CHASKA, Minn. – The last time the U.S. won a Ryder Cup, Jordan Spieth couldn’t legally drive. The last time Tiger Woods won a major, Patrick Reed was a freshman at the University of Georgia.
Both occurred in 2008 and Woods wasn’t on that victorious team at Valhalla because of injury.
It’s an interesting benchmark as the U.S. team is perched on what they hope is a new Ryder Cup era. And nothing paints that picture more vividly than Woods tooling around Hazeltine National in a personalized golf cart.
By all accounts, Woods has embraced his leadership position with the same zeal that led him to 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour titles.
He’s talking strategy, holding court in the team room and lending an air of credibility to a process that began with last year’s Ryder Cup task force.
In fact, the only thing he’s not doing is taking a swing.
“No, he has not swung a golf club, unfortunately,” Reed said.
In a strange way, maybe that’s for the best.
Maybe Woods returns next month at the Safeway Open, his first start in 14 months after being sidelined with an ailing back, and picks up his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ all-time majors mark. Maybe his mind and body cooperate for an inspired comeback. But this week, in an utterly foreign role, it’s impossible to ignore how he’s embarked on a new chapter.
For those watching from outside the fishbowl, the scene at Hazeltine is as surreal as it is surprising with Woods, who has always projected an image of detached aloofness, emerging as coach and confidant.
Woods’ pod includes Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Reed, and his influence has been anything but subtle.
“I didn't quite know what to expect,” Reed admitted. “To have a guy like that who, if you ask him any question or if you need anything, he is there. He's all-in. He'll answer any question, whether it's about golf, on the golf course, off the golf course, anything.”
Given the U.S. Ryder Cup record since Woods played his first match in 1997 – Europe has won seven of the last nine meetings in that span – it’s convenient to attribute at least a portion of those losses to Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Woods’ Ryder Cup record is 13-17-3, although his singles history (4-1-2) is probably a more accurate depiction of his play in the matches. But there’s no denying that in the biennial showdown with Europe, the former world No. 1 has struggled to find partners and an identity that dovetails with his record the other 51 weeks of the year.
Whether it’s fair, U.S. fans and media have expected more from Woods and Mickelson, and there’s certainly something to be said for leadership by example. But if their play hasn’t exactly set the desired tone, the notion that the game’s most dynamic twosome has sidestepped the responsibility of leadership is blatantly unfair and false.
It may have been subtle and largely out of the public spotlight, but for those who have played with Woods his leadership is beyond question.
“Regardless of what people want to believe, what you see now is a more out front form of leadership compared to the way he has been,” said David Duval, a teammate of Woods’ at the 1999 and ’02 matches. “He’s always had a public persona of being businesslike and private, but behind closed doors he’s always been heavily involved. The idea he hasn’t been a leader is entirely false.”
If Woods’ actions this week are any indication, his leadership goes beyond hollow words of encouragement and detached support.
On Tuesday as a cold wind swept across Hazeltine National, the majority of the U.S. team limited their practice rounds to nine holes, but Reed wanted to see the closing nine and decided to walk the loop backward starting at the 18th green.
Tiger joined him for the frigid stroll.
“He walked it with me, helping me figure out the golf course. You don't get that very often,” Reed said. “To have somebody do that for you, especially a guy like Tiger Woods, it meant a lot to me.”
Woods didn’t play the last Ryder Cup and wasn’t a part of the public panning of then-captain Tom Watson; that uncomfortable chapter was handled by Mickelson. But he has been involved ever since.
Woods was a member of the original 11-man task force that was the foundation of the dramatically reworked American team, and transitioned to the new committee that gave Davis Love III his second turn as captain.
For Love, Woods has become a constant reminder of how this time needs to be different, and proved once and for all that the one person who sleeps less than the captain is Tiger.
“I think Phil figured it out; Tiger figured it out. They became team leaders,” Love said. “I'll never forget Jack Nicklaus saying Phil was his MVP one year and he got zero points in the Presidents Cup, and Phil was a team leader. That's what Tiger has figured out.”
This is so much more than a passing interest or a distraction for Woods. He’s a lot of things – obsessive, complicated, larger than life – but as this week has proven there is another layer to Tiger that the vast majority of fans have never seen. It’s unselfish and passionate. It’s leadership.