News & Opinion

Ryder Cup tames toothless Tiger again

On his way to piling up 80 PGA Tour victories, 14 of them major titles, Tiger Woods has managed something that neither Jack Nicklaus nor Arnold Palmer came close to doing: compile a losing Ryder Cup record. Woods’ 0-4 performance in France dropped his career total to 13-21-3, which makes him the only player ever to win at least six majors and amass a sub-.500 mark in the biennial matches.

We’re obviously talking about an elite group here. Three of the 13 men with six or more majors never played in a Ryder Cup. Among the 10 who have, however, only Woods has failed to transfer his greatness in individual stroke-play events to the game’s most coveted match-play series, as these numbers attest:

Jack Nicklaus (18 major titles) 17-8-3 record in Ryder Cup; Walter Hagen (11) 7-1-1; Ben Hogan (9) 3-0-0; Tom Watson (8) 10-4-1; Gene Sarazen (7) 7-2-3; Sam Snead (7) 10-2-1; Arnold Palmer (7) 22-8-2; Lee Trevino (6) 17-7-6; Nick Faldo (6) 23-19-4.

Now you can argue that the old-timers beat a bunch of guys named Nigel and Seamus and that the GB&I teams of yesteryear were vastly inferior to those powerhouse American squads. But if history doesn’t always tell us the complete story, it doesn’t lie, either.

Since Woods turned pro in late 1996, the U.S. is now 1-7 in Ryder Cups with him on the roster, 2-1 without him. His overall winning percentage of .351 is simply too low to ignore and very difficult to comprehend, given his success in match play as both an amateur and at the Presidents Cup (24-15-1).

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Tiger Woods endures another string of defeats in the Ryder Cup, extending a woeful legacy in the biennial match-play series.

© GOLFFILE/THOS CAFFREY
Tiger Woods endures another string of defeats in the Ryder Cup, extending a woeful legacy in the biennial match-play series.

That hasn’t prevented the media massage therapists from sugar-coating this latest woeful showing. Fatigue, attributed largely to the effects of winning the Tour Championship a week earlier, has emerged as the most popular explanation for Woods’ going winless in Paris.

It’s the classic fallback excuse. If Woods was tired, even after sitting out Friday afternoon, he should have pulled himself from one of the sessions the next day. Instead, Woods was drubbed twice by Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari, first with Patrick Reed as his partner, then with Bryson DeChambeau. Neither match made it past the 15th hole (scores).

By this point, NBC couldn’t remind us enough that Woods & Co. had run into a “buzzsaw,” with lead anchor Dan Hicks referring to the Fleetwood-Molinari pairing as “unbeatable.” Perhaps Hicks meant to use the word “unbeaten,” which has a very different meaning, but it also underscores the tendency to lean on hyperbole when justifying Woods’ career-long shortcomings in four-balls (5-10-0) and foursomes (4-9-1).

Leave it to Johnny Miller to nail perspective right between the eyes. “I’m not sure his dad wired him for partnered matches,” NBC’s straightest shooter said Saturday. “I think he was designed to play on his own.”

Frankly? Woods is hardly the only reason why the U.S. lost. He wasn’t out there when the Yanks were swept in the Friday foursomes. He had nothing to do with Dustin Johnson, the world’s top-ranked player, losing four of his five matches, or with Jordan Spieth falling to 0-6 in Ryder/Presidents Cup singles play with a resounding loss to Thorbjorn Olesen in a match that all but sealed the final outcome.

The core of America’s problems, generally overlooked in the rubble of another lopsided defeat, was the venue. Le Golf National served up a procession of ultra-narrow fairways and barbaric rough, which completely neutralized the Yanks’ greatest asset (length off the tee) and turned Woods into a competitive liability. He couldn’t drive it straight when necessary, and he couldn’t position himself in the short grass with irons on several water holes.

When his partners were unable to bail him out, Woods clearly showed the tension in his face. His inability to cope with strategy gone awry is one of his most visible weaknesses, but when left to his own devices on hundreds of other such occasions over the years, his skill and sheer will allowed him to escape trouble and stay in the hunt.

Not at Le Golf National. All that water led to pitchouts and layups, and the resulting half-stroke “penalty” became too much to overcome. Woods won just two holes in the opening session and failed to factor for a lengthy stretch on each nine. He managed just two birdies in the Saturday four-ball; Reed’s overall contribution amounted to a halve on the ninth hole.

Given a new partner that afternoon, Woods and DeChambeau failed to make a birdie en route to a front-nine 39. On Sunday, Woods didn’t win a hole against Jon Rahm until a spectacular eagle at the ninth. Say all you want about how good Fleetwood and Molinari were – and, yes, they were terrific – but they encountered little resistance while carrying Europe to its ninth victory in the past 12 meetings.

For what it’s worth, I think Tiger Woods cares immensely about winning the Ryder Cup. I also think his partners over the years have tried way too hard to play well for him, due to lingering hero worship or the intimidation factor he imparted on all foes during his days of dominance. I don’t think he reacts well to any subsequent adversity because he doesn’t have total control over the situation.

Frustration invades his competitive cocoon, and one of the greatest players who ever lived becomes very beatable. From there, the numbers do all the talking. At this point, they’ve begun to speak rather loudly.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com