NEWPORT, Wales – The Ryder Cup is getting personal for Tiger Woods.
Interrupting an otherwise dull press conference Tuesday, Woods fired back at a comment Rory McIlroy made six weeks ago that “I would love to face” the world’s No. 1 player in the Ryder Cup unless his game rapidly improved.
Asked for a reaction, Woods leaned into the microphone and said only, “Me, too.”
The quote from McIlroy – the closest thing to bulletin board material at Celtic Manor – came the week after Woods’ golf reached a low point in a dismal season. He had the highest score of his career and beat only one player in the 80-man field at Firestone.
McIlroy was not worried that he had given Woods or the U.S. team any more motivation.
“I’m fine. I’m all right,” said the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland. “You’ve got to realize, I said those things the week after he had just shot 18 over at Akron, so he wasn’t playing too well at the time.”
Woods was aware of the comment before arriving in Wales.
He mentioned the quote two weeks ago at Cog Hill while talking about Stephen Ames, whom Woods had beaten 9 and 8 in the Match Play Championship after Ames was quoted making fun of Woods’ accuracy.
“At least Rory said, ‘Unless my game improves,”’ Woods said in Chicago.
There also were stories circulating at Cog Hill that Woods had said to McIlroy upon passing him, “Careful what you wish for.” McIlroy, however, denied that ever happened.
The singles matches on Sunday, which decide the Ryder Cup, are a long way off. And because it’s a blind draw, there is no guarantee Woods and McIlroy would play each other.
Singles rarely has been a problem for Woods or the other top American players. Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk—the core of the U.S. team since 1997 – collectively have won 125 times on the PGA Tour, including 19 majors.
That hasn’t carried over into the Ryder Cup.
In singles, they are 10-6-2, with Woods and Furyk losing only once. In fourballs and foursome matches, with different partners in the 18 Ryder Cups they have played, that trio is 18-34-9.
Maybe that explains why they all have losing records, and have played on losing teams.
“It’s disappointing,” Furyk said. “But I guess we’ve got an opportunity to get closer back to square. Instead of looking at the past, I think right now you look ahead. You look ahead to Friday, Saturday, Sunday and not worry about what’s happened. The bad news is the last 20 years, we haven’t won very often. Right now … try to figure out how we’re going to take the cup back home with us.”
Tuesday was the first day of practice on the Twenty Ten course at Celtic Manor, designed specifically for the Ryder Cup. What began under a light drizzle soon gave way to mild sunshine, only for rain to arrive toward the afternoon.
Based on the foursomes both captains sent out, there were no surprises.
Europe started on the back nine with Francesco and Edoardo Molinari playing with McIlroy and Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland. Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, Padraig Harrington and Ross Fisher brought up the rear.
European captain Colin Montgomerie defended his selection of Harrington, a three-time major winner who has not won in two years, saying he played the best of anyone on his side during practice and made two eagles.
“There’s reasons why Padraig Harrington was picked, and judge me about that selection on Oct. 4,” Montgomerie said.
Montgomerie cited the record of Luke Donald – 5-1-1 – when he made the Englishman a captain’s pick. Donald, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood all have winning records in the Ryder Cup. They are considered to be good Ryder Cup players.
Does that mean Woods, Mickelson and Furyk are not good Ryder Cup players because of their records?
“You can say that about a number of players,” Montgomerie said. “Tiger’s record in the Ryder Cup is not quite as bad as people think it is. It’s just because his individual record is incredible.
“Who says that won’t happen this week?”
Woods played alongside Steve Stricker, with whom he was 4-0 at the Presidents Cup a year ago. They were joined by Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson, while the anchor foursomes was Mickelson and Dustin Johnson with Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler, the 21-year-old who became the first PGA Tour rookie to be picked for the Ryder Cup.
Woods got through his least favorite part of the week – his press conference – putting little thought into any of his answers, except when he listened to one British reporter refer to him as an ordinary golfer. Woods thought he recognized the reporter from the British Open who harshly asked whether he would respect the game.
“I hope you’re having a good week,” Woods replied.
His teammates painted a different picture, especially Stricker. Woods gave him a putting tip during the practice round, and Stricker noted that Woods was hitting the ball crisply and his spirits were high.
“He’s talking very positively,” Stricker said. “I think his motivation level is high, as it is always in this event. I think he’s a little misunderstood when it comes to these team events.”
Asked what he meant by talking positively, Stricker said it appeared to him that Woods was “in a good place.”
The sex scandal that led to so many humiliating headlines also cost him his marriage – the divorce became official Aug. 23 – and kept Woods from qualifying for the Ryder Cup team for the first time. He is playing as a captain’s pick, although Woods says he feels no extra pressure to perform.
Even so, he no longer looks as unbeatable – even in individual tournaments – and McIlroy picked up on that.
“He’s still a fantastic guy, and I’m sure he’ll get back to winning the way he used to,” McIlroy said. “For the meantime, I suppose a little bit of that aura is probably gone.”