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A different kind of Ryder Cup for Tiger

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A different kind of Ryder Cup for Tiger

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Tiger Woods has failed to win a tournament in 2010

Cannot wait for the Ryder Cup in four weeks, mostly to see how Tiger Woods likes life as a "scrubini."

You know the "scrubini" term, right? It's from baseball, and generally refers to the bench players, or "scrubs," or, playfully, the "scrubinis." The guys who show up to the ballpark knowing they have to surrender prime B.P. time to the starters, the guys who ride the pine and get late pinch-running duties, or the occasional spot start in a day game after a night game.

Now, now, I know U.S. team captain Corey Pavin will likely play Tiger in all five matches, and Tiger will be everybody's focus come game day, but the fact remains: The greatest player in the world had to get to the Ryder Cup on a captain's pick.

That's as close as golf comes to panhandling.

I'm not saying Tiger had a cardboard sign saying "Will Play Ryder Cup for Food," I'm just saying Tiger probably used to treat Captain's Pick Day in Ryder Cup years past by saying, "Oh, so that's who'll be bringing me my dry cleaning."

Tiger Woods did not earn enough points to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Think about that. If I had told you that a year ago at this time, you'd have told me Tiger not earning his keep was as likely as Tiger piling an Escalade into a tree on Thanksgiving night, Tiger admitting to sporting a tidy 121 mistresses on the side en route to a bitter divorce, and Tiger going oh-fer in the winner's circle in 2010.

[Photos: See Tiger Woods in action]

As they say over in the Cliché Department: What a difference a year makes.

I have to imagine this changes Tiger's role on Team USA. In the past, you got the impression he cared as much about the Ryder Cup as most of us cared about high school algebra, back when we just stared at the clock on the wall, waiting for the bell to ring.

Tiger himself told us this, back in 2004, at Oakland Hills. It was a legendary moment in his press conference career, a career usually filled with bored non-answers to the world's scribes. We were grilling him about his interest in the Ryder Cup, and essentially accusing him of not caring, when he finally let his guard down and asked us, not-so-rhetorically: "How many majors did Jack Nicklaus win?" Like lemmings, we all said: "Eighteen." And when Tiger followed up with: "And what's his Ryder Cup record?" we all muttered incoherently, because none of us knew.

Tiger had rushed the net, and slammed one of those returns right into the general area of our groins. Point, Tiger.

(By the way, Jack's Ryder Cup record is 17-8-3, better than Tiger's 10-13-2.)

Tiger's point was always:

Guys, I do care about the Ryder Cup – but only to a point. Mommy and Daddy didn't raise me to play "team" golf. Mommy raised me to, as she used to like to say, "cut their heart out." So it's sort of weird to make a living cutting people's hearts out, then calling them "teammate." You know?

Now, that's a bit of a generalization – but only a bit. The essence of truth to Tiger's soul is there.

However, things change. Escalades hit trees … voice mails hit the public airwaves … candid photos are taken at sex therapy classes … and the world looks like a different place.

And in this changed world, Tiger is sort of a "scrubini," and can get hazed and heckled appropriately by his teammates.

Now, the guys who automatically qualified – especially the veterans like Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker – can treat Tiger the way George McFly treated Biff at the end of "Back to the Future," calling him out for not properly buffing their cars.

Now, now, Tiger. You know I wanted TWO coats of wax.

You have to figure Tiger will play well in Wales, for a few reasons.

One, he's getting better. The combination of his work with new swing coach Sean Foley and the clear-the-mechanism finality of his divorce being final has resulted in better golf: more fairways, more greens, better putting. Four of his last five rounds of golf have been in the 60s. Prior to the Barclays two weeks ago, where he opened with a 65, Tiger had shot only six of 33 rounds in the 60s all year.

Two, he's humbled. No longer does Tiger show up to a Ryder Cup with the "How soon can this end so I can start prepping for the Masters?" thought bubble above his head. Now, he has to look at the eight who qualified on points – adding Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton to the prior names – as guys who were able to do what he wasn't able to do. He hasn't won an event all year, and every guy on that list other than Overton has.

All summer long, I lobbied against selecting Tiger on the team. I noted that the only U.S. Ryder Cup won in this decade – the '08 win at Valhalla – came not only without Tiger on the team (he was injured), but was marked by a team spirit and camaraderie made possible only by the absence of Tiger's overwhelming shadow.

That's changed now. The shadow isn't as overwhelming. The Tiger Woods of today isn't a drag on team morale. Instead of coming to a Ryder Cup bored and entitled, Tiger has to be happy and thankful for even being invited to the party. He's shown enough over the last couple of weeks to convince me it'll be different.

So, well done, Corey Pavin. And Tiger, welcome to life as a "scrubini." Now, only two questions are left:

1. Do the team vets make Tiger bring chicken wings and donuts to the Learjet for the flight over? You know, hazing and all.

2. Who's Tiger's date at the red carpet dinner during Ryder Cup week?

As they say, inquiring minds want to know.

