- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

STRAFFAN, Ireland — Europe’s worst Ryder Cup nightmare is coming true at K Club. Tiger Woods has grabbed the flag and made a complete commitment to the team-first biennial event.

One of the greatest disparities in the sports world has long been the disconnect between Woods’ unparalleled individual resume (12 majors and 53 PGA Tour victories) and his comparably weak record in four Ryder Cup appearances (7-11-2).

“It’s disappointing. I’ve gone on the wrong end of it too many times,” Woods said yesterday. “It’s frustrating because you feel like you’ve not only let yourself down, but you’ve let your teammate down that your playing with, as well as your teammates that are trying to win this cup for our captain and our country.”

Pundits have blamed Woods’ lack of success in the game’s premier team event on both the vagaries of the one-off, match-play format and a series of ill-suited partners. But perhaps the primary reason for Woods’ pedestrian past performances is slightly more subtle.

In each previous Ryder Cup, Woods has been in something of an awkward position. Always the youngest member of a U.S. squad typically defined by elder statesmen like Davis Love III and Fred Couples, Woods has struggled to find a niche. His relative youth and lack of experience has suggested a secondary soldier’s role, while his status as the world’s top-ranked player has conflictingly cast him as master and commander.

Rather than disrespect his elders by grasping leadership reins he hadn’t felt he had earned, Woods muted his passion and personality in past team rooms. Unfortunately, that deferential demeanor carried over to the golf course, yielding particularly poor results (5-10-1) in the event’s two-man formats (four-balls and foursomes).

It’s absurd to suggest Woods simply didn’t care or wasn’t playing hard at past Cups. Nobody detests losing like the 30-year-old champion who once famously stated “second place [stinks].”

But at former Ryder Cups, Woods’ confusing, restrained role in the team room made it difficult for him to play his best golf.

“I just sat back and listened and learned,” Woods said. “If you’re a young person on the team, that’s what you do is listen and learn.”

The fact is Woods isn’t good at sitting back. It clashes with his proactive personality. He’s the ultimate all-or-nothing guy, the prototypical alpha male. He’s a general, not a grunt.

And now that the U.S. team’s older set has moved on, Woods feels comfortable, almost compelled, to step into the leadership void.

The upshot is that while Tom Lehman might be the U.S. captain this week, this is Woods’ team.

“He’s the head of our dragon. He is. He’s our No. 1 player, no question,” Stewart Cink said. “He’s tired of losing like we all are. That’s one thing about Tiger Woods; he does not like to lose at anything, whether it’s golf or pingpong or billiards or a spitting contest. Whatever it is, he does not like to lose, and he’s tired of it. He’s going to put his best foot forward here.”

Actually, Woods began marching at the head of the U.S. column more than a month ago. He rearranged his schedule and a slew of prior corporate commitments to go with the team to Dublin last month when an inspired Lehman asked his troops to accompany him on a recon mission to the 7,335-yard, par-72 Arnold Palmer course at K Club.

And days before the scouting trip, Woods took the initiative and treated all four U.S. rookies (Vaughn Taylor, J.J. Henry, Zach Johnson and Brett Wetterich) to dinner and a pep talk during the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. Afterward, Taylor explained that Woods told the rookies to relax and hop on his back and he would carry them to victory.

“He’s less reserved, and he’s asserting himself a little bit more socially than I think he’s done in the past,” U.S. veteran Scott Verplank said. “He’s kind of buying into this having 11 buddies with him for a week instead of just, you know, me against the world.”

Unfortunately for a European team favored to win its third straight Ryder Cup, Woods’ enhanced leadership role on the U.S. squad is just the tip of its Tiger troubles.

Woods arrives at K Club in perhaps the best form of his career. His run of victories in five consecutive starts ended last week at the World Match Play at Wentworth. That concluded a three-month stretch of brilliance in which he played 364 holes of golf in an astounding 91-under par.

And after eight appearances in team match-play events at which he arrived uncertain of his likely pairings, Woods knows he will be partnered with third-ranked Jim Furyk to start this week after that marriage produced a dominating 2-0-1 mark for last year’s victorious U.S. team at the Presidents Cup.

“We’ve had a great time, especially at the Presidents Cup last year,” Woods said. “We had just an absolute ball. Hopefully this week we can do the same.”

Perhaps the most daunting thing of all from the European perspective is that Woods has “the look” this week — the intense glare that routinely makes its appearance on major Tuesdays and almost always heralds the coming of Sunday spoils.

“We have come together as a team. We have bonded. It’s been an absolutely fantastic week,” Woods said. “We are a unit. That’s how we are going to play. We are going to go out there and compete and give it everything we’ve got and lay it on the line and have a great time doing it.”

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