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Woods still the center of attention

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JERSEY CITY, N.J. – The gaggle of assistant captains filed into the interview room, first the International contingent and then the Americans. They checked the nameplates in front of each seat to ensure they were lined up correctly, and the microphones were turned on.

It took about 10 seconds for the table spanning the entire room to slant decidedly in the direction of a certain 14-time major champ.

Tiger Woods was the man of the hour during a Q&A session that was designed to be spread across the eight Presidents Cup assistants in the room. Instead, Woods fielded all but five questions from the assembled media – and one of those outliers was directed to Jim Furyk and Fred Couples to gauge the impact of Woods’ participation this week at Liberty National Golf Club.

While the length of his shadow should decrease once a meaningful shot is struck, the impact of Woods’ presence is unmistakable.

“Tiger has spent over the last few years, between the Ryder Cup and here, more time on all the guys on the team as far as his homework and research and what he’s doing, and looking into everything,” said Rickie Fowler. “He spent more time on that than he did homework at Stanford, there’s no question about that.”

It’s the second straight year Woods has hopped off his couch to ride in a cart, and he has spoken often about how his time inside the team room last year at Hazeltine helped fuel his (abbreviated) return to competition. Of course, this year has brought with it some unique adversity for Woods.

Nearly eight months removed from his last competitive golf shot, Woods’ comments Wednesday were his first since undergoing lumbar fusion surgery in April. It was also the first time he stood behind a microphone since his arrest in May for driving under the influence in Florida, which led to a stint in a “private intensive program” to address his use of prescription drugs.

A year that opened with great optimism quickly fell apart both on and off the course, leaving Woods to once again pick up the pieces.

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“I don’t even want to step inside that mind, or how hard it’s been his whole life,” said Charley Hoffman. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be him at the top, and I wouldn’t want to be him now. He’s had struggles all the way up, and I expect him to learn from everything and come out on top, bigger, better and stronger.”

This week offers Woods a coveted glimpse of normalcy. While he’s traded his clubs for an earpiece, he’s still able to walk the course, grind on potential pairings and hone his nickname game. It’s back to “Stricks” and “Pricey” and ping pong matches in the team room, even if only for a few days.

“I enjoy being out there with the guys. I always have,” Woods said. “Most of these guys have come over to the house or practiced at my place, and we’ve had a great time.”

Woods ended his comments with a sobering admission that his playing days may, in fact, be behind him. He remains limited to 60-yard shots and work around the greens, with many physical hurdles still left to cross before he can even assess his competitive options.

In the interim, his presence this week helps to peel back the onion on a figure who many on the American team view more as myth than mortal. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger all spent their formative years with Woods at the height of his power, winning majors seemingly at will. But their chances to compete against him have been scant, meaning opportunities like the one presented this week to bend his ear and receive insight are akin to a rare commodity.

“He was our dominant player, the face of the PGA Tour, and they grew up idolizing him,” said assistant captain Jim Furyk. “Having him here in the team room, and here with those guys, is invaluable.”

After fielding a flurry of questions, Woods sat next to captain Steve Stricker as the opening-day matches were set. He scribbled notes on the paper in front of him, talked in hushed tones with the other assistants and leaned over Stricker’s shoulder like a kid trying to get a peek at the answer key.

Woods won’t hit a shot this week, but he has managed to translate his laser-like focus from the fairways to the team room. In the process, he has seemingly drawn more attention than he did when he occupied the top spot on any 12-man roster.

But judging by the smile that often crept across his face, Woods has embraced his newfound role as advisor  - especially in the wake of a difficult summer and with his playing future still very much in doubt.

“There were times when … I didn’t know if I was going to be able to be here, because I couldn’t ride in a cart. The bouncing just hurt too much,” Woods said. “There were some intrepid times, not just for this golf tournament but for life going forward.”