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Woods' form proof he is ready to return from darkness

ON a sun-kissed day in South Wales, Tiger Woods showed he's ready to emerge from the deepest, darkest valley of his career, while Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy served notice of their intent to hunt him down.

Europe might have won the Ryder Cup by a whisker, thanks principally to the grit and determination of Graeme McDowell -- yet, the Ulsterman apart, Fowler and Woods probably were the most spectacularly impressive performers at Celtic Manor.

Though likely to be displaced by Lee Westwood at the top of the world rankings inside the next few weeks, Tiger yesterday produced convincing evidence that the golf game which won 14 Major titles and established him as the best player of all time has not deserted him.

Playing well down the US pecking order at eighth, Woods appeared to be heading for a first defeat at the Ryder Cup when Francesco Molinari went two holes up with birdies on the opening holes at Celtic Manor.

Tiger had not lost a singles match at the Ryder Cup since his debut at Valderrama in 1997, when he fell to Costantino Rocca -- so the prospect of another Italian taking the most famous scalp in golf seemed to be on the cards as Molinari led Woods through eight holes.

Then the tide turned. With a sweet birdie at the ninth, Tiger drew level, then savaged his talented young opponent with three birdies and a spectacular eagle in the next four holes, before polishing him off with another birdie at 16 -- Woods was nine under for his round at that point.

Wow. This was vintage Tiger. He even talked like the old Woods afterwards, saying: "I knew if I stayed patient and calm, I could do it. It's still in there. All I needed to do was stay calm, make a few putts and let it come out."

Tiger's three points from four matches established him as top-scorer at the 38th Ryder Cup with his regular partner Steve Stricker and Europe's Luke Donald and Ian Poulter. Fowler took just one point from three games at Celtic Manor.

Though his partnership with Phil Mickelson failed to sparkle, the 21-year-old showed the class and cojones of a future Major champion by coming from three down to force a half with Edoardo Molinari, courtesy of four finishing birdies.

The treacherous 15-foot, downhill putt Fowler sank to break the elder Molinari's heart at the last was the most impressive of a mind-blowing series of shots struck by this uniquely gifted young man down the stretch.

Yet the most dramatic turnaround at Celtic Manor was Rory McIlroy's.

After infamously dismissing the Ryder Cup as "an exhibition" 18 months ago, McIlroy insisted yesterday: "This week has been so much different and so much better than any other experience I've had at a golf tournament before.

"I truly believe this is the greatest golf tournament in the world," he added. "I want to play it for the next 20 years."

The Holywood youngster took two points from his four matches at Celtic Manor.

Some might view his half with Stewart Cink yesterday as an opportunity missed after McIlroy's third shot from the greenside bunker at 18 unluckily spun back off the fringe rough into the sand. However, he showed the class and courage of a future Major champion with the subsequent up-and-down.

McIlroy sometimes can be rushed into missing vital putts but the many he sank at Celtic Manor suggests this department of his game is getting ever stronger.

Irish Independent