Sunday 17 December 2017

The humbling of two superstars

Karl MacGinty

IT has the power to make hard men blubber like babies or shrewd country boys act like a fairground fool. The Ryder Cup is mystic and magical in the way it makes the famous sangfroid of golf bubble and boil.

Didn't the whole world weep tears of joy and empathy with Darren Clarke on 16 during that famous rain-doused afternoon at The K Club in 2006 -- even his opponent Zach Johnson did, for heaven's sake.

"When I gave Darren that putt (for victory), I got emotional for him," the American conceded. "It stank, I wanted to win, but the gods weren't on my side."

And Boo Weekley got so excited on Sunday at Valhalla, he threw one leg over his driver and went hopping and skipping down the first fairway after his tee shot, smacking his backside like a big, crazy kid on a cock horse.

How many of us have ever headed off to work like that?

Yet Tiger Woods has long seemed immune to the beautiful insanity of the Ryder Cup, while Padraig Harrington confessed that winning back-to-back Majors in the summer of 2008 left him "flat" entering that year's confrontation in Kentucky.


Woods put it in a nutshell six years ago when asked at a packed media conference before the 2004 matches at Oakland Hills if he feared being judged on his Ryder Cup record.

Tiger turned the question around brilliantly, like Ali doing the 'rope-a-dope'.

"I'm sure you guys know what Jack's record is at the Ryder Cup, right?"

There wasn't a peep from his audience.

"Anybody," Woods pressed, pausing a second before he continued: "Okay, how many Majors did he (Nicklaus) win?"

Eighteen, came the chorus.

"Oh really," the smiling Tiger retorted.

Very clever. Which is exactly how Tiger was perceived, until he ploughed his Cadillac Escalade over a fire hydrant and into a tree in the wee small hours of a November morning last year.

Virtually invincible on the course, and, apparently, the ultimate cool, squeaky-clean hero off it, Woods was sport's first billionaire when the whole carefully constructed facade came tumbling down.

Tiger's reputation was shattered, his marriage wrecked, his private life left in chaos and his playing career slammed into reverse by a sex scandal of staggering proportions.

As the sixth anniversary of his marriage to ex-wife Elin Nordegren looms on Tuesday week, the closest Woods is likely to come to finding familial warmth and comfort will be among his brother professionals on the US team at Celtic Manor.

Grateful to receive a captain's pick from Corey Pavin after the most unsuccessful season of his career, this year's Ryder Cup inevitably means more to Tiger than before.

It showed recently when Woods was asked about his perceived indifference to the event.

"I don't know where that perception comes from, because I've always loved it," Tiger said.

"The team bonding that occurs, getting to know the guys and everyone associated with our team, are experiences you'll never forget. I've created some great friendships because of it."

Clearly, there's nothing like a wild card to melt the heart, transforming one of the greatest me feiners in all of sport into a staunch Ryder Cup advocate.

Who better than Harrington, Europe's most single-minded golfer, to explain this phenomenon? After making what he admitted was "an awful mess" of his Ryder Cup qualifying campaign, Harrington ultimately needed a wild card from Colin Montgomerie.

This act of faith by Monty certainly stirred controversy, which rose to a cacophony as Harrington struggled over the first two days of the Vivendi Cup in Paris and Paul Casey maintained his bid for the FedEx Cup at the Tour Championship in Atlanta.

Yet Monty's pick drew from Harrington a firm pledge to offer assistance, advice and leadership in the locker room, something which doesn't come naturally to him.

Like Woods, Harrington qualified for his five previous Ryder Cups and readily admits his wild card inevitably stirred an added sense of duty to his captain and the cause.

"In many ways you try to justify it," he said. "That pressure brings a bit more adrenalin, a bit more nervousness, which is all the stuff you want.

"The last time round, I'd won a couple of Majors (the Open and US PGA) that summer, so I was tired and trying to manage myself into the event.

"This time, I'm doing the opposite, almost trying to hold myself back, I'm so excited about getting into it."

Looking back to Valhalla, where he took a measly half point from four games, Harrington continued: "I wanted to do my own thing and in many ways wanted to fight against the rigours of the whole week.

"Ryder Cup week is very structured. Generally, you don't get your own time to practise and follow your usual routine. I've certainly heard of that being an issue for players from across the water."

