Woods picks up Ryder Cup gauntlet
Tiger Woods is in an unforgiving mood and seems intent on settling a few scores in the Ryder Cup this week.
Woods is often described as having a poor record in the matches and the struggling world number one is seen as vulnerable.
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy stoked the fire recently when he said he would relish a crack at the American. And when pushed for a reaction to McIlroy's desire to clash at Celtic Manor, Woods fired back, "Me too".
The 21-year-old McIlroy is nothing if not confident but his European team-mates may yet regret his comments. And his skipper Colin Montgomerie can't have helped when he said he'd pick Jim Furyk or Steve Stricker if he could have any of the Americans on his team. In other words, not Woods.
"Anything that motivates players is great," said US captain Corey Pavin.
In McIlroy's defence he stressed that he had first suggested he was ready for Woods after the American ended 18 over par at the WGC event in Ohio last month. Last week McIlroy added, "It would be great to take someone like Tiger Woods down." Well, he's right. Who wouldn't want to be able to say he once beat Woods in the Ryder Cup?
Woods is clinging to the world number one spot by his fingernails after his time out of the game and recent swing re-modelling. But many observers are seeing this week in Wales as an opportunity for some kind of redemption, to end the golfing year on a high and bury the hoodoo that he is not a good Ryder Cup player.
True, his record - won 10, lost 13, halved two - isn't quite as stellar as the 14 major titles he has won as an individual.
But it's only two points behind team-mate Phil Mickelson, who has played in two more Ryder Cups (seven to five). And it's one-and-a-half points more than Furyk, Sunday's winner of the £7m FedEx Cup, has yielded from six matches.
Ireland's Padraig Harrington, another Ryder Cup "underperformer" has only won 8.5 points from five matches. By contrast, Lee Westwood and Colin Montgomerie had won 15.5 and 14 points respectively after five matches. So while Woods isn't a Ryder Cup "great", nor is he terrible.
And what of the widely held belief that he doesn't enjoy the format?
He bridled when asked about it during the wildcard news conference earlier this month, snapping, "I don't know where you get that from". And despite answering other questions at Celtic Manor with his by-now familiar curt answers, he reiterated his fondness for team golf.
"To be part of a squad it truly is fun," he said. "We don't get a chance to do it very often once we leave college. The thing that goes on in the team rooms, that's what we all look back on; the memories and friendships that you make."
He added: "What happens outside the team room, what happens in the media or anything like that, it has no concern to us. We are here to get the job done as a team."
Of course, it's that team aspect that has scuppered Woods's record in the Ryder Cup - both by having partners who were daunted by him and/or less skilled than him, or by being unable to reproduce his own sustained 72-hole strokeplay brilliance.
Woods has had 11 partners in his Ryder Cup career, winning three foursomes and six fourballs in his 20 matches along with three wins, a loss and a half in singles. Intriguingly the only defeat was by Italian Costantino Rocca on Woods's debut in 1997. Rocca was the last Italian in a Ryder Cup team and this year there are two of them.
"He's had a target on his back for a long time now as world number one and people get up for those matches [against him]. It's hard to win," said Pavin.
Furyk added: "Guys just find that extra gear and Tiger's been beaten by that sometimes. But, you know, he's a human being too."
Woods also admitted that he may have looked awkward on some of the teams earlier in his career because he had just left Stanford University and was the youngest player by a long way.
And he dismissed another source of potential discomfort at Celtic Manor this week - the importance attached to wives and partners during Ryder Cup week. Quizzed about a possible change in his reception by the rest of the US party after his sex scandal and subsequent divorce, he snapped back: "No, we are here as a team. We're here to win the Ryder Cup."
This week, the 34-year-old Woods is likely to gain a 12th partner in Stricker after the pair won all four matches in the Presidents Cup last year.
"Steve is a great putter. He gets the ball in the hole and Tiger is pretty good at it too," said Pavin. "It's a pretty solid combo. Those two players in particular are pretty tough to beat when playing their best golf."
Woods's first-day practice partner Hunter Mahan looks a good fit, too, while he won two, lost two with Furyk in 2006. One man Woods is unlikely to partner is Mickelson after the pair lost both their matches in Hal Sutton's ill-fated 2004 team. Pavin refused to rule anything out before this week but you sense he wouldn't dare take the gamble.
Woods claims his game is coming around after recent work with new coach Sean Foley and according to team-mate Stewart Cink the world's number one golder still "does things with a ball that I've never seen anybody do".
Mahan added: "I don't think [Woods] likes you guys writing about how bad of a Ryder Cup player he is.
"I think he's going to find motivation in this week to kind of get back some of the US fans, and I think he's very, very eager to play well. I think there's been some challenges from the other team, so he's definitely taken that head on, I think we all have."
McIlroy and his mates may be keen to confront the once-mighty Woods, but they could fall foul of the very team matchplay format which has felled him in the past.
If Woods can get hot, it might not matter if he occasionally blows cold.