Tiger Woods: O Captain! My Captain!
Tiger Woods has arrived at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia as captain of the United States Presidents Cup team and at a career crossroads. Just as it seemed the most extraordinary talent of his generation was about to slide gracefully into a more ambassadorial orbit, Woods has pressed rewind on his playing career. Either way, as Dave Shedloski writes, the acumen, intellect and competitive instincts of Woods have not changed a bit
When Tiger Woods was appointed Presidents Cup captain in March 2018, his playing career was in the balance.
The previous two seasons had been a write-off. Although the appointment came two days after Woods clocked his first top-five result on the PGA Tour in four and half years (finishing tied-second at the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook, triggering near delirium among Florida’s golf faithful), Woods had been a late entry that week because he was not sure if his back would hold up to 72 holes. Most people hoped Woods could somehow rekindle his dominant, exhilarating form of old, but most also doubted he could.
Captaincy was the next logical step for Woods in the twilight of his playing days, went the conventional wisdom, with other non-playing interests also evolving. He launched TGR—Tiger Woods Ventures—in 2016, saying: “TGR is my chapter two, my way of building a legacy that’s about more than birdies and bogeys.” Under the TGR umbrella comes the TGR Foundation, The Woods restaurant in Jupiter, Florida and the TGR course design business. The design offers are flooding in thanks to impressive creations like the 18-hole Payne’s Valley course at Big Cedar Lodge, Missouri, among the Ozark Mountains. Big Cedar Lodge was founded by a close friend of Woods, Johnny Morris, and Payne’s Valley will be the first public course designed by Woods in the United States when it opens next year.
As one door closes, another opens, except Woods read a different script, not for the first time. Being a playing captain in the Presidents Cup was pure fantasy until he stormed home to win the 2018 Tour Championship. Then Woods claimed his 15th major at the 2019 Masters, and most recently the Zozo Championship in October; the PGA Tour’s first ever tournament in Japan and Woods’ 82nd PGA Tour title, to match Sam Snead’s long-held record.
The second playing captain behind Hale Irwin, who did so in the inaugural event in 1994, you can be sure of one thing: there is only one Tiger Woods. On the tee or in the captain’s cart, he will behave exactly the same as he has throughout his distinguished career.
That’s probably not what his counterpart—the International team’s Ernie Els—wants to hear as he tries to loosen America’s stranglehold on the Presidents Cup trophy. The U.S. leads the series 10-1-1, though its only loss came in the 1998 edition, which also was contested at Royal Melbourne.
As opposed to in the Ryder Cup, in which he has struggled (including an 0-4 record last year in France), Woods has been a formidable player in the Presidents Cup. In eight appearances he has gone 24-15-1, second in U.S. scoring behind Phil Mickelson, who has seen his record streak of 12 appearances end after a season that included his 44th PGA Tour title at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, but was otherwise disappointing.
Woods had every right to include himself as a wild-card selection after finishing 13th on the final U.S. points list. Picking yourself is awkward in a way but Woods, 43, seemed comfortable with making himself one of the four picks after consultation with his assistants: Fred Couples, Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker.
“We’ve had discussions… plenty of them,” said Johnson, who was in constant contact with Woods, Couples and Stricker through the fall. “Is he a viable pick? Absolutely. For a number of reasons. He’s going to be honest with us. He wants what’s best for the team.”
But what’s best for the Presidents Cup? Well, some think it’s obvious.
“It matters that he plays because he’s Tiger,” said Adam Scott of Australia, who stands to pass Els for most Presidents Cup appearances when he makes his ninth start this week. “It’s better when he plays than when he doesn’t, even if he only plays two matches. It’s better for the event if he does.”
Attention to detail
What kind of player Woods will be for the U.S. is secondary to his captaincy responsibilities. In a way, he was made for this kind of role. He always has been his own man, even when he turned pro at the tender age of 20, always has been decisive, always has looked at the game with a critical and strategic eye, and always has applied a high level of intelligence to every situation he has encountered on a golf course. Prior to being named captain, Woods served as a vice captain under Davis Love at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National and reprised the role under Stricker at the 2017 Presidents Cup at Liberty National near New York. Each ended with a resounding U.S. victory.
“He dives into it as you would expect, because that competitiveness is always there in everything he has ever done,” said Jordan Spieth, who was a teammate of Woods in the 2013 Presidents Cup and was on the aforementioned 2016 and ’17 U.S. squads when Woods assisted. “To have the greatest player of all time as a mentor and teammate, I’ve seen him in both roles, someone who you’ve looked up to and watch dominate the sport, to have him on your side is phenomenal. I didn’t think he would not take it seriously, but I didn’t expect him to be that same Tiger who is very precise and meticulous.”
Mickelson conjured up similar jargon. “He’s a great leader because he’s so meticulous and detail oriented,” the left-hander said, “and guys look up to him with such respect that any time he says something, that message really resonates with them.”
During the 2015 Presidents Cup in South Korea, Love marvelled at the number of times Woods chimed in from his home in Florida via text with an idea or observation. “And they were all really good ones,” Love said. “I learned that week how valuable his input is when it comes to really seeing the big picture and then applying ideas to the smallest details.”
Woods played four times for Jack Nicklaus and three times for Couples, and the only loss came in that 1998 blowout, 20 ½ to 11 ½, in Melbourne. Woods was also on the U.S. team that tied the International squad in 2003 in South Africa when he and Els played brilliantly to a draw in a three-hole playoff in the gloaming before captains Nicklaus and Gary Player agreed to share the Cup.
“One of my goals is to make sure we learn our lesson from the 1998 Presidents Cup,” Woods said. “That was my first time playing in a Presidents Cup. With it being our off-season in December, we didn’t arrive quite as sharp as a team and were beaten pretty badly. I expect it to be different this time around.”
Woods didn’t get a chance to play for Arnold Palmer, who twice was Ryder Cup captain and also led the 1996 U.S. Presidents Cup team, something he undoubtedly missed, especially given his eight victories in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club. “I wasn’t a part of any of Arnold’s teams, but on a personal level, you couldn’t ask for someone who was more one of the guys than Arnold,” Tiger said. “He made it so personal to all players.”
Returning after his Presidents Cup debut in 2017 at Liberty National, Justin Thomas said that playing for Woods is probably the ultimate experience for a competitor who grew up idolizing the most dominant golfer of the last 20-plus years.
“I know that I’m very excited to play for him,” Thomas said. “I mean, if you would have told me when I was a kid that I could play on a Presidents Cup team with Tiger Woods as my captain, I probably would have fainted. It’s kind of surreal, and I sometimes have to kind of step back and realize what’s happening.
“I know he takes it very, very seriously and his one and only mission is to make sure we put the best partnerships together to make sure that we win any and every point that we possibly can.”
Woods, at 43 years old, is by far the youngest Presidents Cup captain, but there is no question of whether he is too young to shoulder the responsibility. He brings an aura of total authority, unwavering belief, unshakeable focus and unquestionable strategy. Woods can handle the mental pressure of playing and leading as long as his body can withstand the physical demand. Not even Woods can answer that question yet. He underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left knee in August, he said, “so I could be fit for the end of the year.” The plan was in place. Now it’s time for the execution.
“It’s everything you could dream of, having an opportunity to be the captain of this great young team and to be a part of it” Woods said, “I’ve been pretty consumed by it.”