To untrained eyes, it’s been business as usual in this Ryder Cup week; players are dragged from pillar to post on various functions; respective captains keep a close eye on team members in their practice rounds; and the pre-match sparring has stepped up with questions on crowd control and home support a constant theme.
However, there is a facet of Ryder Cup life that has strayed from the norm, with the demeanour of one of its greatest puzzles offering a refreshing alternative.
Tiger Woods, succinct as usual with the media, seems at greater ease than in Cups of past, looking to feed off the affection handed to him by the galleries while acting as something of an on-course general to the four US Team rookies who eye him with such reverence.
Now, more than ever, Woods knows this is his time. He knows he is not as great as he was, but still great enough. He knows his performances in the past have not met the high levels of expectancy, where captains have relied on him time after time to marry his self-styled strokeplay form with that of pairings matchplay. And he knows, above all else, that he has only tasted Ryder Cup victory once, a distant 13 years ago at Brookline during one of the most hair-raising performances this biennial contest has witnessed.
Once so insular, Woods has found solace with a group of teammates he seems comfortable with. He looks like one of them. Acts like one of them. Seems happy to be a number and be one of the guys.
And, where finding a partner who could deliver the right mix and personal blend was once so tough, he has a ready-made one in Steve Stricker. One wavelength complements the other beautifully, and the Wisconsin man was quick to praise his friend during Wednesday’s press conference: “I’ve talked to him a lot over the last month, and let me tell you, he feels good about what he’s doing.”
Then there is Medinah, a golf course that gives Woods the ultimate comfort blanket. He’s won twice here in Majors, and twice handsomely. First in the 1999 USPGA when he saw off the exuberance of Sergio Garcia, and then in 2006 in the same tournament, when he equalled his own championship record of 18-under-par to win by five strokes from Shaun Micheel.
To suggest he is fully evolved as a team player would be hasty. But to suggest the Ryder Cup means little to him would be frivolous to the extreme. In a twist of irony for a man who has gained so much in the game, Woods has so much more to gain from this week than anybody else.
Food for thought for Europe…