By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010; 12:10 AM
Tiger Woods isn't making Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin's job any easier. Life would be so much simpler if Woods would definitively play his way on to, or off of, the Ryder Cup team. But judging by his first-round performance in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, it's going to be an agonizing decision, because every swing is a potential mind changer.
Which version of Woods will show up in Wales next month if Pavin makes him a "captain's pick" for the team that will take on Europe? The one who shot the worst scores of his pro career and seemed so bewildered at Bridgestone just a week ago? Or the suddenly sharper one who showed up for the first round of the PGA Championship, negotiating the precarious bluffs of Whistling Straits for a 1-under-par 71? The one who birdied three of his first four holes? Or the one who gave it back with a scattered performance over the rest of the round, pinwheeling his clubs in the air, and screaming into a towel in frustration?
For a few early holes Woods seemed like his old dominant self: teeing off on the 10th after a fog delay, he charged across Whistling's mist-wreathed hillocks and on to the leader board with a series of precise irons and firm birdie putts. "Got off to a quick start and all of a sudden I felt like I could shoot something in the 60s," he said.
But then the erratic Woods reappeared. On the par-5 second hole (his 11th), a 593-yard monster with steep mounds covered in fescue, and bluffs that crumbled like cake down to the blue-green Lake Michigan, Woods drove left and landed under the lip of a fairway bunker. He gouged it out, one hand coming off his club, amid yells of "fore!" Next, he smacked a low, sickly, weird-sounding slice into a greenside bunker. He stared into the distance, and asked his caddie Steve Williams incredulously, "What the hell happened?" Bogey, is what happened.
On the fifth hole, a snaking par-5 dogleg of 593 yards, he drove left again. As he finished his upswing, he let go of the club altogether. It sailed into the sky and spun like a drum majorette's baton. His ball wound up in a bog. Woods stared into the hazard savagely. "You [bleeping] idiot," he berated himself. He bent over into a towel and issued a low guttural cry into it. It must have helped, because Woods managed to save par with a terrific wedge to six feet.
The pendulum swings continued to the end of the round. He bogeyed the par-3 seventh with a difficult chip from the greenside rough, but then made birdie on his final hole, with an approach to eight feet. It put him under par for the first time in his last eight rounds on the PGA Tour.
It's hard to know what to make of such ups and downs from event to event, and hole to hole. Obviously, Woods's mental toughness is still one of the most formidable assets in the golfing world - only he could play so badly one week and then find a way to reengage, and contend for a major championship the next week.
But what does that mean for Pavin and the Ryder Cup team? Woods is currently 10th in the Ryder Cup standings, and only the top eight men will automatically qualify. Woods just might be able to deliver a strong enough performance. But if not, Pavin, who will complete the 12-man roster with four choices of his own next month, will be squarely on the spot. Jim Gray of the Golf Channel has reported that Pavin has reserved a captain's pick for Woods, but in what may be a sign of his own confusion, Pavin vehemently denies it, and says he is still considering several other players.
Rightly so. The lack of clarity in Woods's game is ominous. Who knows what makes Woods so unpredictable these days? Lack of practice? Distractions in his scandal-ridden private life, and personal unease? Some subtle wrinkle in his swing or mechanical glitch in his putting stroke?
Should Pavin choose a player who is clearly struggling, and whose record in the Ryder Cup is less than spectacular to begin with? Woods's record in five appearances is an unremarkable 10-13-2 and the United States has gone 1-4, which hardly suggests he is the competitive backbone of the team. We saw last week what can happen when Woods is apathetic or ambivalent or unfocused in an event, when he lacks hunger. Yet if Pavin leaves Woods off the team and the United States loses, he will be criticized for omitting him.
But Pavin should steel himself to do just that, if Woods can't put together four rounds good enough to qualify. Here's why. Despite Woods's mental fortitude, some statistics suggest he is not just fighting the odd erratic swing, but some subtler and more chronic inconsistencies in his game, for which there is no quick fix, and which makes him an unpromising captain's pick. In 2008, the last year he won a major, Woods was the most accurate player in the world from 100-125 yards away. He hit 89 percent of the greens he aimed at, ranking first on the PGA Tour, and he led the tour in proximity to the pin, too, averaging about 12 feet. In other words, he hit more greens, and was closer to the flag than anyone. Now, he is hitting just 60.98 percent of his greens from that distance, 195th in the world, and he has fallen to 30th in proximity, averaging 18 feet from the flagstick. It's a precipitous drop. Perhaps more important, Woods is no longer a rock-solid putter, either. In 2009 he ranked tied for 20th on the PGA Tour in putts per round, now he is 129th.
Captain's picks put the captain on the spot. They can make the captain look very smart, or very dumb. In 1993 Lanny Wadkins made the slumping Curtis Strange a controversial captain's pick. Strange went a disastrous 0-3. In 2008 European Captain Nick Faldo was excoriated by members of the overseas press for choosing Ian Poulter, but Poulter turned out to be a smart selection, going 4-1.
Historically, the best captain's picks tend to bring something extra to the party in terms of experience, or team cohesion and morale, or competitive fire. Sometimes they are gambles, hot birdie-makers, or sentimental choices. Pavin could do worse, for instance, than to select Tom Watson for his leadership and his experience in playing overseas. Or the brilliant young rookie Rickie Fowler, whose record in Walker Cup play was 7-0. Or Bubba Watson, whose 68 tied him for the PGA lead before first round play was called by darkness, and who is the leading par breaker on the PGA Tour this year. If Pavin reserves a captain's pick for Woods, it means someone like that gets left off the roster. Someone who just might be a more reliable team player at the moment.