- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 29, 2010

NEWPORT, WALES (AP) - The morning gloom had given way to brilliant sunshine by the time Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, dressed in matching long sleeve blue shirts and red sweater vests, made their way to the 11th tee at Celtic Manor.

A small group of fans greeted both with the kind of polite applause typically reserved for the opposing side in the Ryder Cup, but Woods got an extra shout out as well.

“Tiger, we’re pulling for you!” one fan yelled out.

“All right,” Woods replied with a smile.

As exchanges go, it wasn’t terribly compelling, though that wasn’t really Woods’ fault. He has, after all, only been in the crowd interaction business for a few months now and is still getting used to the idea of actually acknowledging the people who come out to watch him play.

Or maybe he’s just not sure how to respond. Again, hardly his fault, because the messages have changed.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Woods inspired awe from the masses who followed him from tee to green. They reveled in his presence, straining to get just a glimpse of the player who so dominated the game and intimidated opponents that all he had to do to win at times was simply show up on the first tee.

Now he cuts an almost sympathetic figure, struggling with his game and struggling with a life that would have been unthinkable the last time he played for his country in golf’s ultimate team event.

Even the British tabloids seem to be laying off of him, if the session Woods had with the media Tuesday was any indication. He was spared questions about infidelity and divorce, and the biggest concern seemed to revolve around when his game was going to come back.

The short answer to that was hard to come by, because Woods clearly has no intention of answering much these days. He came into his brief press conference ready to say absolutely nothing and left about 15 minutes later with his mission accomplished.

No fodder for the tabloids to use. Little more than an admission that, yes, he is working hard on his game.

And barely an eyebrow raised when one writer said during his question, “You’re an ordinary golfer.”

Indeed, if there are any answers to be had this week, they will come on the golf course. That’s where we’ll find out if the swing changes Woods has been making are working, and that’s where Woods will find out whether they can stand up in the heat of competition.

He’s been accused of never having much enthusiasm for the Ryder Cup. But never has the Ryder Cup meant so much to Woods.

It’s his last chance to salvage a miserable year, his only remaining opportunity to prove to himself that, yes, he still has it. Woods would be the last to admit it, but he seems almost desperate to exorcise the demons that have infiltrated his game since his infamous rendezvous with a tree 10 months ago.

He’s looked lost on the course all year, showing only flashes of the brilliance that was when he was the greatest player in the world. Woods is not that player any more _ not even close _ but he insists that help is on its way from new swing coach Sean Foley and his game is coming back.

“Out on the golf course today, I hit some bad ones, but I automatically knew what the fix was,” Woods said. “That’s neat because sometimes it takes a while to understand what the fix will be.”

That the fix is coming is good news for golf, assuming it works. With Woods at home practicing last weekend, ratings for the Tour Championship plummeted and without him at Celtic Manor this week the Ryder Cup would be little more than an overpaid bunch of flag-waving guys in blue sweaters against an overpaid bunch of flag-waving guys in red sweaters.

Whether it works is the real question. Woods once seemed able to make putts and win tournaments on sheer will alone, but the intimidation that was part of his game has disappeared.

Young Rory McIlroy said as much in about as candid a moment as you’re going to get at an event where everyone is careful not to say anything about anyone else.

“I suppose a little bit of that aura is probably gone,” McIlroy said.

McIlroy was also the one who said after Woods shot a whopping 18-over at the Bridgestone Invitational in August that he would love to face him in the Ryder Cup and that “anyone in the European team would fancy their chances against him.”

Talk is relatively inexpensive, of course, but if Woods needed anything else to motivate him to raise his game, McIlroy gave it to him. There’s nothing Woods would like better than to dish out a whipping to someone who challenged his greatness, and beating McIlroy would validate his claim that he is on his way back.

“Me, too,” was all Woods would say Tuesday when asked about McIlroy wanting a crack at him.

The way the Ryder Cup draw works, it may not happen. If it does, both the odds and the crowd would be on McIlroy’s side.

Nothing surprising about that. The kid’s got game, and Woods still is in search of his.

Right now, he’s just an ordinary golfer.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

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