The evolution of Tiger Woods as a Ryder Cup teammate

PARIS -- For all of his greatness over the years, through all of the multiple-victory seasons and major championships and No. 1 rankings and myriad accolades, Tiger Woods never saw that level of success translate to the Ryder Cup.

Expected, perhaps unfairly, to carry the U.S. teams through a run of Ryder Cup competitions against Europe that dates to 1997 for him, Woods has been more failure than force, playing on only one winning team and posting an overall losing record.

And to punctuate just how frustrating the process has been over the years, Woods has played with 12 different partners in 26 team matches -- never winning more than two matches with any single partner.

Now entering his eighth Ryder Cup after capturing his 80th PGA Tour title Sunday at the Tour Championship, the dynamic looks and feels different. Gone are the days when Woods was the big target and expected to be dynamic. And finding a suitable partner for him, a struggle all this time, now appears more a matter of leaving someone out.

"Back then, he was trying to carry the whole team on his shoulders,'' said Davis Love III, the U.S. captain in 2012 and 2016, as well as a teammate of Woods in four Ryder Cups. "He couldn't figure out his role. And then we kept asking him to play with different people. I remember not wanting to screw up a good thing.

"[To play with Tiger at the Ryder Cup] requires a chance to prepare for a couple of weeks, and that's what Phil [Mickelson] has been talking about. I got thrown in on Friday night to play Saturday morning alternate shot with Tiger in an away game (2002), and that kept happening to guys. It was intimidating. When you feel pressure because it's your own teammate, that doesn't really help. Then he put pressure on himself to carry the team and his teammate. It just wasn't working.''

It started out well enough. At Woods' first Ryder Cup, at Valderrama, in Spain, in 1997, he was paired with buddy Mark O'Meara. It seemed the perfect team. Woods and O'Meara knew each other well. They defeated Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer 3 and 2 in four-ball.

And it was the last time Woods had a winning record at the Ryder Cup.

He didn't win another match in Spain, and he lost singles to Costantino Rocca in a 14½ to 13½ U.S. defeat. It was the last time he lost at singles, going 4-0-2 in his past six Ryder Cup final-day matches.

But the team aspect always remained a problem. Woods is 9-16-1 with partners. His best records are 2-1 with Love, 1-0 with Chris Riley (during a 2004 blowout loss) and 2-2 with this year's captain, Jim Furyk. He seemed to find another good partner in Steve Stricker, going 2-1 in Wales in 2010. But they were disastrous together at Medinah in 2012, going 0-3.

"Tiger is an intimidator even if he doesn't try to be one,'' said Paul Azinger, who played one match with Woods at the 2002 Ryder Cup and lost. "When I was his partner, I thought there was a standard he was expecting out of me and I had one I was expecting from him. And neither one of us reached that standard. He's intimidating to his partners.''

Azinger was the winning U.S. captain in 2008, when he instituted a pod system where pairings would come from three groups of four players. Woods missed the Ryder Cup that year because of his recovery from knee surgery, but Azinger had a plan for him.

"He was going with the redneck group,'' Azinger said, laughing, referring to the pod that had Kenny Perry, Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes. "Jim Furyk played with those guys and loved it, but he would have been happy to go anywhere. My philosophy was to put him with three guys who would not affect his legacy.

"Tiger used to be uncomfortable with those who were comfortable with him. The guys who were comfortable gave him trouble. I would have wanted him with guys who he felt would never been a threat to him.''

It is easy to see that view. Woods was not one to let many people in back when he was dominating the game. O'Meara was an easy partner since they were good friends. Love was 12 years older, and Mark Calcavecchia, a frequent practice-round partner, was 16 years older than Woods.

But his so-called rivals? That's why the 2004 pairing with Mickelson was seemingly doomed to failure. Although it was not the disaster often portrayed (they lost 2 and 1 in four-balls to Padraig Harrington and Montgomerie, then 1-up in foursomes to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood), the fact they went 0-2 and the team was trounced did not help the cause.

That week, Mickelson infamously practiced away from the team on the day before the Ryder Cup, and two years ago at Hazeltine, some of his long-held bitterness toward 2004 captain Hal Sutton spilled over in a rant about the players having no say, although Mickelson doesn't believe today it should have been hard to find partners for Woods.

"You almost had a diffusion of responsibility,'' Mickelson said. "When you'd be partnered with him, you'd let him do all the work because he's so good. And you don't get focused on your own game and play your best golf. I think that has been something that has happened to him over his career.''

Things have changed so much that the idea of Mickelson partnering again with Woods, while unlikely, doesn't seem so far-fetched.

"I think we would both welcome it,'' Mickelson said.

When the subject of pairings is broached with Woods, he goes inside baseball, viewing the situation from a technical standpoint rather than any kind of anxiety or personality issues.

