The big Mercedes pulled up to the curb outside the clubhouse at
Valderrama with the authority of the Batmobile, stopping to let
out the capeless crusader and his faithful sidekick. Batman and
Robin? No. Tiger and Fluff.
With hurried strides Woods and his caddie walked to the practice
tee to greet Tom Kite, their Ryder Cup captain. Woods was a
little late and a lot tired, having flown all night from Orlando
to Gibraltar. He didn't waste any time on warmup swings or
words. He told Kite he was going to catch up with his friend
Mark O'Meara, whose threesome was already on the 2nd hole. As
Woods turned to leave, Kite said, "I'm glad you're here, man."
Maybe 200 fans watched the Woods group, while Kite, Davis Love
III and Corey Pavin played the other nine with a gallery you
could count on one hand. Hardly anyone recognized Love, O'Meara
and Payne Stewart in their shorts.
So began the 1997 Ryder Cup season. Baseball has spring
training, football has minicamps, the Indy 500 has time trials.
Now the Ryder Cup has a warmup, too. Gentlemen, start your
Sunday was a glorious summer day--are there any other kind on
the sunny southern coast of Spain?--and marked the first step in
Kite's innovative program to reclaim the Cup that the U.S. lost
so ingloriously two years ago at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y. The
Americans came to scout Club de Golf Valderrama, an act so
sensible that it's sure to become a tradition.
Kite wants to win, is used to winning and knows how to win. To
him, this unprecedented excursion, even if it did come a few
days before the start of a major, seemed logical. The Ryder Cup
will be a road game for the Americans this September, and the
home-course advantage will be even stronger because Valderrama
is a regular stop on the European tour, for the Volvo Masters,
and it is a course on which local knowledge is key, a place
where position, shot-making and strategy--not raw
horsepower--will reign supreme.
One other reason the Europeans will be tough to beat: The
Americans may look like a team and act like a team, but the
Euros truly are a team. They united in the face of adversity in
the '80s and still rely on the same core of star players.
So despite having Woods on their side--he can affect only five
of the 28 matches--the Americans face an uphill battle. That's
why Kite tried something different and invited the top 25
players on the Ryder Cup points list, plus one or two others, to
Sunday's sneak preview. Only six accepted: O'Meara and Woods,
who are sure to be on the 12-man team; Love, who ranks ninth in
points but would almost certainly be a captain's pick if he
dropped out of the top 10; Pavin, who's in a slump but still has
a month left to give Kite a reason to add him to the squad;
David Duval, a strong young player who has never played in a
Ryder Cup or won a Tour event; and Stewart, a veteran Ryder Cup
player who's a long shot to make the team.
Scott Hoch, another lock for the team, was among the missing (he
didn't even come over for the British Open), as was Tom Lehman,
who had two excuses: He was tired after winning the Loch Lomond
World Invitational and was facing a busy week as the defending
British Open champion. Tommy Tolles begged off, too, after
missing the cut at Loch Lomond. He opted for some intense
practice in Scotland instead.
Kite could have used a little more support but was satisfied
with what he got. "It would've been fantastic if the guys who
played in Loch Lomond had come down, but I'm still happy," he
said. "You're going to have growing pains with anything you do
for the first time."
The no-shows missed a chance to see firsthand Valderrama's
winding fairways, grabby trees, blinding white sand bunkers and
postage-stamp-sized greens. They also could have seen which
holes require a layup shot off the tee because of fairways that
are narrow and doglegged. "There aren't a lot of holes you can
really hit driver on--even Corey and I," said Kite. Woods said
he'll pull out the big dog on no more than three or four holes.
Maybe it was better that so many potential U.S. team members
didn't see the 4th and 17th holes, a couple of reachable par-5s
guarded by water that are sure to be the stuff of nightmares for
some unlucky pro at some point down the road. Woods tested the
front bank of the 17th green and found that a ball dropped three
fourths of the way to the top still rolled back into the pond.
"That hole could get scary," he said.
Scary? Yeah. You can almost feel the knot starting to form in
your gut. That's the Ryder Cup. Fasten your seat belt and make
sure your tray is in the upright position. 'Tis the season.
COLOR PHOTO: GARY PRIOR O'Meara (left) and Woods scored points with Kite. [Mike Cowan (Fluff), Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods]