of his after his 34th birthday.

The 34-year-old Tiger looked and sounded ready to leap out of his sorry FedEx Cup ranking of 112th and grab this ill-conceived system by the throat. And then he started missing putts. And then he pulled a fairway wood on the first tee and hooked his ball onto the Garden State Parkway.

"When you make a significant swing change," Williams said, "that's going to happen. When you play one way and make a change, sometimes you're going to revert to that old swing."

On Saturday's opening tee shot, the one that cost him a chance to claim his first post-scandal victory, Woods was caught between Hank Haney's rock and Sean Foley's hard place. He fought back from the triple-bogey ("A fantastic effort," Williams said) and played himself a credible round of 4 under Sunday, but in the end Tiger tipped his cap to the crowd around the 18th green at 2:30 p.m., much too early for his red shirt's liking.

Woods landed among the 100 players who advanced to the second round of the playoffs outside of Boston, moving up to No. 65, and his caddie maintained his man did it all on blood and guts. "Tiger could've easily shot himself out of the top 100," Williams said, "and he didn't do that."

The fans appreciated the effort. The announcer at the 18th green first introduced Michael Sim before doing his Michael Buffer best to fire up the gallery for Woods, who acknowledged his rock star roar. Even in defeat and in divorce, Tiger was Elvis out there, stirring the crowds and creating the buzz like only the one and only can.

"I certainly haven't won all year," Woods said. "But this is a week that I was very close at. I felt that if I would have put it together on the greens for all four days, I would have been right there."

Everyone knows Tiger's Ryder Cup record doesn't match his Grand Slam record, and everyone knows the victorious American team came across as a monument to good chemistry two years back, when Woods was on the surgical mend.

But Tiger's practically a given to win his singles match, and the American team is more likely to embrace an emasculated, humbled Woods (see: Alex Rodriguez, 2009 Yankees) than a self-centered megastar who preferred to go it alone (see: Alex Rodriguez, 2004-2008 Yankees).

So even if he lands a drive on the Mass Pike this weekend and shoots 10 over, plunging from FedEx relevance, Tiger should make the cut.

Woods belongs on the postseason roster in Wales.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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