Meet the new Tiger Woods, just an ordinary golfer

The morning gloom had given way to brilliant sunshine by the

time Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, dressed in matching long

sleeve blue shirts and red sweater vests, made their way to the

11th tee at Celtic Manor.

A small group of fans greeted both with the kind of polite

applause typically reserved for the opposing side in the Ryder Cup,

but Woods got an extra greeting as well.

”Tiger, we’re pulling for you!” one fan yelled out.

”All right,” Woods replied with a smile.

As exchanges go, it wasn’t terribly compelling, though that

wasn’t really Woods’ fault. He has, after all, only been in the

crowd interaction business for a few months now and is still

getting used to the idea of actually acknowledging the people who

come out to watch him play.

Or maybe he’s just not sure how to respond. Again, hardly his

fault, because the messages have changed.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Woods inspired awe

from the masses who followed him from tee to green. They reveled in

his presence, straining to get just a glimpse of the player who so

dominated the game and intimidated opponents that all he had to do

to win at times was simply show up on the first tee.

Now he cuts an almost sympathetic figure, struggling with his

game and struggling with a life that would have been unthinkable

the last time he played for his country in golf’s ultimate team

event.

Even the British tabloids seem to be laying off of him, if the

session Woods had with the media Tuesday was any indication. He was

spared questions about infidelity and divorce, and the biggest

concern seemed to revolve around when his game was going to come

back.

The short answer to that was hard to come by, because Woods

clearly has no intention of answering much these days. He came into

his brief press conference ready to say absolutely nothing and left

about 15 minutes later with his mission accomplished.

No fodder for the tabloids to use. Little more than an admission

that, yes, he is working hard on his game.

And barely an eyebrow raised when one writer said during his

question, ”You’re an ordinary golfer.”

Indeed, if there are any answers to be had this week, they will

come on the golf course. That’s where we’ll find out if the swing

changes Woods has been making are working, and that’s where Woods

will find out whether they can stand up in the heat of

competition.

He’s been accused of never having much enthusiasm for the Ryder

Cup. But never has the Ryder Cup meant so much to Woods.

It’s his last chance to salvage a miserable year, his only

remaining opportunity to prove to himself that, yes, he still has

it. Woods would be the last to admit it, but he seems almost

desperate to exorcise the demons that have infiltrated his game

since his infamous rendezvous with a tree 10 months ago.

He’s looked lost on the course all year, showing only flashes of

the brilliance that was when he was the greatest player in the

world. Woods is not that player any more – not even close – but he

insists that help is on its way from new swing coach Sean Foley and

his game is coming back.

”Out on the golf course today, I hit some bad ones, but I

automatically knew what the fix was,” Woods said. ”That’s neat

because sometimes it takes a while to understand what the fix will

be.”

That the fix is coming is good news for golf, assuming it works.

With Woods at home practicing last weekend, ratings for the Tour

Championship plummeted and without him at Celtic Manor this week

the Ryder Cup would be little more than an overpaid bunch of

flag-waving guys in blue sweaters against an overpaid bunch of

flag-waving guys in red sweaters.

Whether it works is the real question. Woods once seemed able to

make putts and win tournaments on sheer will alone, but the

intimidation that was part of his game has disappeared.

Young Rory McIlroy said as much in about as candid a moment as

you’re going to get at an event where everyone is careful not to

say anything about anyone else.

”I suppose a little bit of that aura is probably gone,”

McIlroy said.

McIlroy was also the one who said after Woods shot a whopping

18-over at the Bridgestone Invitational in August that he would

love to face him in the Ryder Cup and that ”anyone in the European

team would fancy their chances against him.”

Talk is relatively inexpensive, of course, but if Woods needed

anything else to motivate him to raise his game, McIlroy gave it to

him. There’s nothing Woods would like better than to dish out a

whipping to someone who challenged his greatness, and beating

McIlroy would validate his claim that he is on his way back.

”Me, too,” was all Woods would say Tuesday when asked about

McIlroy wanting a crack at him.

The way the Ryder Cup draw works, it may not happen. If it does,

both the odds and the crowd would be on McIlroy’s side.

Nothing surprising about that. The kid’s got game, and Woods

still is in search of his.

Right now, he’s just an ordinary golfer.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org