Woods trades Team Tiger for Team USA

Updated: September 29, 2010, 12:52 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

NEWPORT, Wales -- Tiger Woods and the Ryder Cup have never been BFFs. He likes it, but he doesn't live for it. He proudly wears the colors, but Tiger has always preferred playing for Team Tiger rather than Team USA.

This could be a critical week in Tiger Woods' efforts to climb back to the top of the golf world.

It isn't anything personal. Golf is a solitary sport, and Woods is one of its most solitary figures. Especially now. Just because the Ryder Cup is a supposed team event wrapped in the flag like a sprained ankle in an Ace bandage doesn't change one essential truth: In golf, you're on your own.

That's the way Woods wants it. Master of his domain, determiner of his fate and all that. To Woods, the beauty of golf is that there's no middle man.

But for once, Woods needs the Ryder Cup more than the Ryder Cup needs him. He needs teammates. He needs friends. And, to be honest, he needs to win.

"It would be great," said Woods, mostly on verbal cruise control after his Tuesday practice round. "It would be great to get a win. I'm looking forward to getting out there and contributing and hope I can get some points and hopefully we can get this thing done."

If we can all agree that Woods' reputation is still under repair (corporate America hasn't exactly made an endorsement beeline back to him), then what better event for him to fill the potholes in his public image than the Ryder Cup? It is the perfect opportunity at the perfect time.

The Ryder Cup has all the elements required for a great comeback story: a high patriotism factor, a near-last chance for Woods to win something & anything this year, and a world stage on which to show that humility and excellence aren't mutually exclusive.

It's not as if this is a revolutionary theme here. In his media session, Woods was asked repeatedly about the personal importance of the Ryder Cup. One Brit reporter was as subtle as a crowbar to the forehead.

"You don't win majors anymore," the reporter began. "You don't win regular tournaments anymore. And you are about to be deposed by Europeans as the world No. 1, or [by] Phil Mickelson. Where is the Ryder Cup now that you're an ordinary golfer?"

Woods paused, even smiled.

"I remember you're the same one at the British Open who asked me that, too," he said. "I hope you're having a good week."

Tiger needs a little help from his friends, or at least his Ryder Cup teammates.

This will be Woods' sixth Ryder Cup. The U.S. is 1-4 in his previous five appearances. He missed the 2008 competition because of knee surgery, and guess what happened? The U.S. won.

Woods' record in pairs competition is an indifferent 7-12-1. He's 3-1-1 in singles play. He isn't the only reason the U.S. has taken it in the golf shorts in recent years -- teammates Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Stewart Cink also have losing records -- but then again, none of them is the No. 1-ranked player in the world.

There are five rookies on this U.S. team, including Woods' buddy Bubba Watson. Wouldn't it be nice if Woods played the part of Eldrick statesman and held their hands during the nerve-racking three days? Wouldn't it be something if he played all five matches and actually played well? And if he doesn't -- or if U.S. captain Corey Pavin holds him out of a match -- wouldn't it be fun to see Woods play the part of the enthusiastic spirit-fingers cheerleader?

Of course, the Ryder Cup isn't a made-for-Tiger event. It's about USA vs. Europe. It's about hoisting that little trophy like the Lion King. It's about Us, not Him.

But Woods still moves the golf needle more than anybody else. You think America is counting the minutes until Jeff Overton tees it up Friday? Half of golfing America doesn't realize Overton is on the team. But it knows Woods is here. It always knows where Woods is.

It will be interesting to see how U.S. captain Corey Pavin uses Tiger this week.

A strong, even heroic performance (as much as golf can be heroic) could do wonders for Woods' image rehab. You know he's ready. He spent several days last week working with his new swing coach, Sean Foley, and talked glowingly of the adjustments he can make on the fly. He also spent several seconds Tuesday working on his new rivalry with Europe's Rory McIlroy. McIlroy reportedly has expressed a desire to face Woods in a match.

"Me, too," Wood said.

"Care to elaborate?" a reporter asked.

"No."

This will be a weird week for Woods. It will be the first time since the 2002 Ryder Cup that he won't have Elin Nordegren with him. If I were Woods, I'd show up at the opening ceremony or the formal gala with my mom on my arm. Call it corny, but Kultida and son would be a nice touch -- and I say that in an uncynical way.

Woods hasn't won bupkus this year. He has two top-10 finishes and a lot of heartache. The Ryder Cup could serve as an ice pack to his 2010 shiner. It could be the flashlight at the end of Tiger tunnel.

Or not.

"I don't even think about that stuff," Pavin said. "My job here this week is to put the teams out there that I think are the best and have the best chance to win the Ryder Cup. How that affects players individually and in the future is not my concern. My concern is to try to win the Ryder Cup."

He's right. And wrong. A happy, confident Woods helps everyone -- Pavin, the U.S. team and, most of all, Woods.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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