When Tiger Woods is your playing partner, you leave your ego on
the practice range, with the broken tees and the 300-yard drives
that count for nothing. That's what Davis Love III did last
Saturday at the Belfry. He played with Woods twice, morning and
afternoon, and twice they won. Love solved the mystery of Tiger
in Ryder Cup play: You let him do his thing. He's won eight
majors in six years. His thing works.
Before Saturday, Woods had never won two points in a single day
at a Ryder Cup. In 1997 he was paired with a good bud (Mark
O'Meara) and a polar opposite (Justin Leonard). No good. In '99
Woods played with a cheerleader (Tom Lehman), a corporate partner
(David Duval) and a handpicked partner (Steve Pate). Worse yet.
Last Friday at the Belfry he played with Paul Azinger (another
cheerleader) in the morning and Mark Calcavecchia (another good
bud) in the afternoon. Two more losses. When playing with a
partner in the Ryder Cup, Woods had rung up a record of two wins,
seven losses and a halve. Weird. By Friday night people were
asking, "Can anybody play with Tiger Woods? Can anybody be a
partner to the best player in the world?"
Love had been sitting on the answer. On the team flight to
Birmingham, England, Love sat in the last row with close friend
Mike Hulbert, the assistant U.S. captain, who's an easygoing guy
and the perfect conduit to the team's intense, big-picture
captain, Curtis Strange.
"Who would you most want to play with?" Hulbert asked Love.
"The guy I'd enjoy playing with most is David Duval," Love
answered. He and Duval had flown together to and from the British
Open in July. They shared a cottage at the American Express
Championship in Ireland the week before the Ryder Cup, and they
had fished together nightly that week. They've become good
friends. "But if we need two points, you should play me with
Tiger," Love added. "I know I can win with Tiger. I can play his
game." Strange tried one experiment on Friday morning, another on
Friday afternoon. Both failed. Love and Woods was Plan III, the
one he never wanted to get to.
In alternate shot, the format for Saturday morning, a team uses
the same brand of ball from start to finish. When Woods is your
playing partner, you use his ball, because he's the best player
in the world and you're not. Nike makes a ball especially for
Woods, a ball designed to lower Woods's towering shots, a ball
that requires fantastic clubhead speed to, as the Tour players
say, launch. On the U.S. team the only players able to hit
Tiger's ball are Calcavecchia, Duval, Love and Phil Mickelson,
and Lefty's too big a star to dump his Titleist for Tiger's Nike.
Love was happy to play the Nike Tour Accuracy TW.
But more important than that, Love was willing to play however
Tiger wanted to play. Love understands--as few people seem to--that
Woods is not bound by Ryder Cup tradition. People want to see
Tiger read his partner's putts, get four eyes over lies in the
rough, see 10 fingers interlocked high in the air after long
holed putts. Love understands that Woods is not going to do those
things, not with guys he's trying to beat at 20 other events a
year that matter far more. "His attitude is, 'It's you and me and
the course out here. Let's just do what we always do,'" says
Love. In other words the execution of shots is what carries the
day. The rest is the old college try, and Woods gave that up
after two years at Stanford.
The Ryder Cup will never be life-or-death for Woods, and the
Presidents Cup even less so. From the day he turned pro he has
created a team devoted to only one thing: his success in golf's
most important championships. He has never asked Jack Nicklaus or
Arnold Palmer for advice, on anything, for they are not on his
team. His team is on his payroll.
When Woods had a question about wind direction last week at the
Belfry, he asked his caddie, Steve Williams, not Azinger or
Calcavecchia or Love or Strange. Asking such a question would
create intimacy that might be useful for that brief moment, but
detrimental at Augusta or Sawgrass or someplace that matters.
"You play with him, you learn to play the way he plays," Love was
saying in Saturday's dusk. This is how Woods plays: He's always
prepared. Always decisive. He counts on no one else, not even his
Golf Plus will next appear in the Oct. 28 issue of SPORTS
COLOR PHOTO: JEFF HAYNES/AFP MATCHED SET Woods's only wins came with Love.
Executing shots is what carries the day with Woods. The rest is
the old college try, and Tiger gave that up after two years at