U.S. needs Tiger to embrace Ryder Cup

Updated: September 22, 2004, 2:34 PM ET
By Ron Sirak | Golf World

Great teams have one thing in common: Great leaders who set a winning tone not just by their play but also by their attitude. Joe Namath did it. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did it. Reggie Jackson did it.

Tiger Woods needs to learn it. Last week, Woods let his team down not so much by his play (which was ordinary), but by his leadership (which was non-existent).

The player who taught Europe how to win the Ryder Cup was Seve Ballesteros. He not only inspired his teammates with his brilliant shots; he infected them with his swagger. In the process he made them believe they could win. In Seve's eight Ryder Cups as a player, Europe took home the Cup four times (after winning just once in the previous 18 encounters), then was victorious the one time he was captain.

As a result Europe now finds itself knee-deep in Seve's progeny. Crafty Colin Montgomerie, energetic Sergio Garcia, cigar-chomping Darren Clarke and relentless Lee Westwood all flashed a bit of the Spaniard during Europe's drubbing of the Americans.

Asked why Europe played so well at Oakland Hills, Garcia had a simple answer.

"We live for this," he said.

Woods, conspicuously, does not. To be fair, it has been a long and difficult season for Tiger, whose game and World Ranking position have dropped a notch, without any corresponding dimming of the spotlight under which he is expected to perform. But at Oakland Hills he was the anti-Seve, a curmudgeon who helped set the tone for the U.S.'s desultory performance by treating his pairing with fellow superstar Phil Mickelson (with whom he has had a distant relationship) as though captain Hal Sutton had asked him to take out the garbage.

While the European players regard the Ryder Cup as the fifth major, Woods always has made it clear that his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' 18 professional majors is far more important to him.

"I'm sure all of you guys probably know what Jack's record is in the Ryder Cup, right?" Woods asked reporters Tuesday. "Anyone?"

When no one answered, Woods asked, "How many majors did Jack win?"

"Eighteen," was the quick answer. Responded Tiger, "Oh, really? OK."

Translation: When Woods reaches the end of what will undoubtedly be a long and glorious career, he thinks his Ryder Cup record won't matter. That remains to be seen. But Woods isn't so dismissive of the event that he doesn't realize, first, it's become a much bigger deal in his era than it was in Nicklaus' and, second, the Americans' gradual decline in the Ryder Cup isn't going unnoticed by either America's golf fans or those who write the history books.

Woods' good friend Michael Jordan dropped in on one of the U.S. team dinners last week to give a pep talk. Afterward, Tiger said he was the only one who wasn't in awe of the NBA legend. In that case he might want to study the arc of Jordan's career.

From the moment he joined the Chicago Bulls, Jordan was anointed as the best in the game, perhaps the best ever. But the Bulls struggled just to make the playoffs. At first Jordan seethed at his teammates, at times berating them for their flaws and mistakes, at others refusing to even discuss them in public.

Then Jordan realized he wasn't going to win an NBA title alone. He learned the art of encouraging his teammates, supporting, exhorting them -- like Seve, he made his teammates believe they could win. Six NBA championships followed.

Woods has the ability to do the same thing with the American Ryder Cup team. The question is: Will he ever apply it?

For the record, Nicklaus' Ryder Cup record was 17-8-3; the teams on which he played were 5-0-1. After going 2-3 last week, Woods is now 7-11-2; his teams are 1-3. In case anyone asks.

Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine.

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Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.

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