It was hard to not feel a tinge of pity for Tiger Woods when he was shooed not once but twice from the USA team photograph at Hazeltine, where he has been tabbed as one of Davis Love III’s vice-captains for the Ryder Cup. The sheepish grin that crossed his face as he realised the photo shoot was for players only was more befitting of a doddering uncle than a 14-times major champion once known as the tour’s most feared competitor – if not the world’s most dominant athlete.
Woods is 40 and has been sidelined from competitive golf for 14 months after three back operations in two years and has dipped to No754 in the world rankings. It has been more than three years since his last victory on tour and just over eight years since he won a major. He has targeted the Safeway Open in California next month for a comeback flecked with uncertainty after slipping into an unfamiliar role here in suburban Minneapolis as the Americans try to snap a hoodoo that has seen them slump to eight defeats in the past 10 Ryder Cup matches with their European adversaries.
He is one of five non-playing lieutenants to Love – along with Jim Furyk, Tom Lehman, Steve Stricker and Bubba Watson – and by all accounts he has leaned into the role. No minor detail for a player who spent most of his career battling perceptions of apathy towards the biennial competition, the persistent sense that he cared more about winning Claret Jugs and green jackets than a trophy that emphasises the collective over the individual.
Woods’s uneven history with the event – a career 13-17-3 record and just one team win in seven appearances – is trumped only by his scratchy relationship with the venue. Hazeltine is where he last held the lead at one of golf’s four bedrock events – a defeat against YE Yang at the 2009 US PGA Championship that marked the only time he failed to win a major when leading after three rounds – and where he bowed to Rich Beem at the 2002 PGA after season-opening wins at the Masters and Open.
Now he has been charged with helping the United States pull one back amid a historic slump in a competition they once dominated. The specifics of Woods’s contributions have been kept under wraps, with the team opting to speak in abstracts. He has demurred from speaking with the press, lest he distract from the players in his charge, but Love has gushed over Woods’s tactical contributions throughout the buildup to Friday’s opening.
“Tiger looks at things from maybe a little bit higher viewpoint than all of us sometimes,” the USA captain said. “His strategy on the golf course, I think that’s where a year ago, if you’d asked me that question, his helping us prepare for a major championship, which this is as a big golf tournament, helping us think about the golf course.
“Everybody just automatically thinks just look at the scorecard, it’s a really long course, we need long hitters. Tiger looks at it a whole lot differently than that. Tiger over the last two or three weeks has made us really think hard about not only pairings but also other things that we need to look for in our players. He’s taken the stats package that we get and [is] breaking it down to what we really need.”
The Ryder Cup veteran Phil Mickelson echoed those sentiments. “I am so happy to see how well he has thought this through,” he said. “I can’t believe our conversations just this week, how detailed he is and the pairings, the possibilities, the players. Not just what matches they’re going to play, but where on the list. He has got us really a good, solid game plan that is easy to buy into and get behind. I’m very impressed.”
Brandt Snedeker said: “He called me two weeks ago, you know, and started talking to me then. We were on the phone for an hour and a half. [He] called me several times. [It] got to the point where I was joking around, like ‘You’re calling me more than my wife is right now, we need to figure something out’. But 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.
“We’re talking about everything. How we are getting prepared as a team, how I should be getting prepared as an individual, what our thought processes should be, how we are going to come together as a team, why we haven’t been successful in the past and why we’re going to be successful going forward and things like that.
“He’s 100% in. He’s probably spent more time in the last three weeks on this stuff than all of the other assistant captains put together. That’s the kind of guy he is and how much time – how much he cares about it. It’s infectious.”
Woods’s presence has not gone unnoticed by the Europeans, who have made attempts to spin it to their advantage. “I don’t know what impact there will be from having Tiger around,” Lee Westwood had said in the early buildup. “They have always struggled to find a partner for Tiger that’s been successful.
“He could have an adverse effect in the team-room. People have always seemed to try to do too much when they have partnered him. It might be different now he’s one of the vice‑captains – you don’t know.”
Woods’s lone Ryder Cup win came in 1999, when the USA rallied from four points down on the final day at Brookline. History suggests a supporting role at Hazeltine may not be the one he wants but winning is a habit and with a long road back to competitive relevancy a fortnight away, it may well be the one he needs right now.
Source: Tiger Woods