Until the 2016 Ryder Cup, players were required to abide by a rule in place on all the pro tours that required them to use the same brand and type of golf ball all throughout a round.

This became a problem in the alternate-shot format (foursomes), because Woods' partner would then be required to play shots with an unfamiliar golf ball, one that was tailored to his skills.

"Tiger wasn't about to use his partner's ball,'' said Calcavecchia, who played one match with Woods and lost at the 2002 Ryder Cup. "I actually didn't think it would be a problem. The Nike ball he was using back then was made by Bridgestone, and I was fine with that.

"But I remember a couple of instances where I hit iron shots in alternate shot, and I flushed a shot and thought it was plenty of club, and it would come up short. That ball he used all those years went nowhere. It spun a lot and went nowhere. It was hard for guys to get used to that in one match. I never understood why he didn't just use a Titleist, and it would be easier for his partner. Let's face it, Tiger could play anything. But sure, that had some influence on his partners.''

His lack of personal success in the Ryder Cup, combined with a couple of cryptic quotes about the competition in his earlier days, led many to believe that Woods was not fully invested in the competition.

Speaking once about his lackluster record, Woods asked the questioner if he knew Jack Nicklaus' Ryder Cup record. The point was that while most can rattle off Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles and that he won 73 PGA Tour events, his 16-8-3 Ryder Cup mark does not come readily to mind.

(Even Nicklaus had his struggles in the competition while never playing on a losing team: In 1975, under a different format, he lost two singles matches on the same day to England's Brian Barnes.)

Before the 2002 Ryder Cup at The Belfry in England, Woods played in the WGC-American Express Championship in Ireland. Asked if he'd rather win the tournament or the Ryder Cup the following week, Woods answered the former.

"And I can think of a million reasons why,'' he said, a reference to the $1 million in prize money.

While comments such as those did not help his cause, they do not necessarily tell the story, either.

"He was tremendous on the team,'' 2002 captain Curtis Strange said. "He was the first in line to do anything. He was the first one to sign the memorabilia we had to sign, all 200 things we had to sign. He was terrific. And he was a great teammate. And after [playing for] me, he became a little more of a spokesman. Back then he led more by example and he was still young. But he has done it the last couple of times, and especially as an assistant captain. He was tremendous.''

Love said Woods' uncertain playing status the past few years helped him get even more involved. Woods joined Mickelson on the Ryder Cup Task Force in late 2014 that helped select Love as the captain in 2016. He then became prominent behind the scenes with the 2015 Presidents Cup, and was a vice captain each of the past two years.

"He's taken Rickie [Fowler] and Justin Thomas under his wing,'' Love said. "He's a different Tiger Woods. We know him now. We see him as a friend and a teammate and also a really good golfer. Before it was, 'He's Tiger Woods; we can't mess this up.'

"I think it's universal. We've got a good idea of who will be paired with him. There will be two, three different guys, and they can be chomping at the bit, and the young guys are absolutely." Jordan Spieth, on partnering with Tiger Woods at the Ryder Cup

"He started in '15 with the Presidents Cup. We were in Korea, and he was at home, and he wouldn't stop texting us. My wife, [Robin], said, 'How cool is it that Tiger is doing that, that he's so involved?' And it really is.''

Just like everything with Woods today, you can tell there is a different vibe, an appreciation. He's happy to be playing, happy to be competing, happy to be competitive. And getting back to the Ryder Cup is no different.

"I haven't been part of the team, playing-wise, for six years, and served as a vice captain a couple of years ago, and that was absolutely incredible to be part of the team, to be part of these young guys and just trying to help,'' Woods said. "Help them with whatever it is, whether it's spikes or sandwiches, whatever they needed, I was there.

"And this year, to have the honor to be able to play again is beyond special.''

Perhaps beyond serving as a valet, the others appreciated his knowledge and insight. To get playing tips or strategy ideas from someone of Woods' stature goes a long way.

As does the fact that he has loosened up around the game's young elite players, which means there is no shortage of possible partners for him this week. Bryson DeChambeau would appear to be chief among them, having been a frequent practice-round partner during the year.

Phil Mickelson said he would welcome playing with Tiger this week at the Ryder Cup. Will Captain Jim Furyk make it happen? Sounds like Phil knows, but he's not telling.

Nick Pietruszkiewicz, ESPN.com3y ago

"I think it's universal,'' Jordan Spieth said of his teammates wanting to play with Woods. "We've got a good idea of who will be paired with him. There will be two, three different guys, and they can be chomping at the bit, and the young guys are absolutely.

"To get an opportunity to play with Tiger or Phil in a Ryder Cup match, it's stuff you tell your kids or grandkids someday. It's pretty awesome.''

Especially if they win -- which in Woods' case at the Ryder Cup would be yet another positive after so many disappointments.