Woods on course for Ryder; Unlike '97, his game and outlook in top form

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BROOKLINE, Mass. -- He has won six events on the PGA Tour this season -- five since the beginning of July. He has reclaimed his ranking as the world's top player, as well as the dominant feeling he had as an amateur and during his first few months as a pro.

Now Tiger Woods must take on a new role: as the leader of the 12-man U.S. team looking to regain the Ryder Cup after a four-year drought. The 33rd biennial competition is scheduled to begin Friday and end Sunday at The Country Club here on the outskirts of Boston.

It is a far different role from the one Woods, now 23, was expected to play against Europe two years ago in Spain. Then it was merely his talent that was counted on, and Woods failed to produce, winning only one and tying another of the four matches in which he played at Valderrama.

"Based on my experience in '97, from the Western [Open] on, I wasn't playing very well and unfortunately it carried over to the Ryder Cup," Woods recalled yesterday afternoon. "I didn't hit the shots at the right time. I didn't make the putts. But this year I'm coming in with a much more positive attitude and rightfully so."

Team captain Ben Crenshaw is expecting Woods to play here as he has for the past three months, particularly with the precision he displayed in winning the PGA Championship and the NEC Invitational within a three-week stretch.

"After the PGA, he's been extremely focused on the Ryder Cup," Crenshaw said of Woods yesterday. "His coach, Butch Harmon, told me that. In that way, he's going to assume more of a leadership role because of the sheer way he can play and is playing."

His confidence goes beyond what Woods has done between the gallery ropes. He is much more comfortable among his teammates than he was at Valderrama when the U.S. lost to Europe for the second straight time. Back then, his only close friend on the tour was veteran Mark O'Meara. As a result, then captain Tom Kite paired Woods and O'Meara for their first three matches, and they wound up losing twice.

"In relation to '97, I didn't know the guys on the team that well," said Woods. "I didn't know their wives, their girlfriends, their kids. It was an environment I took advantage of and got to know everybody. This year is different. I know everybody. It makes you feel more comfortable."

Crenshaw is unlikely to pair Woods with the slumping O'Meara, last year's Masters and British Open champion. It is more likely that Woods will be paired up with a player who can hit it nearly as far and is as magical around the greens, such as Phil Mickelson. The two played a practice round together yesterday.

Not that Woods intends on being the emotional leader of this year's team, with more experienced Ryder Cup players such as reigning U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart and former British Open champion Tom Lehman expecting to help Crenshaw in whatever pre-match and post-match meetings the Americans will hold.

"I don't think that's my personality," said Woods, who's been known to pump himself up after making clutch putts such as the ones that helped him win his last two events. "I'm not going to be a person who's going to get someone fired up by jawing at them.

"It's not my place, it's not my personality. I would rather let my play lead the team. That's what I tried to do in '97. People were criticizing me for not being a vocal leader. There are players on this team who have played on numerous Ryder Cups. Let them carry the teams. It is their place. They have earned it."

Crenshaw has altered the traditional U.S. Open-type layout of The Country Club -- a course that has played host to three Opens, by trimming back the fairways and cutting down the rough. It will allow Woods to pull the tiger's head cover off his titanium driver more often than not.

The wider fairways and shorter rough -- three inches instead of six -- will give Woods more room for error and could give him a huge advantage over nearly every European player except for 19-year-old sensation Sergio Garcia of Spain.

"If you can play from the fairways on every hole, you'll have a huge advantage," Woods said.

Woods, who admittedly has traded some of his power for accuracy, is still long enough off the tee to seriously ponder trying to drive the two short par-4s on the front nine. Yesterday, with a favorable tailwind, Woods came up 10 yards short on the 335-yard fourth hole and pin high to the right of the green on the 310-yard sixth.

"You've got to have a little help," he said.

One thing that hasn't changed much from the last Ryder Cup -- the phenomenon known as Tigermania. While it has quieted by a few decibels since its peak two years ago, anticipation of what Woods might accomplish here over the next few days has not dissipated.

But as Colin Montgomerie of Scotland was quick to point out: "I think all one player can do is win five points and it takes 14 1/2 to win. Our team won the Ryder Cup the last time because the fact that every player got at least one point. That's the first time it's ever happened. That just proves it takes 12 players to win this and not one."

The chances of Woods and Garcia repeating their back-nine showdown at Medinah in the PGA Championship and meeting head-to-head in a crucial match come Sunday seem slim since Crenshaw and European captain Mark James will submit a blind draw.

"If I have to play against Tiger, it will be nice," Garcia said yesterday. "But what I have in mind right now is to help the European team try to win the Cup, and I don't care if I'm playing against Tiger or not."

This will be different in another regard to any of the other four team events Woods has played in as an amateur or a pro. It marks the first time he will compete in one in the U.S.

"I don't have to hear boos all day," he said.

Ryder Cup

Site: Brookline, Mass.

Schedule: Friday-Sunday

Course: The Country Club (7,033 yards, par 71)

TV: The Golf Channel, (tomorrow, opening ceremonies, 4 p.m.), USA (Friday, 7: 30 a.m.-6 p.m.) and NBC (Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 10: 30 a.m.- 6 p.m.)

Format: Friday and Saturday, four morning alternate-shot matches and four afternoon better-ball matches. Sunday, 12 singles matches.

Last match: Seve Ballesteros' European squad defeated the U.S., 14 1/2-13 1/2, in Sotogrande, Spain.

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