Tiger talk, Spanish style Role in Ryder stokes player, fan interest

September 24, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SOTOGRANDE, Spain -- Tiger Woods was trying to be inconspicuous, quietly going about his business in yesterday's practice round for the 32nd Ryder Cup that begins here later this week. And then he came to the fourth hole at Valderrama Golf Club.

After Mark O'Meara and Lee Janzen hit their drives on the 535-yard, par-5 hole, Woods crushed his drive 50 yards or more past his teammates. Janzen shook his head.

"Just not fair, is it?" Janzen said to a small gallery behind the tee.

Scott Hoch, the fourth member of the group, laughed.

"It's a par-5 for three of us," he said.

Some things never change. Just as American fans eagerly awaited his PGA Tour debut a little over a year ago, the fans who will gather on the Andulucian coast this weekend are gearing up for one more round of Tigermania.

But this will be different from the rest of Woods' first 13 months as a professional.

Instead of Team Tiger -- the entourage that usually includes one or both of his parents, agents and friends such as Kevin Costner and Sarah Ferguson -- Woods will be part of the 12-man U.S. team trying to recapture the Ryder Cup.

The debut of Woods in the Cup was expected ever since he won two of his first seven events as a rookie last fall. He went on to win four more, including the Masters, and led the points list for the 10 American qualifiers.

Woods, 21, will be the second-youngest player to compete for the U.S. team and the first in the event's modern history to be included while playing his first full season on tour.

"He was talking about this last fall, even before he won any tournaments," recalled O'Meara, his Florida neighbor, friend and possible partner in the four-ball competition that will lead off the three-day event. "I can tell you he's very excited to be on this team."

Said Woods: "I always watched this growing up. I always wanted to have somebody root against me. I thought that would be cool. It would be like it is in other sports, like in baseball or soccer."

The European newspapers have been filled with quotes recently from members of this year's European team saying they wouldn't mind getting a chance to play Woods, who until missing his first cut as a pro two weeks ago at the Canadian Open was ranked No. 1 in the world.

Ian Woosnam, who has never won a point in any of his seven Ryder Cup singles matches, was the boldest. At last week's British Masters, Woosnam said: "Give me Tiger Woods in the last match on the last day and I'll whip his butt, as the Americans say."

Lee Westwood, a 24-year-old Englishman considered to be the rising star of the European team, was a little more diplomatic, but no less confident about his chances if he should play his fellow Ryder Cup rookie.

Asked last week what he would do if captain Seve Ballesteros called for a volunteer to play Woods, Westwood said: "I would take one step forward. The idea of taking on Tiger wouldn't faze me in the slightest."

Ballesteros, as is his nature, added to the potential reams of bulletin-board fodder with his own inflammatory remark at yesterday's news conference.

"Tiger Woods is a great player," said Ballesteros. "He has a fantastic record. But he is playing in his first Ryder Cup.

"I think I have 12 players who can compete with Tiger Woods and beat Tiger Woods."

Neither U.S. captain Tom Kite nor Woods seemed surprised by the Europeans offering their collective challenge.

"I think that everyone is excited that Tiger is on this team," said Kite. "Not only the players on my team, but the players on the European team. Certainly, I think it's to be expected that everyone would love to have a chance to get a shot at him."

Asked about Ballesteros' comment, Woods said: "It's true. Anyone can win in match play. Anything can happen. You can get hot and ride momentum. And you can get stomped if the other guy gets hot."

Though a rookie in the Ryder Cup, Woods has loads of match-play experience. He won a record three straight U.S. Amateurs and three straight world junior titles. He compiled a 36-3 record in match play.

"For me, the biggest source of not only reflection but experience that I can draw on is the Walker Cup when I was over here in Wales," said Woods, who went 2-2 in his matches there.

Yet the biennial competition between British and American amateurs is much less intense than the Ryder Cup.

There's another factor here -- Woods' mind-set.

There are questions about whether he will have the same confidence coming in to the Ryder Cup that he did before missing his first cut as a pro two weeks ago at the Canadian Open.

There are also questions about whether he could be distracted by the flap that has developed between Woods' father, Earl, and the PGA of America.

The elder Woods was quoted Sunday as saying that he was upset that parents of Ryder Cup members were not treated the same as wives and girlfriends.

Earl and Kultida Woods remain at home after not being invited guests of the PGA of America. The elder Woods said he will never attend the Ryder Cup.

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