Team player Tiger Woods talks Ryder Cup
By Stephanie Wei under Ryder Cup

Team photo time: this one says it all!

Unlike the Tiger Woods of old, where he didn’t appear to mesh with his team (because of the whole intimidation thing), the new, friendlier version of the 14-time major champ set an entirely different tone on Tuesday at Medinah Country Club for the 2012 Ryder Cup. Woods, who is 13-14-2 in the biennial matches, showed humility and grace, and in fact, took blame for the U.S. losing to Europe in the last six of eight matches.

Tiger was a member of the ’99 winning team at Brookline. Due to injury, he missed the ’08 Ryder Cup at Valhalla when the Americans beat the Europeans, who were by far the favorites heading into matches.

Last week at the Tour Championship, Tiger said that believe it or not, he is just one of the guys and gets along with a lot more people than we (the media) seem to think. Well, he really has changed. I’ve taken notice this season and we’re (finally0 seeing the human side of him, which is quite likeable!

I haven’t been on the golf beat long (and missed the heyday of the dominant Tiger Woods, for better or worse), but I’ve seen a difference from 2010 compared to the last few months. We don’t get to see it as much as his fellow players do, but I’ve noticed little things. For instance, last Sunday at East Lake GC he had just finished his round, and as he was making his way to the scoring trailer, he saw Matt Kuchar’s caddie Lance Bennett and immediately started shaking his head with a big smile.

Woods, who was playing with Robert Garrigus, one of the fastest players on Tour, was giving Lance a hard time because apparently they had to wait on Kuchar and Bo Van Pelt quite a bit throughout the day. Tiger was clearly messing around and Lance dished it right back, saying, “I knew you were going to say something!” and mockingly put his hand on his hip as Tiger often does when he’s waiting impatiently in the fairway. (Did any of that make sense? Hope so.)

Back to Tiger’s Tuesday presser. Here are the highlights…

*On the potential pairings and preparation leading up to the first matches on Friday morning: “Obviously we have an idea of what we want to do, but also then again, that can certainly change.  I think we are going to go out there and see how today is, and the most important thing about these next two days is just getting to know this new golf course for us. I’ve been here two PGAs, and it’s a different golf course again.  I’m going to need to do my homework so that whoever I go out with, that I will be ready and able to contribute and understand this golf course and how to play it.”

*On why Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and himself have losing Ryder Cup records: “In order to win Cups, you have to earn points and we certainly have not earned points.  And on top of that, I think that Phil, Jim and myself have been put out there a lot during those years.  So if we are not earning points, it’s going to be  hard to win Ryder Cups that way.”

*On how far back the three of them go and the number of teams they’ve been on together:  “It’s amazing how close this core is.  We have gotten to know each other  not just in The Ryder Cup, but we play team Cups every year with The Presidents Cup, and it’s been the same three guys, and for a very long time.  Phil has obviously been the longest, since ’95.  It’s been a long time, and we certainly have had our experiences.  We can certainly help out a lot of the guys who have never been there before.”

*On what it’s like competing as part of a team for pride instead of as individuals for pay: “Yeah, it’s great.  This is very similar to what we did in college.  We played for our university at the time.  But for us to represent the United States of America and our teammates, it’s something else.  When you’ve got  when it gets to a certain point, either Friday afternoon, late in the evening, or Saturday late in the evening, and all the teams are gathered and there’s like one group out there, and if you happen to be in that group, it’s interesting.

“It’s so much heat on you, which is very different.  It’s different than playing by yourself.  But playing for teammates, it just adds an element that  it means so much more because it is our country, and it is our teammates, and we want to  in all these practice sessions, get to know each other and get our games right and be ready for The Ryder Cup week.  It comes down to one moment.”

*On the “home-field” atmosphere in Chicago:  “It will certainly be partisan, there’s no doubt about it.  It will be loud (smiling).  It will be raucous, and it will be fun. It’s the same as when we go to Europe.  They get into it for their team, and our fans are going to get into it for our team. You know, our sport is such that we don’t have home and away matches every time we tee it up.  It’s not like most sports.  So it only happens for the Americans basically every year or the Europeans every other year, home and away.

