CHASKA, Minn. — Tiger Woods was standing behind Dustin Johnson on the driving range at Hazeltine National Golf Club last week when his posture stiffened. Years of celebrity have given Woods the ability to sniff out a camera like a bloodhound.
Out of the corner of his eye, he had spotted a man approaching with a smartphone attached to a hand-held gimbal. Woods relaxed when he saw that the man was videotaping Johnson’s swing.
Woods, 40, whose playing career has been halted by a chronic back injury for the last 14 months, came to Hazeltine as a vice captain for the American Ryder Cup team. Even in a nonplaying role, he commands attention: During a range session, the caddies for two players in Woods’s four-man pod separately approached a photographer to ask him to snap candid photos of them next to Woods.
Despite Woods’s well-honed apprehension, the caddies probably could have eliminated the middle man and comfortably asked for selfies. Since his last win on the PGA Tour in 2013, Woods appears to have approached relationship-building with the zeal he once devoted to legacy-building. The walls that Woods constructed to support his competitive aura and keep his distance from the public are crumbling now that he is in the twilight of his career.
As a player, Woods was not inclined to open up. As a vice captain, he has been hard to shut up. Brandt Snedeker, a member of the American team, said he had several telephone conversations with Woods before the competition, including one that lasted an hour and a half.
“To say it’s unusual to get a call from Tiger Woods would be pretty accurate,” Snedeker said.
Woods made his Ryder Cup debut in 1997, his first full year as a professional. Lee Janzen, another member of that year’s United States team, said at the time that he was delighted that Woods had the chance to become better acquainted with the American players and that they, in turn, had been able to get to know him at all. During a typical tournament week, Janzen explained, Woods was mobbed on the range, and “that’s why he doesn’t spend that much time with other guys.”
But Woods never was able to extricate himself from the spotlight to fully embrace the Ryder Cup. His record speaks to his unease as a team player: Woods, a 14-time major champion and a longtime world No. 1, is 9-16-1 in foursomes and four-ball matches, and 4-1-2 in singles.
At Hazeltine, wires from a communications device have been dangling out of Woods’s right ear, a look normally associated with his tournament security detail. They let Woods stay in touch with the American team captain, Davis Love III, and the four other vice captains.
And Woods, the golfer so accustomed to being front and center, brought up the rear when the Americans made their entrance at the opening ceremony. He who launched hundreds of 18th-hole ovations has stood in the background, applauding the 12 United States players — who together have three fewer major titles than his 14.
“He’s 100 percent in,” Snedeker said. He added: “It’s great to have that kind of commitment and that kind of passion from a guy like Tiger. I think that’s something that gets lost.”
Phil Mickelson, who is playing in his 11th Ryder Cup, also praised the most famous of the American vice captains. Woods and Mickelson have never been close, their pride and personalities forming what was, until recently, an unbridgeable chasm. When they played as a pair at the 2004 Ryder Cup, Woods and Mickelson were anything but a power couple, losing both their matches. But the thoroughness of Woods’s preparation for this Ryder Cup has won over Mickelson.
“He has got us really a good, solid game plan that is easy to buy into and get behind,” Mickelson said.
In his new role, Woods is mentoring a player in his pod, Patrick Reed, who has long emulated Woods’s game, going so far as to wear red and black on Sundays. Reed, 26, said he had not had much contact with Woods and did not know what to expect from him when he arrived here Monday. Someone as successful as Woods, Reed said, could either go through the motions or go the extra mile.
That first day, Reed said, Woods went the extra 3,857 yards — 2.19 miles — for him. The wind was gusting over 30 miles per hour, and the other players quit after the front nine. Reed wanted to keep going. Woods, who finished second at the 2002 and 2009 P.G.A. Championships at Hazeltine, offered to accompany him. Reed said the tips from Woods on that back nine would help him not only this week but in the years to come.
“It was amazing,” Reed said. “I learned so much just from that nine holes walking around that I felt like that alone could save me so many shots throughout my career — just by thinking about just the little minor details.”
Reed added: “He’ll answer any question, whether it’s about golf, on the golf course, off the golf course, anything.”
Reed said Woods’s voice was in his head as he made his way around the Hazeltine course. With his partner, Jordan Spieth, Reed went 2-1-1. In the pair’s Saturday afternoon four-ball match against Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, Reed keyed a 2-and-1 victory with six birdies and an eagle.
Seeing Woods react to his clutch shots down the stretch, Reed said, “was awesome.”
Woods, who hopes to resume his competitive career in two weeks at the PGA Tour’s 2016-17 season opener in Napa, Calif., has not swung a club all week – not even in the practice sessions, Reed said, despite the pleading from his pod’s gallery.
Woods was not included in the official Team U.S.A. photograph, taken on Tuesday on the 10th fairway. Yet, in his first appearance as a vice captain, Woods will not feel like a helpless bystander in Sunday’s singles, as he did in his last go-round as a player. In 2012, Woods was on the 18th fairway at Medinah Country Club when Martin Kaymer, in the pairing ahead of him, sank the Cup-clinching putt for Europe.
Woods conceded the final putt to his opponent, Francesco Molinari, to halve their match in what Molinari described as a sportsmanlike gesture.
Four years later, Woods’s regard for the game has only deepened. It is there for all to see with every fist pump he makes to celebrate someone else’s success.
Source: Tiger Woods