Tiger ready to roar
Newport - Entering the frenzied bear pit of the Ryder Cup ought to be the last thing Tiger Woods feels like doing right now after the traumas of the past 10 months.
Public humiliation, private torment, a lengthy self-imposed exile and a disappointing comeback hardly constitute ideal preparation for one of the most mentally demanding contests in golf.
But Woods has proved time and again that he has a knack of treating convention with contempt, and it would be unwise to bet against him proving influential at Celtic Manor, even if the Ryder Cup has rarely been a happy hunting ground for him during his glittering career.
In five previous appearances he has only featured on a winning American team once, at Brookline in 1999, and in 24 matches he has a losing record -- winning nine, losing 13 and halving two.
The hoopla surrounding the superstar has been cited by some as a reason for the problems the United States had in breaking Europe's dominance of the event over much of the past decade until they won without him in 2008.
A popular theory is that the absence of Woods at Valhalla two years ago liberated a fresh-faced American team and forced Paul Azinger's inexperienced line-up to step up to the plate.
"Without him, everyone wanted to be leader of the team," recalled Sergio Garcia. "You could see a different energy in the team."
Others have questioned whether Woods will be a hindrance or a help this year. Peter Oosterhuis, a veteran of six Ryder Cups, suggested recently that Woods' presence may prove corrosive.
"Reading about things that have happened with Tiger playing the Ryder Cup before, he hasn't fitted in with the team very well at all. I have my doubts about how he will this year," Oosterhuis said.
"I don't think he's going to help the team. I think he's just going to muddy the waters and cause problems that they don't need."
The compelling counter-argument is that every golfer on the planet would want Woods in their team if given the choice.
"If you had to make a six-footer on Sunday afternoon to win the Ryder Cup, who would you pick?" asks Greg Norman. "It would be Tiger Woods. He's made more six-footers to win championships than any other player on that team."
Former Europe captain Sam Torrance is similarly unequivocal.
"He's the best player in the world," Torrance said. "He didn't play for six months this year and he still just failed to make the team. It's Tiger Woods, you have to have him in your team."
In the event, it came as no surprise when US captain Corey Pavin confirmed Woods as one of his four wild cards in the American line-up.
Unlike previous campaigns, Pavin believes Woods will feel less burdened by expectation after the problems of the past year.
Asked if he felt Woods was under more pressure to perform at this year's event, Pavin replied: "I'd argue the opposite actually.
"He's in a position as a pick and he has not played up to his own standards. But he's playing some very good golf now, just like everybody on the team.
"He's one of 12 guys and I'm going to pair him and talk to him just like all the other players I've talked to about who they want to play with and who I feel is best for them."
Pavin also revealed that he would not be afraid to bench Woods if he felt it was in the interests of the team.
"Tiger told me he will do whatever is necessary to help the team win and that is going to be my call," Pavin said.
"I will probably be making that decision a little bit on the fly but I'm not afraid to not play him every match, that's for sure."
The Europeans are certainly in no doubt about the challenge presented by Woods.
"If it's Tiger in front of you, you know you are going to have to play well to beat him as he is the best player in the world," said Lee Westwood.
Westwood also hopes Woods will be treated with respect by the fiercely partisan home support.
"I'd hope the European supporters won't be disrespectful," Westwood said. "Besides, I think Tiger's heard most of it already.
"I played with him at the Bridgestone and during the first two rounds of the US Open and heard some abusive stuff shouted at him, stuff that made me uncomfortable and shouldn't be said on the golf course."