“This is a great sporting town, to begin with, and they obviously have supported the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks, you name it.  They just love sport, period. And for us to come in here and be part of a U.S. Team I think is just going to add to that.  We are going to have a great atmosphere here, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.  I think it’s going to be fun for both sides.  As I said, it will be obviously more  obviously in our favor, just like it is when we go over to Europe.  But, hey, it’s part of the deal.  And you go out there and you play and you execute and you try and win points for your team, and hopefully we can get the Cup.”

*On playing in Chicago area in general: “I’ve always loved coming here.  I enjoy playing in Chicago, and for some reason, I’ve just had a lot of success here. I don’t know what it is.  But I seem to be very, very comfortable here.”

*On how much he treasures his experience of being a part of one winning Ryder Cup team: Well, just I think the way we did it on that Sunday was  no one’s ever seen it.  And to be a part of that, to be a part of that rush early; I think Hal started us off, and then Lehman and Duval, I think I was fourth or fifth match out.  It was just like these matches were just being  not just won, but we were winning by such huge margins.  Just blowing these matches out, which added to the atmosphere.  It wasn’t like you were squeaking out these matches 1-up.  There was birdie after birdie after birdie, and we were just rolling. That was certainly an experience that  I’ve never been a part of anything like that.  Never seen a comeback like that in golf, in a team atmosphere.  It was something that I will never, ever forget.

*On how he feels losing to the European team year after year despite dominating the sport individually and how much personal responsibility does he take: “Well, certainly I am responsible for that, because I didn’t earn the points that I was put out there for.  I believe I was out there, what, in five sessions each time, and I didn’t go 50 on our side.  So I certainly am a part of that, and that’s part of being a team.  I needed to go get my points for my team, and I didn’t do that. Hopefully I can do that this week, and hopefully the other guys can do the same and we can get this thing rolling.

[Say what?! Yes, he accepted personal blame for the Americans losing six of the last eight matches. Not totally his fault, but I think most of the other American players were intimidated by him — and I don’t think he did much to make them feel more comfortable because he had to maintain his “aura.” I’ve heard from my elders Tiger’s presence didn’t necessarily fit with the team dynamic and sometimes his teammates tried too hard because they didn’t want to disappoint him, and that didn’t always work out so well, etc.]

*On the influence and presence of special assistant captain Michael Jordan in the U.S. team room: Well, the first time I had ever been around him, he had fed me some beverages (laughter) and the next day was a little bit more difficult than I would like it to be.  But I still shot some really good numbers that day, and made an eagle on the last hole to win. So that certainly feels good. But you know, Michael being who he has been in the sport and what he’s done, for him to be a part of  and want to be part of this, is special for us.

This is one of the greatest athletes to ever live, and you know, he wants to be a part of golf and be a part of and share with us what he’s been through.  For us, that’s incredible. I think it’s hilarious to see him in a cart like in ’97, riding around in the back of a cart, because you don’t see guys who are 6’6″ out here very often.  But to have, as I said, to have him be a part of this, it’s priceless for a lot of these guys.  I guess for me, because I consider him like my big brother, gotten to know him so well over the years, I may take that for granted.  But some of the other guys who don’t really know Michael, I think it’s a real treat for them.

*On guys like Paul Azinger and Jim Furyk saying World No. 1 Rory McIlroy is a marked man this week: “It’s part of being consistent.  It’s part of being ranked No. 1.  It’s part of winning major championships.  You’re always going to want to try and take out their best player, and that’s just part of the deal.  That’s a fun challenge. I certainly have relished it over the years and I’m sure he’s going to relish it this week.”

*On any advice he has for his BFF Rory: Well, I’m not going to say anything; obviously he’s playing for the other team.  We can talk about it afterwards (smiling).

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)