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With Tiger in the fold, smells like team spirit

Friday, October 1, 2010; D1

The most-watched sports event on earth is the World Cup, followed by the Olympics. The third-highest rated TV event, seen by about 2 billion people in 195 countries, is not the Super Bowl or World Series. It's the Ryder Cup that starts Friday. And Tiger Woods, only included thanks to a captain's pick, is in it.

Not much is expected of either Woods or the American team. British bookies don't like the U.S. chances in this exhibition, especially because the United States has not won the Cup on foreign soil in 17 years. In both 2004 and '06, the United States was annihilated by nine points each time, proving we can get crushed home or away.

This Ryder Cup has arrived largely off the American sports radar. But you might want to keep one eye on it anyway, just in case. This Cup feels, to me at least, like a perfect underdog opportunity for Woods to play the role of unselfish teammate and add a crucial element to a potential American upset in Wales.

"My bet is that if ever Tiger is going to be energized in a Ryder Cup, it is going to be this one," Jack Nicklaus was quoted as saying this week. He added if he was the U.S. captain, "I'd pick him 11 times out of 10."

Nothing beats a little attitude, and for once, the American team may have more of it.

"We are currently holding the Ryder Cup," Phil Mickelson said at the Celtic Manor Resort. "We brought it over here to show you what it looks like. We are going to be fighting hard to bring it home."

Of course, that Cup was won in 2008, when Woods was injured and the icy anti-chemistry between Phil and Tiger was absent.

If Woods, chosen by captain Corey Pavin, is part of another defeat, it'll be easy to say, "Don't they ever learn?"

Tiger is not a good Ryder Cup player (10-13-2). He might be even worse for team spirit - only one U.S. win in his five Cups. He has played in every match, always in the first group and keeps others on the bench. And whenever he loses, it just inspires the Europeans.

Ever since Woods went 1-3-1 in his first Cup in '97 and the United States lost by one point, it has been the only weak link of his professional career. But now, it could be a turning point.

This time, Woods is not only arriving after a sex scandal, a divorce and a rotten winless year with just two top-10 finishes, he's even rebuilding his swing with a new coach.

In a major event playing for your own glory, that sounds like a prescription for failure. Playing for your country in a team format, perhaps it's an ideal chance for the most gifted player who ever lived to freewheel it, catch a hot streak and start a turnaround.

My assumption has been that nothing good would happen to Woods in golf this year. Everybody has heard of bad karma, even if they don't know it's a concept of Buddhism. Tiger is a Buddhist. His worldview tells him that, at least for now, if he hits it in a tree, it'll bounce out of bounds, not back in the fairway.

But has that wheel of fate turned a bit?

Woods went to Pavin and asked to be on the U.S. team and has promised him "whatever you want me to do, I'll do." So, right off the bat, Pavin has dropped Woods to the third match Friday, paired with Steve Stricker in best-ball, against Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher, Nos. 16 and 27 in the world. So, Tiger, we've made the lifting as easy as possible. Do you think you can, please, hold up your end?

"I was expecting Tiger to go first," European captain Colin Montgomerie said. "Tiger being 'hidden' is a different move."

You can expect more surprises to come: probably a benching in an alternate-shot match or even two. Why? Tiger can't hurt anybody in a best-ball match. His main job is to let it rip and try to see how many birdies he can make on his own. Besides, Stricker and Woods went 4-0 in their matches in the Presidents Cup last year.

But how would you like to be paired with Tiger in alternate shot? After he slices his drive all the way to Cardiff, you get to play the next shot from behind a castle wall. Thanks, Corey.

Pavin has paved the way for a Woods benching (and defused the issue in advance) by having the hottest U.S. player, Jim Furyk, sit out the first matches Friday. Furyk just won $11.3 million Sunday in the FedEx Cup.

"He was counting his money and he's been very tired," Pavin said of Furyk's absence.

A more likely motive: If Furyk is willing to sit in best-ball, then Tiger can sit in alternate- shot. See, it's all about the team now.

We may find out in a hurry whether this Cup is dramatic or a snooze. Europeans love the team format and think they're better suited to it than individualistic, egotistical American stars. They flaunt the fact that they've lost just four of 12 matches in 25 years.

However, this Cup has one last twist: the Monty Factor. Playing for himself in the majors, Montgomerie exudes defeatism. Monty seems to have his post-loss alibis down pat before he hits the final nine. But in Ryder Cup, he's sublime - the born aristocrat suddenly allowed to be one of the mates down at the pub. Now he is Europe's captain, a career-crowning glory.

So he has been thinking about just the right pep talk to give the lads. He has chosen reverse psychology and decided to read them the speech he has written - in case they lose.

"A runner-up speech, or the non-winning speech," Monty explained. "If the result doesn't go our way, I think it's very important to be prepared."

Cue Monty Python.

As you would expect from a regular guy who just blending in with his teammates, Woods is flying under the radar. Well, except for arriving at the glittering pre-Cup gala as the only golfer without a wife or girlfriend on his arm.

"The pressure is the same," he said. "I want to keep the Cup in the United States. I appreciate Corey selecting me, but it doesn't matter how I got on the team."

But it will matter to the United States how he plays. After a year you wouldn't wish on the devil, Woods now has something he has never experienced before on the world golf stage.

A mulligan.

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