Tiger Woods never fails to make an impression. Unfortunately what we will remember about his first Ryder Cup is not the passionate uppercuts that often follow his heroics. The searing memory is of Woods standing on the back of Valderrama's 17th green, hand on hip, shaking his head ever so slightly and looking, perhaps for the first time in his golfing life, sheepish. It happened last Saturday during the four-balls. Nick Faldo and Lee Westwood had Woods and his partner, Mark O'Meara, dormie. Woods had a 35-foot eagle putt down a severely pitched green to a hole cut just two paces from a slick bank that plunges toward a pond. With Westwood and Faldo both staring at short eagle putts, Woods had to make his or the match would be over. As Woods's putt plunged toward the hole, a buzz began to build in the crowd, for his ball obviously had too much steam. It skidded past the cup and down the bank and then, like Woods and O'Meara's salvation, disappeared into the water.
It was an impossible putt. That it rolled into the drink meant nothing, and everything.
It's no longer news when Woods fails to win. Seve Ballesteros may have called it in advance, saying, " Tiger Woods is a good player, but we have 12 guys who can beat him." He struggled throughout the summer on the Tour, winning only one tournament after May, and was a nonfactor in the final three majors. Still, it was a shock to see Woods crash so spectacularly. After his first match, a four-ball victory in which O'Meara carried him against Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer, Woods, the only American to play five matches, lost three and tied one. Of his 82 holes Woods won 11, lost 19 and halved 52. (Among the Americans only Brad Faxon took fewer holes, though his winning percentage was considerably higher than Woods's.) Even more out of character than rinsing a putt was how little fight Woods showed in losing his singles match to Costantino Rocca. Rocca is the anti-Tiger, a shlump who worked in a factory until he was 23 and whose success will always be measured by the putt he missed to lose the '93 Ryder Cup.
On Sunday, Rocca came out fighting, taking the 1st hole with a birdie, then the 3rd with a par. Rocca was 3 up after five, and then on the par-4 9th he stepped on Tiger's neck. Forced to punch out after an errant drive, Rocca left himself a 20-footer for par while Woods had a three-foot par putt of his own. Rocca made his, Woods missed, and the match was all but over. "He hooped it," Woods said. "That was a big momentum breaker."
By the end of the week Woods's invincibility was just a memory. "The Ryder Cup is much more difficult and demanding than I thought it would be," he said on Sunday, "and so is playing team golf."