The big Mercedes pulled up to the curb outside the clubhouse at Valderrama with the authority of the Batmobile, stopping to let out the capeless crusader and his faithful sidekick. Batman and Robin? No. Tiger and Fluff.
With hurried strides Woods and his caddie walked to the practice tee to greet Tom Kite, their Ryder Cup captain. Woods was a little late and a lot tired, having flown all night from Orlando to Gibraltar. He didn't waste any time on warmup swings or words. He told Kite he was going to catch up with his friend Mark O'Meara, whose threesome was already on the 2nd hole. As Woods turned to leave, Kite said, "I'm glad you're here, man." Maybe 200 fans watched the Woods group, while Kite, Davis Love III and Corey Pavin played the other nine with a gallery you could count on one hand. Hardly anyone recognized Love, O'Meara and Payne Stewart in their shorts.
So began the 1997 Ryder Cup season. Baseball has spring training, football has minicamps, the Indy 500 has time trials. Now the Ryder Cup has a warmup, too. Gentlemen, start your butterflies.
Sunday was a glorious summer day—are there any other kind on the sunny southern coast of Spain?—and marked the first step in Kite's innovative program to reclaim the Cup that the U.S. lost so ingloriously two years ago at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y. The Americans came to scout Club de Golf Valderrama, an act so sensible that it's sure to become a tradition.
Kite wants to win, is used to winning and knows how to win. To him, this unprecedented excursion, even if it did come a few days before the start of a major, seemed logical. The Ryder Cup will be a road game for the Americans this September, and the home-course advantage will be even stronger because Valderrama is a regular stop on the European tour, for the Volvo Masters, and it is a course on which local knowledge is key, a place where position, shot-making and strategy—not raw horsepower—will reign supreme.
One other reason the Europeans will be tough to beat: The Americans may look like a team and act like a team, but the Euros truly are a team. They united in the face of adversity in the '80s and still rely on the same core of star players.
So despite having Woods on their side—he can affect only five of the 28 matches—the Americans face an uphill battle. That's why Kite tried something different and invited the top 25 players on the Ryder Cup points list, plus one or two others, to Sunday's sneak preview. Only six accepted: O'Meara and Woods, who are sure to be on the 12-man team; Love, who ranks ninth in points but would almost certainly be a captain's pick if he dropped out of the top 10; Pavin, who's in a slump but still has a month left to give Kite a reason to add him to the squad; David Duval, a strong young player who has never played in a Ryder Cup or won a Tour event; and Stewart, a veteran Ryder Cup player who's a long shot to make the team.
Scott Hoch, another lock for the team, was among the missing (he didn't even come over for the British Open), as was Tom Lehman, who had two excuses: He was tired after winning the Loch Lomond World Invitational and was facing a busy week as the defending British Open champion. Tommy Tolles begged off, too, after missing the cut at Loch Lomond. He opted for some intense practice in Scotland instead.
Kite could have used a little more support but was satisfied with what he got. "It would've been fantastic if the guys who played in Loch Lomond had come down, but I'm still happy," he said. "You're going to have growing pains with anything you do for the first time."
The no-shows missed a chance to see firsthand Valderrama's winding fairways, grabby trees, blinding white sand bunkers and postage-stamp-sized greens. They also could have seen which holes require a layup shot off the tee because of fairways that are narrow and doglegged. "There aren't a lot of holes you can really hit driver on—even Corey and I," said Kite. Woods said he'll pull out the big dog on no more than three or four holes.