NEWPORT, Wales — Finally, Tiger Woods is going to play in a Ryder Cup that means something to him. The dis he got from young Rory McIlroy, who said (about a month ago) that the entire European team would “fancy” their chances going head-to-head with Woods? It’s way significant. And that Woods didn’t laugh it off when asked about it here? Bigger yet.
Woods won his 14 majors with superior talent, superior thinking — and a huge presence. He was intimidating in every way. There was his limited on-course chit-chat. His size. His length. His disregard for spectators. Most especially, his putting. And then Y.E. Yang took him down at the PGA Championship last year. Since then the Tiger Woods aura has taken one hit after another. Now he has three days to do what he didn’t do this year, re-claim his former self. Sunday, in the singles, will be a major for Woods. If he does a total smackdown on his guy, it won’t be just one day of Woods-is-back. It’ll be the first shot of next April’s Masters. It will tell people that the Sean Foley stuff is working. It will tell his opponents — you know, the guys he’s trying to beat week-in and week-out — that you mouth off to him at your own peril.
Name the major, I’ll tell you who Woods scared into submission. His first, the ’97 Masters? Colin Montgomerie, third round. The ’02 U.S. Open at Bethpage? Sergio Garcia, fourth round. The ’06 British Open at Hoylake? Chris DiMarco, fourth round. Fourteen majors, fourteen victims. At least.
“Personally I think the reason Tiger has been so successful for such a longer period of time is because he intimidates opponents,” Gary Wolstenholme wrote on Wednesday in a superb first-person piece in The Guardian, one of the great English papers. (Everywhere you go in Great Britain, you see people reading newspapers. Still. It’s a beautiful sight.) Wolstenholme, as every serious student of the Tiger Woods amateur years knows, was the short-hitting, middle-aged Brit who defeated Woods in singles at the ’95 Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl. The next year, Woods turned pro and kept on intimidating people, until he ran into Y.E. Yang at Hazeltine last year. Now Rory McIlroy, an exceptional young talent with zero career majors, is saying he’s not scared of the man. Even though, really, he should be.
When he played on the ’97, ’99, ’02, ’04 and ’06 Ryder Cup teams, the whole thing just wasn’t that important to him. (He didn’t play in ’08, when he was recovering from knee surgery.) I know American players and caddies from those teams who will tell you that’s wrong, but the European players and caddies will tell you otherwise. In any event, I never saw or felt his normal drive, his normal passion, during those matches. A few weeks prior to the ’06 Ryder Cup in Ireland, I asked Woods about what Ryder Cup golf meant to him. He asked me, “What was Jack’s record in Ryder Cup?” I didn’t know what Nicklaus had done as a Ryder Cupper. Woods’s face said, My point exactly. But that was then.
The most difficult thing for Woods at this Ryder Cup is that even he doesn’t seem to know who exactly he wants to be these days. As Julius Cesar and Howard Hughes and Richard Nixon and Marlon Brando and many others have shown, it’s lonely on top. Woods discovered the same thing. This week, he’s been talking about the sublime pleasures of the team room. You know: Ping-Pong, free libations, analysis of Stanford Cardinal football. Sounds like fun, but not anything that Gary Wolstenholme can remember seeing from Woods. Not Wolstenholme, not Montgomerie, not Sergio, not DiMarco. At Woods’s level, you can’t be a full-force, Schwarzenegger-like Terminator, and then be one of the boys for a week.
With Tiger, what he says in front of a microphone has never been important. Virtually always, he says what he’s expected to say. What matters is what he’s thinking, what he does with his golf ball, and what he does to you, the guy he’s trying to beat. I’m thinking that over the next three days, we’re going to see glimpses of the old Tiger. The golfer who told all comers, “I own you.” No more Mr. Nice Guy.
Guys are starting to get a little mouthy, a little cheeky, and Woods, I’m sure, has had just about enough.