Woods takes the high road, then gets taken down

November 17, 2011

MELBOURNE, Australia -- In historical terms, it wasn't Nixon shaking hands with Mao, or even Stanley greeting Livingstone. It was more like welcoming the plumber who's come to unclog a toilet: Necessary but not memorable, and certainly not emotional.

Tiger Woods and Steve Williams, who have become Curley and Moe in search of a third Stooge, greeted each other on the first tee of Thursday's opening foursomes matches at the President Cup with a handshake that was also necessary but not memorable, and certainly not emotional.


*The handshake with Williams went smoothly enough. The rest of Tiger Woods' day was another matter. Photo by Getty Images

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The crowd behind the first tee at Royal Melbourne roared its approval, and really, how sad is that? Individual sports, like golf, thrive on rivalries, but no one anticipated one emerging between a player and a caddie. It's as if Churchill were feuding with his chauffeur at Malta.

In the VIP seats, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and his European Tour counterpart George O'Grady watched The Handshake. U.S. captain Fred Couples and his International counterpart Greg Norman hovered. It would be so silly if it weren't so sad.

Twice now, Williams has mouthed off about Woods. Twice now Williams has apologized. Twice now Woods has accepted the apology. And sadly, twice now Adam Scott, who now employs Williams, has been caught in the middle of a brouhaha entirely not of his own making.

You can't help but think that strike three for Williams with Scott will be, well, strike three. Certainly, Adam has no reason to relish being The Third Stooge and complete a comedy act that is quickly growing tiresome.

Woods initiated The Handshake, reaching out to Williams, who at first seemed startled by the gesture, or perhaps he was trying to decide how to respond. After staring at Tiger's hand for an instant, Stevie grasped it, but their bodies remained about as far apart as they could be and still shake hands.

They were like the same-charged poles of two magnets repelling each other to a safe distance. But if the plan by Couples and Norman (and they deny having a plan) of having Woods in the same group as Scott -- and Williams -- was to end the tension as quickly as possible, then mission accomplished.

But the gesture did not end the drama -- or melodrama -- for Woods. He suffered the most humiliating defeat of his career. After the handshake, he and his partner Steve Stricker were demolished by Scott and K.J. Choi 7 and 6 even as the Americans took a 4-2 lead. Irrelevance could not have come faster. Woods and Stricker never won a hole.

"It's one of those things where we got down a little bit early, tried to make up some shots and these guys were playing well," Woods said. "We don't have to worry about our focus," he said when asked if there were distractions like, oh say, Williams.

While The Handshake That Shook the World was taking place, officials were moving up the start of Friday's four-ball matches two hours because of expected bad weather in the afternoon. It is a crucial session, and the International side has to be concerned. They are not good enough to dig out of a deep hole if they fall farther behind after a disappointing opening session.

The International team, which has been victorious just once in eight President Cups -- at Royal Melbourne in 1998 -- needed to get off to a fast start and get the large and overwhelmingly pro-home team crowd into the matches.  Not so much. The only Americans to lose were Woods-Stricker. Think about that.

Nick Watney and Webb Simpson handled Ryo Ishikawa and Ernie Els 4 and 2; Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk knocked off Retief Gosen and Robert Allenby 4 and 3; And Hunter Mahan and David Toms shellacked K.T. Kim and Y.E. Yang 6 and 5.

Bill Haas and Nick Watney halved their match with Geoff Ogilvy and Charl Schwartzel.  And, in the most painful match of the day for the Internationals, Jason Day and Aaron Baddeley squandered a dormy-two lead to halve their match with Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar.

"Well, the teams that are behind after day one, it's not very good, so you have to go in there and focus," Norman said after his team was easily handled by the Americans. "You have to forget about what happened today.  It's like any golf tournament, you have to look forward, not back."

It may very well be that today's four-ball matches are the most important of the competition. Watson-Simpson take on Els-Ishikawa in the first match, followed by Woods-Johnson against Day-Baddeley.

Next Mickelson-Furyk play Scott-Kim with Haas-Watney going against Ogilvy-Choi. Stricker-Kuchar face Yang-Allenby and the final match has Mahan-Toms versus Goosen-Schwartzel.

Not only were Woods and Stricker separated, Woods was also moved up in the batting order out of the clean-up spot. "We were going to do that Tuesday and Wednesday, we were going to put Tiger with Dustin in bestâ¿¿ball, and that's what we did and we stuck to that," Couples said.

"They wanted to go behind Bubba and Webb Simpson to get off second, and we put them there," Couples said. "We thought Hunter and Toms would be a clean up.  So that's why we did all of that."

Then Couples said what everyone knew but it was to Freddy's great credit that he put it into words. "Tiger and Steve did not play well today," Couples said. "Adam and K.J. were much better."

The ease of the U.S. victories in the opening session seem to scream that the Internationals cannot come from behind against these Yanks. When the only guys not to earn at least a half point are Woods and Stricker, you are looking a lot like the 1927 Yankees, even if your Babe Ruth is mired in a two-year slump.

The Americans appeared on Thursday very much like a team that can win the Presidents Cup without Woods. And that is probably exactly what Keegan Bradley is thinking. The PGA Championship winner was passed over by Couples for Woods as a captain's pick. But Woods remains, as The Handshake proved, the most compelling figure in the sport.

That Couples selected Woods over Bradley may end up being a mistake. But it also may not matter. If the Internationals can't fight to win today's four-ball matches, this President Cup could very well be the sixth straight without an International victory.  It could be over, without Woods being a factor. Think about that.

*-- Ron Sirak