Why Tiger's Stepping Up

Why Tiger’s Stepping Up

The one hole in Woods's resume is his play in the Ryder Cup, and he intends to fill it.
Ian Walton/Getty Images

The Ryder Cup was slated for the K Club in 2006, in the horse country beyond sniffing distance of the Dublin breweries, and Tiger Woods wanted Marko. Mark O’Meara, U.S. team captain. A no-brainer, really. Hall of Fame player, consummate Ryder Cup gent, map of Ireland all over his cherubic face, Tiger’s friend.

But the American club pros who run the U.S. Ryder Cup team, once blandly predictable, didn’t go the safe route. They gave the job to Tom Lehman, the man who has been a one-man Ryder Cup lightning rod. The man of whom Sam Torrance, the European stalwart, said after the 1999 Cup fiasco at the Country Club, “Tom Lehman calls himself a man of God. He should be ashamed of himself.” Never mind that Lehman was one of the few American players who didn’t take part in the premature victory dance all over José María Olazábal’s 17th green — facts are not even speed bumps in the age of blogging, right?

Now it was late August 2006, and Captain Lehman wanted to do something audacious: He wanted his entire 12-man team to drop everything and make a Monday-Tuesday, bonding- reconnaissance trip to the K Club, by private jet, several weeks before the match. He got the four rookies and six of the returning lettermen to sign up. That was easy. And then, less easily, he got Phil Mickelson to change his schedule and join the gang. And then the coup de grâce: He got Tiger Woods on board, literally and otherwise.

Now we know. This 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup team, short on experience and accomplishment, is led by two guys: Tom Lehman, captain; and Tiger Woods, ace pitcher, cleanup hitter, 30-year-old wise man. O’Meara was the first person to take Woods to the K Club, but Lehman is driving the tour bus now.

Man of God is a hell of a phrase, but there’s a religious undercurrent to this U.S. team. Lehman’s a mainstay at the Tour Bible study, and so are his three assistants at their respective tour’s Bible studies: Corey Pavin (PGA), Loren Roberts (Champions) and David Ogrin (Nationwide). Lehman sought the coaching advice of John Wooden, the devout UCLA basketball legend whose books are best sellers in Christian bookstores. One of Lehman’s rookies, Zach Johnson, is a Bible-study regular, as is one of his captain’s picks, Stewart Cink. Lehman asked Byron Nelson, a deeply religious man, a woodworker and a former Ryder Cup captain, to make small wooden keepsakes for the players, each engraved with the same verse from Psalms, chapter 18, verse 29: with your help i can advance against a troop; with my god I can scale a wall. It’s David, from David versus Goliath. An apt rallying cry for a team that has lost four of the last five Ryder Cups. The Euros as Goliaths; it takes some getting used to, no?

But Lehman’s not going down a born-again road in this Ryder Cup, not in his team meetings, not in interviews. It’s all unspoken. He doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve alongside the Tommy Bahama logos. He doesn’t have to: Faith is the spine of his life. The most important thing to Lehman, more important than even winning — and that’s crazy important to him — is that the match be played with a certain spirit and camaraderie. “If you’re on a team that really functions as a team, and I have been, it’s something you can carry for the rest of your life,” he said one night during the reconnaissance trip.

He was sitting in the lobby of the baronial hotel at the K Club, and his team — all 12 players, all 12 caddies — was gathering in the hotel’s drawing room for a casual dinner. Almost everybody was in jeans. David Toms was drinking a Coke out of a glass bottle. Others were drinking Miller and Bud. It’s not that easy to get Miller and Bud in the country that brought the world Guinness, but there it was, bottles and cans, on ice. On the menu were prawns and crab and salmon and, in deference to Tiger, hamburgers. There are weeks on Tour when you won’t see Woods once in the players’ locker room, but there he was, playing Foosball in the drawing room, one of the boys.

Lehman, who’s on a lengthy list of players who have partnered with Woods in losing American causes, has said he would go “crazy” if he heard people question Tiger’s desire to play in team competitions. Go crazy, Tom. When saddled with a partner in his one Walker Cup, four Presidents Cups and four Ryder Cups, Woods has a 20-21-3 record. Explain that. This is the man who, when he felt personally dissed by Stephen Ames at the Accenture World Match Play last February, went out and defeated him 9 and 8.

But something’s changed. Woods’s father, the career Army man Earl Woods, died in May, and Tiger, on the course and off, is now doing things he has never done before. There are golfers, Lehman, Chris DiMarco, Davis Love III, who would be pleased to have their team play — the golf they play in the name of their country — define them. That’s foreign to Woods. His grail is Jack Nicklaus’s 18 professional majors. And Tiger, a serious student of what Nicklaus did in the majors, has no idea what Jack’s record was as a Ryder Cupper. Nicklaus himself professes not to know (13-4-1 with a partner, 4-4-2 in singles). Ogrin, a keen observer who says things in interviews that Captain Tom will only think, believes Woods figured out something as he crossed the threshold of 30: It wasn’t the case in Jack’s day, but Ryder Cup performance is now part of the elite player’s legacy, along with what he does in the majors; there really is something extraordinary about representing your country, as Earl Woods did with way more at stake. “It’s been part of the natural evolution of the man,” Ogrin says of Tiger. Figuring into that evolution, says Mark Steinberg, Woods’s agent, were Tiger’s experiences playing on Presidents Cup teams captained by Nicklaus. “I think he had a good time,” Steinberg says.

In that ordinary comment is a deep truth. A good time to Woods is going toe-to-toe with Ernie Els — or Bob May or Hal Sutton or Billy Mayfair, anybody willing to look him in the eye. “When I played on Ryder Cup teams, it was a goodwill event, and you played for bragging rights, and we had a lot of fun,” Nicklaus says. “The press turned the Ryder Cup into something else.” To Nicklaus, the Presidents Cup is closer to what the Ryder Cup once was: “Everybody plays every day [at the Presidents], so you’re not benching anybody. The players don’t want to be benched, and their wives really don’t like it. My thing to Tiger was, ‘Have fun.’ I said to him, ‘Who do you want to play with?’ He said, ‘Jim Furyk.’ I said, ‘Fine.'”

Lehman never sought Nicklaus’s advice, but he has taken a page from him. He’s asked Tiger whom he wants to play with. (Furyk. “Except for length, we actually approach golf exactly the same way,” Tiger says.) Lehman has asked Tiger what he can do to make the whole Ryder Cup experience better for him. During the two-day reconnaissance trip the answer could be found on the banks of the Liffey, the river that runs through the K Club. There was Woods in the gloaming, in jeans and a backward baseball cap, fly-fishing, with nobody else in sight except for a guide.

At Firestone the week after he won the PGA Championship, Woods, shy by nature, did something out of character: He personally approached the four American rookies — J.J. Henry, Zach Johnson, Vaughn Taylor and Brett Wetterich — and organized a night out, Tiger treating. The five men are all in their early 30s, but since Tiger is playing in his fifth Ryder Cup, he assumed the role of pathfinder. “He said, ‘It was hard for me when I was first on the team because there were players twice my age, and I felt awkward,'” Henry said, recalling the dinner. But Tiger’s Ryder debut had taken place nine years earlier. Now he was assuming taking on the mantle of leader, even among his contemporaries. At the dinner he told the rookies, “The most important thing for you guys to remember is that you earned your way onto this team. You belong on this team.” It wasn’t Tiger’s intention, but his role as team elder also will serve him well somewhere down the road when he’s trying to beat one of the rooks late on a Sunday in an event that matters.

On the Monday of the trip — after the all-night flight during which Mickelson did nothing but sleep and his likely Ryder Cup partner, DiMarco, did nothing but play cards — Woods and Furyk and Henry played as a threesome, in carts, through rain showers and gusty winds. Lehman went around in a cart, following that group and the other three threesomes. The caddies, fully integrated into this team (they dominated a massive poker game in Scott Verplank’s room one night), were elsewhere on the course, getting their yardages. A day earlier Woods had won at Firestone with the whole world watching, but now he was tending the flagstick for his playing partners, discussing the best lines for certain tee shots, marking up his yardage book and sharing the information with the others. You don’t see him doing that at a U.S. Open. All of them were wearing their own golf duds, but Lehman had given them team hats, each with the player’s name sewn onto the back. It’s a tough balancing act: Lehman knows that the Ryder Cup is a team event but that golf is an individual game.

On the following day Lehman sent out only two groups, two sixsomes, three pairings in each initially playing alternate shot on an otherwise closed course. The track, designed by Arnold Palmer, is lush and long and pretty flat, with shallow bunkers, sensible greens and gnarly rough, almost Winged Footish. Americans go to Ireland to play Ballybunion and Royal County Down and the great seaside links, but the Palmer course at the K Club looks as if it were transported from Ohio or western Pennsylvania. With the caddies in carts and the players in carts and Lehman and Pavin in carts, there was a small caravan of buggies zipping along the fairways, and eventually there was 1,200 bucks on the line. They had segued into a skins game, $200 per team, winner take all. No U.S. Ryder Cup captain had ever tried a practice session anything like this before. Asked how he came up with the idea, Lehman shrugged and said, “I thought it’d be fun.” It wasn’t fun for Woods: He lost $100.

Woods is glad to see Lehman working in the Nicklaus vein, emphasizing fun, soliciting opinions, creating camaraderie. He knows that the Ryder Cup gives American sports fans a taste of what European soccer fans have known for generations — the fever pitch that comes from rooting for your backyard lads. But at the end of the day there’s only so much emotion and energy he’s going to expend on the three-day event. The Ryder Cup becomes a whole lot more important to you when you don’t have 53 Tour victories next to your name, 12 of them majors. Plus, the money thing: There are millions and millions of dollars involved, for the PGA of America and the European tour and K Club owner Michael Smurfit and NBC, but not for the players. “It’s become an enormous money-maker,” Woods says. “When the Ryder Cup was first invented, that was not the case. That was not why they were having the event. I believe Michael Smurfit paid £20 million to have the event. That’s a little different from when they first held it.”

You can be sure none of that goes down well with Woods, just as it did not with O’Meara, from whom Woods learned his professional creed.

“But the competition is still the same,” Woods says. He wasn’t spouting the company line. He was saying something truthful. “We’re trying to beat them, and they’re trying to beat us.” That’s the part, maybe the only part, Woods can relate to.