Ryder Cup Logo Ryder Cup: Team USASeptember 22-24 2006, The K Club, Straffan, County Kildare, Ireland
Story Image When Tiger Woods speaks, his new teammates listen. (Photo: Getty Images)

With the old guard gone, Woods steps up as a leader

For a decade now, Tiger Woods has almost always been the youngest player on the U.S. Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. But now that he's among the veterans, he appears ready to accept the responsibility of taking charge.

September 17, 2006

STRAFFAN, Ireland (AP) -- Tiger Woods rarely goes to dinner with anyone he doesn't consider a close friend.

That's why it was so peculiar when he pulled aside J.J. Henry and three other Ryder Cup rookies he didn't know particularly well -- one of them, Brett Wetterich, whom he had never met before -- and asked them to dinner during the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

"A lot of people don't realize how much of a pleasure and how much fun he is to be around off the golf course,'' Henry said.

The richest man in golf, Woods had not been on a commercial flight since globetrotting at the end of 1998.

That changed when he adjusted his schedule for the Deutsche Bank Championship -- an important week because the tournament benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation -- to join his 11 teammates on a charter flight to Ireland for two days of practice at The K Club, a course Woods knows as well as any in Europe.

Is this the same guy who once referred to the Ryder Cup as an exhibition?

Who once said he could "think of a million reasons'' why he would rather win $1 million at a World Golf Championship than the ultimate team prize in golf? Who was asleep by midnight while the rest of the U.S. team partied into the morning hours after winning at Brookline?

"If I ever hear somebody question Tiger Woods' desire to be a part of this team again, I'm going to go crazy,'' U.S. Captain Tom Lehman said. "Tiger Woods cannot wait to play in this Ryder Cup. He is looking forward to this Ryder Cup every bit as much as looking forward to playing in the PGA Championship, the British Open, the Masters and the U.S. Open.

"I'm going to tell you one thing that Tiger told me. He said, 'We've got some young guys on the team. Don't worry about the young guys. I'll take care of them.' That tells you about the leadership of our team.''

The Ryder Cup never has come easily for Woods.

He learned about the enormous expectations as a 21-year-old rookie at Valderrama in 1997, going 1-3-1 and catching most of the blame when Europe won. He has been harping about the black-tie gala dinner and other social functions that make it tough for him to be rested and ready. Mostly, however, Woods has been reticent to take charge of a U.S. team that looks to him as its best player.

But after a decade on the PGA Tour and playing on four Ryder Cup teams, Woods appears ready to take charge.

"I've only played on one team where I haven't been the youngest player,'' Woods said. "People were asking me to be the leader of the team, but I was the youngest -- sometimes by 15 to 20 years. They were the veterans. They had been out here a lot longer than I have. That part was always awkward to me. I didn't want to step on anyone's toes.''

Maybe the best thing that happened to this American team is when Davis Love III got left out, ending his streak of playing in every Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup since 1993.

Suddenly, the most experienced Americans were Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk. Mickelson has been on every team since 1995, while Woods and Furyk started in 1997. The three of them are now the old guard, with most of the attention on Woods because of his sheer skill and accomplishments.

And he seems to be relishing the role.

"Davis filled that role for a long time. He played on more Ryder Cup teams than anyone else,'' Furyk said. "That being said, he's not on this team, so you have to find leadership from someone else. Tiger is not going to jump up and down and go 'rah-rah-rah.' He's going to lead in his own way.''

Above all, he is leading by example.

It started with the dinner in Akron, Ohio, because he remembers how Mark O'Meara and the late Payne Stewart took him aside and taught him about what to expect at the Ryder Cup, both inside and outside the ropes. That's what Woods brought to dinner.

"We had some nice steak and we basically just talked -- well, I talked -- about my experiences in the cup, what to expect, things that surprised me, things they're going to have to get ready for,'' Woods said.

Whether that translates into a better record remains to be seen.

In just 10 years on the PGA Tour, Woods is on his way to becoming golf's greatest champion. He already has won 12 majors, needing six more to catch Jack Nicklaus. And his 53 career victories put him in range of Sam Snead's record of 81.

But the Ryder Cup has been a tender scar on an otherwise impeccable record.

His overall record is 7-11-2, and he never has won more than 2 1/2 points from the five matches he plays. Ten of his losses have come in team matches, as captains have labored to find a good partner for him.

Nicklaus had a 17-8-3 record in six Ryder Cups, although that was an era when the Americans captured the cup 13 straight times.

Even so, it's a record Woods needs to turn around.

"I think it's important that he does that,'' Arnold Palmer said. "And I think if he can arouse the team to support him and show them that he's in a position to do all he can to help them capture the Ryder Cup, that will be very, very important. I think it will create an additional desire and enthusiasm for the team to win.''

Lehman noticed a big change in the weeks leading up to the PGA Championship, and he thought Woods' unsolicited decision to join the charter flight sent a powerful message to the Americans, and a "strong message to the other team, too.''

And the other team has taken notice.

"I particularly think Tiger is going to come to the fore this time around,'' Padraig Harrington said. "He wants to play well in the Ryder Cup as much as he wants to play well in the majors. If he leads his team, it will be a tough team to beat.''

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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