NEWPORT, Wales For the first time in his career, Tiger Woods isn't facing high expectations at a golf tournament. For good reason.
\nPredicting a dominant, return-to-form weekend for Tiger at this Ryder Cup would be like forecasting a quick recovery for the economy: imprudent when you weigh the recent data. This isn't Tiger Woods circa 2001 or even Tiger Woods circa 2009. This is the Tiger Woods who is swinging barefoot, Eat Pray Love-style, while he makes the third significant swing overhaul of his career under hip-hop philosopher/swing guru Sean Foley.
\nThis is the Tiger Woods who is toying with two different putters the week of the year's biggest golf event.
\nThis is the Tiger Woods who hasn't won a major in almost two-and-a-half years.
\nWoods's 2010 has been a disaster by his high standards, and an off-year, really, for any top Tour pro. Two of the season's four major venues Pebble Beach and St. Andrews were courses he had previously owned, yet Tiger couldn't follow up on a great Saturday round at Pebble, finishing tied for fourth, and he never even sniffed the leaders at the British Open.
\nSince his tabloid scandal, Woods, who once tore up the game's record books, has been setting different kinds of marks. In August, he had his highest career 72-hole total at Akron's Firestone Country Club, a course on which he has won seven times. For the first time he finished a PGA Tour season without a win. And also for the first time he failed to qualify for the Tour Championship. He's a shocking 63rd on the PGA Tour's 2010 money list.
\nStill, Woods's unsteady play hasn't de-emphasized the attention on him. Take Rory McIlroy's challenge to the world's No. 1. It's been overblown beyond belief what exactly is McIlroy supposed to say when asked if he'd like to take on Woods at the Ryder Cup? Yet it has been one of the biggest "stories" of the week.
\nEven Tiger's own teammates would tell you that players no longer cower when squaring off against Woods. Forget about when Tiger dusted Stephen Ames, 9-and-8, in the 2006 WGC-Match Play Championship after Ames criticized Tiger's erratic driving. That's a lifetime ago compared to where Tiger is now. In Hollywood terms, Woods is no longer Russell Crowe in Gladiator, he's Russell Crowe in Robin Hood.
\nAll McIlroy did to stir up tabloid headlines was point out the blindingly obvious, that Tiger's aura is not what it was. "After what's happened in the last 18 months, you know, a little bit," McIlory said when asked if Woods's aura has been diminished. "He's still a fantastic guy, and I'm sure he'll get back to winning the way he used to. Yeah, for the meantime, I suppose a little bit of that aura is probably gone."
\nEuropean captain Colin Montgomerie made a similar gaffe when speaking to a radio station this week, when he said that he would choose Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk before Tiger for Team USA. (If we accept Michael Kinsley's definition of gaffe, as when someone accidentally tells the truth.)
\nTo Tiger's credit, he has been surprisingly gracious and self-effacing as he has battled his on-course woes in 2010. (Any talk of his off-course woes is still off-limits.) Even after his low-point at Firestone an 18-over-par, second-to-last finish that left him saying he wouldn't even help the Ryder Cup team he showed up the next week at the PGA Championship, smiling and cracking jokes. Part of this is because "rock bottom" for Woods is still pretty good (as captured perfectly by The Onion headline: Tiger Woods hits rock bottom, aside from being worth $600 million). The other part is that he believes that his hard work and practice will eventually pay off. Why wouldn't he believe that? It has always worked in the past.
\nOn Wednesday at Celtic Manor, Tiger's game looked respectable as he played a practice round with Furyk, Stricker and Dustin Johnson. Woods hit a lot of fairway woods off the tee, which usually works out well for him, and he was accurate with his irons. He also stroked plenty of practice putts, as befits a man who might not have yet decided which putter he plans to use.
\n(Incidentally, it seems Woods won't have to worry about heckling this weekend. The Welsh fans are too decent and gracious for that. While they lustily cheer for the Europeans, they respectfully applaud the American players and appear a little star-struck by Woods, who hasn't played here since the 1995 Walker Cup.)
\nStricker, who is the current choice in the never-ending game of Find Tiger a Ryder Cup Partner, also played practice rounds with Tiger on Tuesday and said that Woods's game is in good form. "I thought his game looked great today," Stricker said Tuesday. "He drove the ball great. His iron play was unbelievable. He hit great iron after great iron. I thought he looked really good. He's talking very positively.
\n"I think his motivation level is high, as it is always in this event. I think he's a little misunderstood when it comes to these team events. I've played on a couple Presidents Cup teams with him, and he wants to win just as badly as anybody on our team."
\nPadraig Harrington, who like Tiger needed a captain's pick to play in this Ryder Cup, said that Tiger might be more enthusiastic this time around because of his struggles this year. Noted the Irishman:
\n"I assume he's coming in here in a similar frame of mind to me, as in, he's played his way into the teams over the years and has struggled with the team element, him knowing the way he performs to do his individual thing, and he plays his practice rounds very early in the morning; having to play Ryder Cup and all of these things organized and having to play five-hour practice rounds at 11 o'clock in the day has been tough on him over the years. I'm sure this time, having been a pick, he will be a lot more enthusiastic about the Ryder Cup."
\nGive Harrington's argument points for creativity, but there's a lot more to winning than just wanting it. Tiger's desire is not in question, and he would relish the chance to beat McIlroy in singles and to win his team matches. However, those expectations are out of line with the state of Tiger's game and his uneven Ryder Cup record.
\nIf Tiger plays all five matches and can give just a little more than he gets, then his Ryder Cup will be a resounding success. But to expect anything more than that isn't optimism, it's lunacy.