DUBLIN, Ohio – It all started with Mark O’Meara on an autumn morning in Sotogrande, Spain.
That’s when a 21-year-old Tiger Woods teamed with his older buddy to defeat Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer in his first career match in a professional team competition. They played together twice more that week – both losses – before the young Masters champion was shuttled over to Justin Leonard, with whom he earned a half-point.
If you’re scoring at home, that’s four partners in his first two team events. And it didn’t end there.
Since then, Woods has played with …
… (deep breath, everyone) …
… Tom Lehman, David Duval, Steve Pate, Notah Begay, Paul Azinger, Mark Calcavecchia, Davis Love III, Charles Howell III, Phil Mickelson, Chris Riley, Jim Furyk, David Toms, Steve Stricker and Dustin Johnson.
Whew. A guy can bust a few brain cells just trying to remember ‘em all.
“I've had all different types of partners,” Woods says with a knowing smile.
Apparently it’s enough to make him start sounding like Dr. Seuss.
“Guys who hit the ball for miles, guys who are short. Guys who are pretty mellow, guys who are pretty volatile,” he continues. “I've had it all.”
The grand total? Eighteen different partners – and he might be about to add to that total this week.
On the eve of this year’s edition of the Presidents Cup, captain Fred Couples has intimated that Woods may be paired with Matt Kuchar or Jason Dufner – or both – in addition to Stricker, who at this point is practically Ol’ Reliable on that aforementioned list.
“Everyone wants to play with Tiger. You can only get one partner,” said Couples, now in his third tour of duty leading the team. “I can't tell someone who to play with.”
Actually, that’s exactly what he can do. But that’s another story for another column.
Break down the numbers and you’ll find an eclectic mix of hits and misses. Woods has played the most matches with Stricker (6-2-0 record together) and Furyk (5-3-1). Next on the list is a couple of buddies who haven’t made a team in years, Howell (4-1-0) and Begay (2-2-0).
He’s only been undefeated with Toms (1-0-0) and Riley (1-0-0), but winless with seven: Leonard (0-1-1), Huston (0-1-0), Lehman (0-1-0), Duval (0-1-0), Azinger (0-1-0), Calcavecchia (0-1-0) and Mickelson (0-2-0).
Seven of his partners never got a second chance to play alongside him again.
Freddie has never been much of a rock-the-boat kind of guy, so don’t expect anything out of the ordinary here at Muirfield Village.
But the question does remain: Why has it been so difficult for Woods to find a symbiotic partnership?
Some will argue that his inability to find a regular partner speaks to his competitive nature. Others might maintain that his rather mundane 26-23-2 record is a result of his individual outlook.
Really, it’s just the nature of the beast. In the history of these events, nobody has competed for close to two full decades and barely switched it up, let alone never at all.
Like all stories of this nature, though, this one is magnified because of Woods’ magnitude.
And he has less of an explanation for the turnover rate than anyone else.
“I think it's just a matter of trying to gel that particular week,” he says. “Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. But the whole idea is to go out there and just play.”
Jack Nicklaus, who on four occasions served as Presidents Cup captain on a team with Woods as a member, owned a similar attitude to Couples. Which is to say, when it came to making pairings, he was the ultimate in laissez-faire.
“I paired Tiger with whoever he wanted to play with,” Nicklaus recalls. “I did that with a lot of the guys. I didn't specialize with Tiger on that. I'd ask all the guys at the beginning of the week, ‘Who would you like to play with? Who would you enjoy playing with? Who would you like to give it a shot?
“We went to South Africa and Tiger and Charles Howell decided they wanted to play together down there. I said, OK, so they played together, did very well. I think they went to Washington and I think Tiger said he and Furyk wanted to play together. Montréal, maybe he and Stricker, I think, wanted to play together.”
Really, there is no right or wrong answer here. (OK, so there may have been a wrong answer when Sutton was at the helm.) Woods might pair with Stricker this week, a teammate he’s had success with in the past, and flail miserably. He might play with Kuchar or Dufner, each a newbie for the list, and find a winning combination.
Woods himself doesn’t know the secret formula to finding a partner for these competitions. What he does know, though, is that he’d like one who can light up a leaderboard.
“Whoever is playing well,” he smiles when asked that question. “Whoever can carry me is great.”