WAS it just an illusion or did it used to be on the golf course that time stood still while the rest of life rushed headlong towards the lunatic asylum?
This past year in the life of Tiger Woods would suggest that the madness has followed the world number one out the front door of his Florida mansion and on to the first tee.
No victories, no swing coach for the best part of six months and some of the worst golf since he first came on tour at the end of 1996, Woods has gone through a very public humiliation and divorce as a result of his private indiscretions and his golf has paid the price.
Could the Ryder Cup, for so long a thinly-disguised inconvenience to the single-minded Tiger, finally be a solace to him and an important stepping stone on the path back to greatness?
The signs are that it just might. He arrived at Celtic Manor having begun working six weeks ago with a new swing coach in Sean Foley, instructor to Ryder Cup team-mate Hunter Mahan and others. Woods turned his failure to qualify for last week’s 30-man end-of-season Tour Championship in the United States into an opportunity to get some more practice in as he continued to adjust to a new teacher.
There are even signs there is some fire back in the belly at Ryder Cup time, provided, unwittingly, by Rory McIlroy, whose youthful desire to face Woods has been construed, at least in the media’s perception, as a slight.
Not that Woods is charging around the team room like a gung-ho leader. That role seems to have been assumed by Phil Mickelson, at least according to US rookie Matt Kuchar, who revealed: “Phil’s a lot more talkative in general. I think there’s a guy that’s going to speak up and Tiger might be more like me and kind of sit back and wait his turn.”
Nevertheless, Woods’s own perception as a veteran of five Ryder Cups since 1997 is that he has developed into a senior mainstay of the team and elder statesman.
It is a far cry from the Woods of 2002, whose crack at Mount Juliet that he could think of “a million reasons why” he’d rather be there at the WGC-Amex Championship with its first prize of $1 million than at the following week’s Ryder Cup has haunted him ever since.
“It’s just because of the age,” Woods said this week of his former discomfort at Ryder Cup time. “I was a pretty young guy, and I was usually the youngest player on the team for I think, eight years. Most of the guys that I played with, my rookie year, are now on the Senior Tour. Those are my team-mates.
“Now there’s quite a few guys are who are younger than me on the team. We have had a good mix over the years, and that’s where I was candid earlier in my career, because the guys were older. They have been around the block, won majors and tournaments all around the world and they have been there before.”
Woods has also had the rare experience of walking back into a winning team room this week. While he was recovering from knee reconstruction surgery in 2008 following his epic play-off victory over Rocco Mediate at the US Open, his contemporaries, including current team-mates Mickelson, Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk, Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker, were winning the cup back from Europe for the first time since 1999.
Whether he cares to admit it or not, having won only one Ryder Cup in five attempts (at Brookline in 1999) is a poor return for the world’s greatest player and compounded by the fact Team USA got along fine without him in 2008 at Valhalla and won it in his absence.
And if the US lost when Woods was at his field-stomping peak and won when he wasn’t on the team, how will they fare when he’s back and enduring a terrible stretch of form?
It is possible that having a down Woods in the team room may be a negative and one can hardly imagine, particularly given Kuchar’s insight, he is capable of being talismanic in the mould of a Sergio, Monty or Harrington.
Perhaps the best Corey Pavin can hope for is not a changed man but a refocused one – unreservedly single-minded but seeing the Ryder Cup as a golden opportunity to recast himself in the spotlight, or just to reposition himself as a marketable commodity.
Who knows? For a man starved of success and his beloved ‘Win is everything’ mentality, the opportunity to put one of his fabled Ws on the resumé, even in a team game, for the first time this year may be all the motivation he needs, let alone imagined taunts from a 21-year-old from Holywood. Maybe for once Tiger needs the Ryder Cup more than it needs him.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved