Tiger struggles to get into swing of things at bottom of the pile
Tiger Woods projected the impression yesterday of one not expecting his match to matter much.
Typically deployed as Team USA's talisman in Ryder Cup singles, he appeared a carcass of his former iconic self as captain Davis Love III sent him out as the 12th man of 12.
From a captain holding a four-point Sunday lead, and seeking to frontload the order of attack with his biggest guns, it was hardly an expression of confidence.
Rather than leading the line, then, Woods (pictured) was instead reduced to the role of a cheerleader as he patrolled the first fairway, giving Bubba Watson back-slaps of encouragement.
His concluding match with Francesco Molinari -- by which time, Love hoped, the outcome of this Ryder Cup would be long since settled -- seemed a distant afterthought.
Such was the fate that befell a player who had just lost three matches out of three. Here at Medinah, we have witnessed Woods at his most maddeningly mercurial.
In his two fourballs alongside Steve Stricker he was magnificent on the back nine, amassing 13 birdies on that stretch across two days, and yet on each occasion the riposte came too late.
If he had not started his matches so abjectly, driving so waywardly that he struggled to keep his tee-shots on the right side of Lake Michigan, we could have perceived Woods' contribution to the American cause very differently.
But three straight defeats signalled embarrassment for a player who, even before this match began, conceded he had not garnered his fair share of points in six Ryder Cups past.
Where 14 Major titles ought to render him the emotional leader of this team, he has been carried on the shoulders of Keegan Bradley and the United States' band of rampant rookies.
Woods turns 37 in December and in this ferocious golfing format he has looked, dare one whisper it, old. "This is the new generation," he acknowledged. "The guys I grew up with are on the senior tour."
He applied the same thinking to his omission from the second foursomes sessions, stressing that he was an older man and needed his rest.
For all Love's insistence that no US team member would be forced to play all five matches, Woods' absence from even a single session would once have been unthinkable; indeed, he had competed in 30 in succession before his dramatic 'benching'. Somehow, it served as a telling reminder of his newly-acquired fallibility.
The problem for Woods in Illinois has been predominantly technical.
This season he has taken significant strides, under the tutelage of Canadian coach Sean Foley, to straightening his notoriously erratic tee-shots.
But under the match play magnifying glass, the same weakness has resurfaced with a vengeance. So quick is his club-head speed and so whippy his body turn that even the slightest mistiming can result in huge hooks or ugly blocks to the right, and so it has proved as the errant Woods has explored every inch of the Medinah boondocks.
On the first day he contrived to hit a fence, a road, and a poor unsuspecting fan, and his Saturday performance yielded similar extremes.
Two hideous hooks at the fourth suggested a golfer groping in vain for the faintest semblance of rhythm.
Eventually, he found it, as a thrilling burst of birdies in the company of Stricker set up a thrilling denouement to their four-ball duel with Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia.
Woods, exhilaratingly, was back in the winning mindset. On the 16th green in the Saturday gloaming, he fist-bumped Stricker as if to assure his partner that he would take care of the rest. This he almost did as he arrowed his tee-shot close at the par-three 17th, screaming "Gimme some!"
Obligingly, the ball indeed gave him some love, spinning back to within six feet for another birdie. The pity was that Stricker could not respond in kind, lipping out with a 10-footer to extend Woods' register of Ryder Cup losses to a miserable 17. With Phil Mickelson, he now holds the record for the most defeats in the competition's history.
The fault here has not solely been his. Stricker, his customary match play sidekick, has been the one woefully out of sorts, unable to paper over his partner's errors.
Love's logic is that Stricker, the quiet blond from Wisconsin known to be the most understated figure on the American side, is the ideal accomplice for Woods as he is incapable of being overawed by the Tiger aura. Such an approach worked brilliantly at the 2009 Presidents Cup in San Francisco, where the duo combined for five wins out of five.
But under closer examination at this Ryder Cup, the myth they form any kind of enduring partnership has been exploded.
Just as he once was in individual combat, Woods the team player is out on his own. (© Daily Telegraph, London)