Scorecard of the week

64-67-69-62 – 22-under 262, Charley Hoffman, winner, Deutsche Bank Open, TPC Boston.

Or, as Stewart Cink tweeted Tuesday morning: "I'm not sure which course Charley Hoffman played yesterday, but I'd like to play there sometime."

A Labor Day Monday 62? Eleven birdies? All with the Spicoli hair flying? Show me the person who saw that coming, and Hoffman's mother doesn't count.

Hoffman's blitz stirred up a late buzz that perhaps he should be the fourth captain's pick after the obvious choices Tiger, Cink and Johnson. This surge for Hoffman spoke as much to the lack of an obvious fourth pick as it did to Hoffman's golf skill.

In the end, while I love the guy's hair and green slacks, Corey Pavin did the right thing in selecting Fowler. While Fowler has never won on Tour, and while Hoffman has a pair of top-10s (John Deere, Canadian Open) in the late summer to go with his win at TPC Boston, the rest of Hoffman's résumé lacks a little sizzle.

Fowler brings sizzle, and not just because he looks like a Creamsicle on Sundays. (By the way, how will Fowler's game be affected by wearing red, white and blue, and not electric orange?) The selection of Fowler can be more analogized to a baseball move – the September call-up of a phenom to the bigs. In baseball, the call-up is not so the phenom has to hit fourth and be the RBI guy, it's to give a stud a taste of the bigs, so that when spring training rolls around, he'll be even more comfortable.

Same with Fowler. He won't be Pavin's horse. He may sit out a few matches, even. But at 21, and with that golf swing, and with a 7-1 Walker Cup record as an amateur, the kid has future Ryder Cup mainstay written all over him, and to get him some reps, on the road, will do well for his psyche come the 2012 Ryder Cup.

And by then, maybe the kid will have shed the Justin Bieber hair.

Broadcast moment of the week

"A lot of younger players are starting to feel more comfortable. Tiger's opened the door, and it's allowed these players to blossom and play with more confidence and not be looking over their shoulder all the time. It's really made a big difference." – NBC's Johnny Miller, characteristically crystallizing golf's big stories into easy-to-digest sound bites.

He's right, you know. Jason Day is 22, and hanging around leaderboards more and more. Fowler is only 21, and while he hasn't won, he hasn't had his soul crushed by Tiger. Dustin Johnson, at 26, can't find a leaderboard he doesn't want to infiltrate. Heck, Rory McIlroy even said he'd look forward to a match with Tiger, given the state of Tiger's game. If that doesn't define "comfort level," I'm Ben Hogan.

Used to be, I'd think Tiger would store away nuggets like that and turn them into coal for his hearth, to keep the raging Tiger fire blazing. But Tiger 2010 can't afford to spend too much time tending that flame – he's too busy trying to notch a top 10, which he has not done since the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. It could come this week, at Cog Hill.

Mulligan of the week

Maybe the surest sign that Tiger's personal GPS is pointing toward the Comeback Trail are the foibles of Phil Mickelson. It's almost as if Lefty feels like he needs to play the role of bumbler whenever Tiger starts making news.

Just five months ago, Lefty was hitting that 6-iron from the pine straw at No. 13 at Augusta National, his green jacket collection was growing from two to three, and Tiger was a late-night punch line.

Now, for the 10th time – that's right, TENTH time – Mickelson saw a chance to become the world's No. 1-ranked player, and cold shanked it.

If Phil could fashion a top-five finish at TPC Boston, he had a chance to take over Tiger's top spot. The move would be as much symbolic as real, and the golf world has been waiting for it.

And waiting … and waiting … and waiting …

When Lefty made the turn on Sunday, he was at 13-under and in the hunt for a top-five. Had he come through with a 3-under back 9, his 16-under would have placed him tie-fifth, and the World Ranking computer would be twitching with nervousness and excitement.

Instead, Phil hit his tee shot on 10 into a hazard, hit his third into a hazard, made triple-bogey seven on the 10th, backed it up with a bogey on 11, a double on 17 and didn't stop bleeding until he had a back-nine 41, a Sunday 76 and a tie-25th, 7-under finish – three shots behind Tiger, by the way.

Somebody tweeted that Lefty may have "Stockholm Syndrome," so long has he been No. 2 in the world, and is conditioned to not want No. 1.

All I know is: He's a perfect candidate for this, so let's go back out to that 10th tee, put Mickelson's scorecard at 13-under and … give that man a mulligan!

Where do we go from here?

We are on to the penultimate leg of the FedEx Cup "playoffs," and if you can tell me the points leader, you win yourself a free sleeve of Pink Lady golf balls.

(Save the emails. It's Matt Kuchar.)

More compelling, Tiger arrives at Cog Hill with the memory of an eight-shot win there a year ago. That's the good news. Bad news is, that was a lifetime ago for Tiger, and he likely needs a top-five or better to even make the final field of the year, the season-ending Tour Championship in two weeks.

OK, "scrubini," let's see how you handle the pressure.

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