Tiger's disdain for the plethora of functions, dinners and other social commitments foisted upon the players in Ryder Cup week is widely known.

"But when you've got a pick you won't feel like that. It'll be great to be there at Celtic Manor on Monday -- I'll be asking 'what can I do?' I want to give a little bit back," Harrington insisted.

There were more reasons for his abject performance at the 2008 Ryder Cup than the diplomatic Harrington cares to relate; he certainly wasn't the only senior player left cold by Nick Faldo's ham-fisted captaincy.

Far more perplexing, however, was his half-point tally at The K Club, when one might have expected the adrenalin generated by an enthusiastic home crowd to override any exhaustion caused by Harrington's frantic efforts that summer to make the team.

There are theories about Harrington's recent Ryder Cup travails after he'd impressed at Brookline, The Belfry and Oakland Hills, where victory in all three singles matches boosted his points tally to seven and a half.

Had his gradual transition into an arch-grinder, capable of winning three Majors, left Harrington ill-suited, almost too conservative, for the cut and thrust of 18-hole match play?

"I'm aware my match play hasn't been good. I think it's because I've knocked the edges off my game in the last four or five years.

"Previously I was very erratic and that's a lovely way to play match play," he suggested.

Yet those same rough edges have returned with a vengeance recently, contributing to Harrington's victory drought on Tour since August 2008.


Indeed, his failure to make Monty's team under his own steam had more to do with poor play than bad scheduling, especially at the Majors, where he missed three out of four cuts this year.

Harrington's swing "is as good as ever, probably better," according to Bob Torrance, his venerable coach, but the Dubliner admitted he has failed to bring this form from the practice ground on to the course this season. A daft double-bogey six he took from wedge-distance in mid-fairway on the first hole of the Open at St Andrews was the most glaring example of this mystifying malaise.

Even his second place at last month's Irish Open, as close as Harrington has come to victory this season, was achieved by his genius for playing incredible recovery shots from hitherto unexplored areas of the Killeen Course.

Harrington hasn't been 100pc sure recently where his golf ball might fly, so one can only imagine how nervous might potential playing partners feel about being paired with him at Celtic Manor, especially in foursomes.

And, as his confidence continued to slide at the Vivendi Cup, where even Harrington's usually reliable putter let him down, it will have done precious little to restore the flagging trust of his team-mates at Celtic Manor.

While Corey Pavin was obliged to give the world No 1 a wild card, the US skipper insisted he'd have no hesitation in resting Tiger in Wales if necessary -- since his debut at Valderrama in 1997, Tiger has never sat out a session in five Ryder Cups.

Despite the bad press Tiger has received at the Ryder Cup, he has been a remarkably consistent point-scorer for the US in an era that includes record hammerings at Oakland Hills and The K Club -- especially at singles, winning three and halving the other of his four Sunday games this century.

Understandably, Tiger's form this season has been more wildly inconsistent than Harrington's.

After a hugely impressive fourth place at the US Masters on his return from self-imposed exile in April, Woods played like a broken man as he missed the cut at Quail Hollow the following month. Another fourth place, at the US Open, hinted at revival.

Yet Woods, whose coach Hank Haney texted his resignation after Pebble Beach, would plumb the deepest depths of despair at Firestone, finishing last on 18-over in a tournament he formerly won for fun.

TV pundit David Feherty observed of Woods: "There's nothing wrong with his swing, there's nothing wrong with anything except the head full of slamming doors that you have when you go through a divorce -- especially when there's children involved."

Asked if he thought Tiger would be back, Feherty went on: "I think so. I've never seen anything quite like him, though I know he's human now."

Assisted by Canadian swing coach Sean Foley, Tiger's golf recently has shown signs of remission.

Yet after his first season without a victory on the PGA Tour, Woods goes to the Ryder Cup on level pegging with his US team-mates and closer than ever to being just another one of the 12.

"Tiger's a welcome addition," said US vice-captain Davis Love III, "because we want to wrap our arms around him and bring him back to us."

Woods and Harrington might have 17 Major titles between them, nearly twice as many as the other 22 players combined, but these two humbled heroes have never been better motivated to embrace the Ryder Cup as they bid for salvation at Celtic Manor.

Irish Independent

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