Tiger Woods never fails to make an impression. Unfortunately
what we will remember about his first Ryder Cup is not the
passionate uppercuts that often follow his heroics. The searing
memory is of Woods standing on the back of Valderrama's 17th
green, hand on hip, shaking his head ever so slightly and
looking, perhaps for the first time in his golfing life,
sheepish. It happened last Saturday during the four-balls. Nick
Faldo and Lee Westwood had Woods and his partner, Mark O'Meara,
dormie. Woods had a 35-foot eagle putt down a severely pitched
green to a hole cut just two paces from a slick bank that
plunges toward a pond. With Westwood and Faldo both staring at
short eagle putts, Woods had to make his or the match would be
over. As Woods's putt plunged toward the hole, a buzz began to
build in the crowd, for his ball obviously had too much steam.
It skidded past the cup and down the bank and then, like Woods
and O'Meara's salvation, disappeared into the water.
It was an impossible putt. That it rolled into the drink meant
nothing, and everything.
It's no longer news when Woods fails to win. Seve Ballesteros
may have called it in advance, saying, "Tiger Woods is a good
player, but we have 12 guys who can beat him." He struggled
throughout the summer on the Tour, winning only one tournament
after May, and was a nonfactor in the final three majors. Still,
it was a shock to see Woods crash so spectacularly. After his
first match, a four-ball victory in which O'Meara carried him
against Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer, Woods, the only
American to play five matches, lost three and tied one. Of his
82 holes Woods won 11, lost 19 and halved 52. (Among the
Americans only Brad Faxon took fewer holes, though his winning
percentage was considerably higher than Woods's.) Even more out
of character than rinsing a putt was how little fight Woods
showed in losing his singles match to Costantino Rocca. Rocca is
the anti-Tiger, a shlump who worked in a factory until he was 23
and whose success will always be measured by the putt he missed
to lose the '93 Ryder Cup.
On Sunday, Rocca came out fighting, taking the 1st hole with a
birdie, then the 3rd with a par. Rocca was 3 up after five, and
then on the par-4 9th he stepped on Tiger's neck. Forced to
punch out after an errant drive, Rocca left himself a 20-footer
for par while Woods had a three-foot par putt of his own. Rocca
made his, Woods missed, and the match was all but over. "He
hooped it," Woods said. "That was a big momentum breaker."
By the end of the week Woods's invincibility was just a memory.
"The Ryder Cup is much more difficult and demanding than I
thought it would be," he said on Sunday, "and so is playing team
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Targeted by the European team, Woods hit his stride as often as he hit his driver at Valderrama. [Tiger Woods playing golf]