- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

There are only two players in the world who have played the final 36 holes of a professional tournament in the final pairing with Tiger Woods and walked away smiling Denmark's Thomas Bjorn and Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke.
And the two Europeans not only are at the Belfry for this week's Ryder Cup, they will be waiting for Woods on the first tee this morning.
Now, European captain Sam Torrance would like us to think the first match of the 34th Ryder Cup, which pits Bjorn and Clarke against Woods and Paul Azinger in fourballs, materialized through sheer coincidence.
"I had no idea where he'd put Tiger," said Torrance, who also pretended he had not considered his pair's past success against Woods. "Thanks for reminding me. I'll remember that for the team meeting tonight. That might be my best point."
Sorry, Sam, we're not buying the clueless routine. The games have begun, and Torrance is already 1-up on Strange.
Torrance had to know Tiger was the obvious call for first out. First, Woods despises slow play and likes to spend as little time as possible between the ropes and in front of the masses. That's why Tiger holds the patent on the dawn practice round. And second, Woods is accustomed to top-billing. He might not really care if you sent, say world No. 2 Phil Mickelson, out in front of him. But if you're Strange, do you really want to chuck that pebble at the Woods ego? Of course not. So Woods goes out first.
Then there's the even more laughable notion that Torrance could have temporarily forgotten the Tiger-taming distinction shared by Bjorn and Clarke.
Please. The sour-faced Dane has enjoyed just one moment of distinction in his entire smile-free career. He was on the happy end of the only choke job thus far in Tiger's remarkable career. Though Nike and IMG have conspired to bury the film of the 2001 Dubai Classic, we are told Woods chunked a 9-iron from a perfect lie into the water on the 72nd hole to lose to Bjorn by two strokes.
What Bjorn probably would like to bury are his comments directly afterward: "Tiger's got to learn to lose. I think the intimidation factor he had over other players is gone. He's going to win more tournaments than other players. But I know I can play with him and beat him."
Neither Torrance nor Woods possibly could have forgotten that statement. For the record, Tiger was in the midst of winning four consecutive majors when Bjorn delivered his desert decree. And 18 months, three major titles and 10 Dubai-dwarfing victories later, Tiger still hasn't cottoned to losing.
Then there's Clarke, who was equally colorful after drubbing Woods 4 and 3 in the 36-hole final of the 2000 World Match Play Championship at La Costa (Carlsbad, Calif.).
"Tiger is a first-rate lad and fantastic player, but nobody was stopping me from getting a new Ferrari," said Clarke, who stated at the beginning of the week he would use part of the $1 million winner's check to add a new car to his collection.
There's no fancy ride at stake this week, but Clarke still relishes the opportunity to scrap with Woods. He became good friends with Tiger through their mutual association with swing instructor Butch Harmon. And that familiarity has eliminated the fear factor Tiger enjoys against most players. In fact, the only thing the cigar-puffing Irishman is afraid of is a California bar.
"If you don't want to step up against the best, you shouldn't be here," Clarke said earlier this week when asked if he would like to face Woods. "I would love the chance to play him again."
And we're betting Woods is looking forward to today's showdown as well. Why? Because there aren't many guys out there who have gotten the best of the 26-year-old titan. And today, he gets the chance to stuff two of those transgressors with humble pie simultaneously.
Even better from Woods' perspective: He gets to mete out the punishment virtually single-handedly. Azinger, who has five times as many missed cuts as top-30s on his resume (5-1) since mid-March, has accompanied the U.S. squad to the Belfry as a glorified cheerleader. The 42-year-old veteran hasn't made a putt since 1993. Quite simply, he's Uncle Samsonite, the rah-rah luggage Woods will have to carry around the property.
But Tiger has broad shoulders and a rare tank of non-major motivation.
He's probably sick of hearing how he doesn't care about the event. He admitted he would rather win $1 million than the Ryder Cup last week, and the world acted like he had joined the Taliban.
He's sick of hearing about his pedestrian record in the Ryder Cup (3-6-1).
And by the time he takes the tee this morning, we're betting the British tabloids will have him sick of hearing about his past failings against Bjorn and Clarke, whom Fleet Street will dub something lame like "Torrance's Tigers" or "The Lion Kings" or "The Tiger Tamers."
What better way to put a stop to all the madness than by taking Bjorn and Clarke apart, basically by himself. What better way to crush Europe's spirit than by commencing the 34th matches with a solo demolition of the "Woods Whackers." What better way to silence his critics, yet again, than by setting the tone for an American victory march.


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