Corey Pavin sat at the head table on the seventh floor of the New York Stock Exchange and announced his four captain’s picks to reporters and PGA of America dignitaries. The players, so thrilled to be chosen you could almost see them beaming as they listened via a conference call, were introduced one by one and asked to say “hello” to their captain.
This was new for Woods. He has led the Ryder Cup standings every time since turning pro.
“Tiger Woods, are you with us today?” PGA spokesman Julius Mason said from the podium. “Say ‘good morning’ to your captain and everybody else in attendance today.”
An awkward silence followed.
Mason turned slightly nervous when he called out his name again, and for the briefest moment, some in the room wondered if Woods didn’t bother calling in or had hung up. Mason looked relieved to finally hear Woods’ voice.
The only time Woods is ever on a conference call is to accept PGA Tour player of the year or to speak to local media at a tournament where he is the defending champion. On Tuesday, he was no different than Zach Johnson, Stewart Cink and Rickie Fowler – even though he is very different.
Woods has won twice as many majors as the rest of the U.S. team combined, and nearly as many PGA Tour titles. He has been No. 1 in the world longer than seven of his teammates have been on tour.
But he still needed to be a captain’s pick to play. And there’s a reason for that.
True, Woods got a late start on the year when he tried to salvage a marriage that was shattered by his infidelity. He didn’t play until the Masters and has competed only 11 times this year. That still should have been enough for him to qualify for the team, except that Woods had trouble finishing in the top 10.
He no longer looks invincible on the golf course.
The American team no longer can be perceived as Tiger Woods and 11 other guys wearing the same uniform. At the moment, he’s not playing any better than them.
It could be the best thing that ever happened to him.
Woods is not the loner on tour that some make him out to be. At one tournament this year, he bet one of his playing partners who would shoot the lowest score over 36 holes, and the loser had to buy tickets to the movies that afternoon.
And while he privately rolls his eyes at black-tie dinners and opening ceremonies at the Ryder Cup that can feel more like a presidential inauguration, the best times of the year are spent in the team room with his fellow Americans.
“What nobody understands – it doesn’t matter if it’s you or my son or a fan on TV or Tiger’s mom – you don’t get it unless you’re in the team room,” said Davis Love III, an assistant captain this year. “Tiger is great in the team room. He’s a smart guy. He’s a talented player. He wants to do everything he can to win. He’s learned how to be a quiet leader and a vocal leader. He’s learned to say the right things. It’s just hard to describe.”
Woods makes it sound as if this Ryder Cup is no different from the others.
“I’m part of the team, and honored to be part of the team,” Woods said. “Whether I was a person who was picked or a person who earned their way on the squad, it doesn’t change the overall goal. It’s still the same. And that’s to go over there and win.”
But it is different.
Woods still gets the bulk of attention because of who he is and what he has done. He will get most of the questions, and while queries into his divorce have tapered off, they are sure to come up again in the British tabloids.
Even so, he is closer than ever to being one of 12.
His relationship with Pavin is surprisingly strong. A month ago, without prompting, Woods referred to Pavin as one of the greatest players ever in golf considering his limited length in an era of power.
The day before the PGA Championship, TV reporter Jim Gray pointed his finger toward Pavin’s face and chest during a dispute over an interview. Woods found out about it the next morning during a fog delay at Whistling Straits. After finishing his first round, when Gray asked a question, Woods offered a terse answer and turned his head to find the next question.
It was a not-so-subtle message that Woods had the captain’s back.
Woods spent the last two days at the Deutsche Bank Championship going over the captain’s picks as if he were going to be in room with Pavin and his assistants trying to decide who to take.
The only time he bristled Tuesday is when a British reporter suggested he had been indifferent about the Ryder Cup.
“I don’t know where the perception of indifference is, because I’ve always loved it,” Woods said. “The team bonding that occurs, getting to know the guys and everyone there that’s associated with our team, are experiences that you’ll never forget. And I’ve created some great friendships because of it.”
This will be the seventh Ryder Cup team for Love, his first as an assistant, so he knows what to expect when 12 individuals get together, no matter how good they are, no matter how much they’ve been through.
“He’s a welcome addition,” Love said, “because we want to wrap our arms around him and bring him back to us.”