All eyes on Tiger Woods at Ryder Cup

9/27/2010 - Golf Tiger Woods

NEWPORT, Wales -- From the moment he first appeared in a Ryder Cup arena, there has been pressure on Tiger Woods to perform, a sort of he-can-never-do-enough mentality that has dogged him throughout five appearances with limited success.

It was 13 years ago that Woods stepped to the first tee in Spain, already a major champion at age 21 and golf's biggest star. He was paired with his good friend Mark O'Meara, and time has not dulled the memory.

"I can remember my first shot," he said. "I hit first and used a 2-iron. I was very nervous. It was my first Ryder Cup and I was playing not just for me, but representing my country and teammates, too. It's a different type of nervousness than a major."

Woods and O'Meara went on to win that match (3 and 2 over Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer), but it was a losing week overall for Woods, who went 1-3-1 and fell to Italy's Costantino Rocca in singles as the United States lost by a single point, 14½ to 13½.

The game's No. 1 player has been on just one winning U.S. team (1999) and has never been part of an overseas victory. His 10-13-2 overall record is often criticized and sometimes used as evidence that he is indifferent toward the biennial team competition that will take place when the 38th Ryder Cup begins Friday at Celtic Manor.

This time, Woods had to rely on a pick from U.S. captain Corey Pavin to be part of the 12-man team. For the first time, Woods did not lead the Americans in points (he even led in 2008 when he was injured and could not play after knee surgery in June). And he has endured a tumultuous season that has seen him go winless so far, with just two top-10s.

The spotlight is always on Woods, but this time it might be even brighter, especially in a team setting.

"I think there's a tremendous amount of pressure on Tiger," NBC analyst Gary Koch said. "He went to Corey and said he wanted to be part of this team. I think he realizes this is a great opportunity to get things headed in the right direction, so there's a lot for him to prove this time around."

Adding to the pressure is the fact that Woods is trying to rework his swing under the direction of Sean Foley. They began working together early last month at the PGA Championship, after Woods was coming off his worst 72-hole performance as a pro at the Bridgestone Invitational, and there has been steady progress.

But Woods has not finished in the top-10 in the four tournaments since he began working in earnest with Foley, and he failed to qualify for last week's Tour Championship. Typically, swing changes are a work in progress, with difficulties along the way.

"We have a big picture in place," said Foley, who planned to work with Woods this past weekend before the golfer joined the team for its trip to Celtic Manor. "We have a direction, and we'll stick to that direction.

"If Tiger hadn't met me, or anybody else for that matter, and he was to go over there as one of the best players ever, he could probably still go 5-0. … We set a plan in place at the PGA Championship, and we're going to stick with that until it happens."

The fact that Woods has never had anything close to a perfect record at the Ryder Cup (3-2 in 2006 is his best mark) remains fodder for his critics, however.

So does the comment he made at the 2002 American Express Championship in Ireland. The World Golf Championship event was played the week before the Ryder Cup at The Belfry, and Woods was asked whether, if he had to choose, he would rather win the stroke-play tournament or the Ryder Cup.

The tournament, he said. When asked why, Woods replied: "I can think of a million reasons," referring to the first-place check, in dollars.

It was actually a clever line, and many of his peers likely would have responded in similar fashion. After all, they do play an individual game, and they are ultimately judged by that. The Ryder Cup is an exhibition without remuneration.

Yet that, along with Woods' correctly pointing out that few know Jack Nicklaus' Ryder Cup record (17-8-3) -- but they know he won 18 majors -- have been viewed as examples for why Woods is perceived to have little love for the Ryder Cup.

(Nicklaus and the Ryder Cup deserve some context, however: The Golden Bear never played on a losing Ryder Cup team, and his six appearances were in an era when there was virtually no scrutiny like today's.)

Still, Woods has only lost one Ryder Cup singles match (in 1997), and you cannot heap the blame on him for record 9-point defeats in 2004 and 2006. He went 5-5 at those Ryder Cups while the U.S. team was getting waxed. At most, he can affect the outcome of 5 points; it will take 14 points for the U.S. to retain the Ryder Cup on Sunday.

Woods missed the 2008 victory because of injury, but he went 5-0 last year at the Presidents Cup, a Ryder Cup-style competition against a team of international players not from Europe. In the first four matches, he partnered with Steve Stricker, leading to speculation that they will make another good pairing this week.

"It seems like he is enjoying team matches more than he did when he was younger," NBC analyst Johnny Miller said. "He's going into it with a little bit better attitude. He used to be more of a lone-wolf type of player, but I think he's starting to get the hang of this Ryder Cup play being dang fun stuff and really important. … It's an interesting question, but I think Tiger is going to enjoy this Ryder Cup."

Curtis Strange, who captained the 2002 U.S. team that lost at The Belfry and who will work for ESPN at the Ryder Cup, said, "It's going to take time for him to probably feel comfortable in his own skin. That's a human thing, going through what he's been through.

"More pressure? If anything, if I were him, I would be more motivated to really do well because I'm a pick. When I was a pick [in 1995], I was really motivated to do well to justify my existence. Does he think like that? I don't know."

For what it's worth, Woods said there is no difference to him.

"The pressure is the same," Woods 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."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.