2004: Tiger Woods: Tough to play against . . . and tough to play with?

Tiger Woods, perhaps the most dominant golfer ever, is 1-10 in his past 11 four-ball matches in Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup play. That is not a misprint. The unthinkable record ranks not only as perhaps golf’s greatest mystery, but might be as inexplicable as why the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano on the first day of spring and why ships and airplanes disappear in the Bermuda Triangle.

America can’t find a best-ball partner for Tiger Woods? Are you kidding me? We’re talking about the world’s No. 1 player for years and the best match-play player ever as an amateur. One might think the USA could pair him with Dweezil Zappa and that Woods would carry them to more than one victory in 11 best-ball matches.

But think again. Seasoned professionals have had a hard time helping him win. After his four-ball victory with Mark O’Meara on Day 1 of the 1997 Ryder Cup, Woods lost his next eight four-ball matches in international cup matches until he and Davis Love III edged Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, 1 up, at The Belfry in 2002. Woods then lost two more four-balls with buddy Charles Howell III at last fall’s Presidents Cup in South Africa, making him 2-10 overall.

“So I’m the difference,” Love cracked.

Woods has lost a pair each with Notah Begay and Howell and one apiece with John Huston, Justin Leonard, David Duval, Steve Pate, Paul Azinger and O’Meara.

“You’d think it would not be possible,” Howell said of 1-10.

The question, then, is simply, “Why?”

Let’s start with Woods’ explanation and Theory No. 1: Anything can happen in 18-hole match play, especially with partners in tow, especially when some of his opponents have been the talented likes of Vijay Singh-Retief Goosen (twice), Ernie Els-Singh, Darren Clarke-Westwood, Nick Faldo-Westwood, Tim Clark-Els and Stuart Appleby-Singh. If 72-hole medal play is golf’s equivalent to a seven-game series, then 18-hole match play is akin to one game. The favorite in 18-hole match play probably is more at risk than in any other sport.

“Some of my matches I played terrible, and other times I’ve played great and lost,” Woods said. “It’s very interesting. When you play in a format like that, 18 holes, anything can happen.

“I went out there with Zinger (Paul Azinger) and I shot 65 on my own ball and we lost,” Woods said, referring to Thomas Bjorn’s and Clarke’s 1-up victory at the 2002 Ryder. “And I’ve shot 73 and won a match on best ball. It’s wild how it works out that way.”

The anything-goes reason might explain the odd loss here and there, but it alone doesn’t support the 1-10 trend.

Which brings us to Theory No. 2. Let Hal Sutton, U.S. Ryder Cup captain, say it: “Probably the strongest reason is that everybody gets juiced to beat Tiger,” said Sutton, whose 12-man team will meet Europe in the biennial Ryder Cup Sept. 17-19 at Oakland Hills.

Several players interviewed for this story said as much, that playing against the world’s No. 1 player adds motivation and helps opponents elevate their games.

“You could probably ask some guys who played against him, and they don’t know whom he played with,” said 2000 Presidents Cup player Kirk Triplett. “They probably just looked at him. And as a onesome he certainly could do as well as 1-10.”

“Guys definitely go in with a nothing-to-lose attitude,” said Jay Haas, 50, making his third Ryder Cup appearance.

It follows then that perhaps Woods and partner go in with an everything-to-lose mindset and a high expectation. Hence, Theory No. 3: Woods’ partners can feel added pressure, can feel uncomfortable playing with the intense world No. 1 and can feel that Woods will carry the load. In his own mind going to the first tee, a Woods partner can feel like a second wheel instead of like the main man. On top of that, because of the many social functions at such an event, Woods isn’t able to prepare in his normal manner and that could put him off kilter.

“Sometimes a partner can get to watching Tiger and thinking Tiger is going to do everything,” Haas said.

“Maybe guys are in awe of the way he hits the golf ball and start questioning their own games,” said David Toms, making his second Ryder Cup appearance.

“He’s hard to play with no matter what the situation is,” Triplett said. “How many guys play their best with him? You try harder, and we all know what happens then.”

In other words, maybe Woods scares his partner more than he does his opponents.

“Guys can get so intimidated being the partner of Tiger Woods that he’s tough to play with,” said first-time U.S. Ryder Cup team member Fred Funk. “There could be something to that.”

Love, for years one of the world’s top players, said he was a “little nervous” when partnering with Woods the first time, a successful alternate-shot victory over Clarke and Bjorn on Day 2 of the 2002 Ryder Cup.

“When you’re playing with the No. 1 player in the world, you can feel like all you have to do is get the ball on the green,” Love said. “There’s a little of, ‘I just have to help a little bit.’ I didn’t want to put pressure on him. It was more like, ‘Don’t screw him up.’ ”

Woods and his inward focus are perhaps more suited to individual play than partner play. His records suggest that.

“Golf is such an individual game that when you throw him into a team environment maybe he’s uncomfortable and maybe his partner is uncomfortable,” close friend O’Meara said.

“Tiger’s not a rah-rah guy, not a natural leader,” said Triplett. “He leads by example, not with pom-poms. I’m not saying he’s out there for himself. That’s just his style and personality.”

Jos Vanstiphout, the Belgian psychologist who works with several international players, concurred. “The team does not look at him as a team player,” he said. “He’s a nice guy, but everybody treats him like a freak. He’s only human.”

Sutton said he has told Woods with whom he might pair him. It likely won’t be Love because Sutton has told Kenny Perry he plans to team him with Love. But there are signs it might be Mickelson, 7-4-3 in Ryder-Presidents four-balls.

The day he was announced as captain, Sutton said he would try to get Woods five points and said he wanted to match power with power.

“What we need to do with the U.S. team is put our best players in the world together and try to secure at least two matches (out of four in the doubles sessions),” Sutton said.

When it was recently suggested he put Woods and Mickelson, the top two U.S. players, out first in all four doubles sessions as a so-called “super duo” to get the crowd going and send Europe a signal, Sutton said, “I like the way you think. I said all along I plan to play to win.”

Sutton said he wants to pair based on similar games, not friendships. Woods often has played with buddies, and one school of thought is that competitive fire could be stoked more if he plays with someone he’s not particularly close with.

Woods and Mickelson aren’t the best of pals, but they have gotten closer in recent years through Cup matches: They played ping-pong together at the last Ryder Cup, and often ate next to each other at the last Presidents Cup.

“That would be a big statement,” Toms said of a Woods-Mickelson pairing. “The media has said we’re not a team in the past. That would be cool, a way of saying we are on the same page.”

Vanstiphout says the best partner for Woods is “somebody who thinks he’s his equal.” Triplett sounded the same beat, suggesting pairing him with a competitor who tells Woods, “Tiger, go ahead and tee off first. I’ll ride shotgun on this team.”

Mickelson certainly wouldn’t feel inferior. And he wouldn’t object. Rather, Mickelson said he’d “love” to partner with Woods, that he’s been waiting for that pairing for a long time.

Chances are four matches with Mickelson would help Woods improve his 5-8-2 Ryder Cup record. And then there’s that 1-10 stretch.

“Would I like to have a better record?” Woods said. “Yes. But I’ve always tried my best, and that’s what I’ve been able to do.”

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