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Time for Tiger to assert himself in Ryder Cup

WashPost: Woods needs to bring his majors mentality, lead U.S. team vs. Europe
2006 PGA Championship - Final Round
Tiger Woods needs to help his U.S. teammates bring Europe to its knees in the Ryder Cup, writes Michael Wilbon of The Washington Post.Stuart Franklin / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

There's one more piece of golf business for Tiger Woods to tidy up before the end of the season, one more mission should he choose to accept it: Lead the U.S. to victory in the Ryder Cup.

It's not his responsibility to do so. He's not the captain; Tom Lehman is. Tiger isn't the most senior player on the U.S. team. He may not be the most popular player on the squad, either. But if we are to believe all the testimony that even the best golfers in the world are intimidated by Tiger Woods, then it's time to do something with that intimidation beyond winning major championships, which he's going to do anyway.

Individually, Tiger has done virtually everything he could do in 10 years of professional competition. He's up to 12 majors after winning the PGA Championship here Sunday. He's won 51 times in his career, and got there at a younger age, 30, than anybody. He owns the scoring record, in relation to par, in each of the four major championships. He held all four championships at once. He won seven of 11 majors in one stretch, which nobody else has done. He's made everybody in the game richer because his mere presence has exponentially increased PGA purses. He's the top athlete in professional golf, and at the moment probably the most accomplished and most respected athlete in the world. And there's every indication that he will work just as hard to maintain that status, maybe harder, than he did to get it.

Yet, the kings of sport seek out challenges. They actually go looking for a new mountain to climb . . . because it's there. When Bill Russell had won enough NBA championships as a player, he won a couple more as a player-coach. Just as Babe Ruth appeared on the verge of becoming one of baseball's truly great pitchers, he became The Sultan of Swat.

So wouldn't it be fun to see the world's greatest individual champion take one for the team? No doubt, critics would be lined up to skewer Woods if he took an active leadership role and the U.S. team still lost to Europe at The K Club in Ireland next month.

Why now? Because it's time. Two years ago, Tiger was 28, which is young in golf. You can't lead men before they want to be led.

I remember Michael Jordan being very hesitant in his mid-20s to try and assert himself as a leader because he thought he was too young and the veterans would rebel at the thought of a young buck claiming control of the team.

But Tiger is 30 years old now. He's more sure of himself now, more secure with his place in the game and his stature in the community of golf. He's married. He's lost a parent. Even he joked Sunday about feeling old when he hears about all the things he's been through and accomplished. And all those life experiences have weathered him enough to stand in front of a group of men and say, "Follow me."

Why now? Because the Ryder Cup team needs him. No disrespect to Lehman, but if the U.S. Ryder Cuppers didn't flinch when the hard-boiled Hal Sutton said "jump" two years ago, why are they going to be any different for Lehman?

Let's recap: Europe has won four of the last five Ryder Cup competitions, going back to 1995, and seven of 10 going back to 1985.

So, the United States has gone from winning 13 straight to having won only three times in 10 tries. Perhaps what has been missing is the demanding nature of a great, great player.

Might Tiger's increased involvement be politically risky and ruffle Lehman's feathers? Sure. And so what? If the United States had won seven out of 10, keeping the status quo would be just fine. The issue winds up being whether the U.S. team wants to play nice and win back the Ryder Cup.

We've seen these players when left to their own devices. Most of them back down when confronted by the world's best player. They are intimidated by Tiger and there's no getting around it. And just maybe that reticence is characteristic of the group's play in Ryder Cup competition, too.

This isn't a suggestion that Tiger is going to stage a coup or start yelling and screaming at players. But the fact is — and you can see it in the way players react to him — that Tiger has gone from an outsider working to be accepted to big brother, the guy others go to. Tiger still works harder than everybody else on tour; maybe the team will benefit from that. As we've seen at the British Open and at Medinah over the weekend, Tiger is superior as a strategist.

And there's something else that's worth risking.

Maybe leading will also bring out the best in Tiger as a player.

The feeling has been out there for a while that Tiger isn't as stoked to play the Ryder Cup as he is a major championship; he even fed those rumors with quotes to that effect.

Asked Sunday night if the Ryder Cup has become more important to him as he's gotten older, Tiger said: "Well, it's always been important. It's just that I haven't always played well. And on top of that, when I did play well, sometimes the guys [on the European team] just outplayed me. That's the way it works out in match play, especially when you have partners. Anything can happen with those partners because you go out there and you can shoot a good number and still get beat."

See, that's not the Tiger we hear and feel in major tournament play and there's got to be a way to have him as involved emotionally as he was this weekend, or at least close. A team led by Tiger Woods would be in much better position, it seems, than a team with Tiger sitting back, being one of the fellows. With seven losses in the last 10 events, sounds like it's time for the U.S. team to get as much as it can from its ace.