With or Without You


Earth to reality: Tiger Woods currently is 10th in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings – not bad for a guy with one top-10 finish in the last eight months. I don’t suppose Woods looks over his shoulder and sees Ben Crane lurking 142.6 points back in 11th, or whether Tiger is even aware the number of automatic qualifiers was reduced to eight so U.S. captains would have four selections instead of two.
Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods has a career 10-13-2 record in five Ryder Cup appearances. (Getty Images)
The ultimate control freak, Woods has been spending an awful lot of 2010 in unfamiliar territory, and I’m not talking about the middle of the fairway. Seriously? He’s more likely to beg off Corey Pavin’s squad with an injury or personal issues than he is to not make it, but as the Tigerless Yanks proved at Valhalla with EuroSmash ’08, his presence is desired, not required.

Apparently, winning a U.S. Open on a broken leg is easier than contending elsewhere with a busted life, just as reclaiming the Ryder Cup is a cinch once you’ve lost your 14-time major champion. Without Woods in Kentucky, the Americans played like over-the-top underdogs. Everybody mattered, everybody contributed. First-timers Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan, Old Glory’s best young players, proved particularly valuable, and from the negative vibe of back-to-back routs at Oakland Hills and the K Club, the positive mojo out of Valhalla couldn’t have been stronger.

In the months leading up to those matches, U.S. skipper Paul Azinger was asked numerous times about his picks – experience or performance? “Experience isn’t worth a damn if the only experience you have is losing,” the captain would say, and from there, the tone was set, the group mentality reflective of a man who never went looking for a fight but never walked away from one, either.

For once, the boys from the other side of the Atlantic were the ones getting frantic. Tiger doesn’t like the rah-rah unless there’s a trophy on the line and a $1.4 million check to deposit, and he’s entitled, but for chops like me, the Ryder Cup is what it’s all about. I want to win to make other people feel good, so they yell and scream and get drunk on pride and unity. I want to beat the other guys not so much to prove a point, but to revel in the satisfaction, and if you wanna revel, you need some company, some help.

You need teammates. You need camaraderie. Happy golfers are relaxed golfers, and relaxed golfers win. Paul Azinger understood that, Nick Faldo never will, and though I truly believe Ryder Cup captains are vastly overrated, they do serve one crucial role: To establish (or determine) the team’s competitive disposition, then mix messages and personnel in a way that will maximize overall performance.

I’m not sure you can do that if Woods is the centerpiece of your team. Whereas Phil Mickelson seems to enjoy the team format and the notion of winning and losing together, Tiger, at least in theory, struggles to bond with guys he’s usually trying to beat. Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker, both low-key and serious, have become his friends, but if you’ve got more than a few ounces of personality, there’s a good chance you’ll draw Woods’ ire, heaven forbid.

Philly Mick has no problem grabbing the microphone in a room full of alpha males or dumping a bushel of opinions on his captain. Woods, as you may have surmised in his Feb. 19 pseudo-confessional, doesn’t have that gear. As ferocious as he can be on the course, he is, like so many tour pros, non-confrontational to an extreme. In short, a team Tiger is a different animal than one without him, but after Valhalla, I’m not sure which one is fiercer.

Azinger could have trained either critter. I would suggest that Pavin learn how to do the same.