MELBOURNE, Australia – One member of Tiger Woods’ inner-circle joked Thursday at Royal Melbourne that it was ironic that Tiger's first act as leader of this year’s U.S. Presidents Cup team was to cede the captaincy to Steve Stricker.
It was something of a formality and the byproduct of Woods’ role as a playing captain and his need to focus on his Day 1 fourball match, but that probably didn’t make the act, however symbolic, any easier for the well-documented control freak.
There was a time when these biennial member-member events seemed to be a necessary evil for Woods.
His record in team events wasn’t great and he even once added fuel to the narrative when he responded to a question about his record by asking what Jack Nicklaus’ record was in the Ryder Cup, the implied notion being that great players are measured by majors not team performance.
However unfair that assessment may have been earlier in his career, what’s clear now is that the 40-something Tiger is all in on team play, both as a player and a captain.
Every player and vice-captain has marveled at Woods’ attention to detail, not just this week but throughout the entire process. Early Thursday, however, that all changed when the captain switched hats to competitor without distraction.
Playing in the day’s first match, Woods chipped a wedge shot to tap-in range at the first hole for a conceded birdie, added another at the second to give he and Justin Thomas a 2-up lead and never let up on his way to six birdies.
That Woods played well was no real surprise given his performance earlier this fall in Japan where he won his first event following knee surgery. That he also never allowed himself to be distracted by his job as captain might be the more important takeaway.
It looked as if Tiger wanted to single-handedly win the Presidents Cup and as the afternoon wore on it started to seem like he might end up having to shoulder that burden. Before the turn on a blustery day along Australia’s Sandbelt the globe led in three matches and was all square in another. The American team’s only advantage were Woods and Thomas.
It was also no big surprise that Woods led by example. He chipped in for birdie at the fifth and jokingly sent Thomas to retrieve his golf ball. At the 11th hole, he blasted a bunker shot to 3 feet for birdie to extend the advantage to 3 up.
Captain Compartmentalization was brilliant on Day 1, which is doubly impressive considering that in two previous Presidents Cups at Royal Melbourne he’d never won a fourball match.
But this is a different Tiger. This is a different captain. If ever Bill Belichick had it right it was now – do your job. And Tiger’s job, at least his job to start the day, was to forge an early lead and let the world see he was here to play without distraction.
“As far as putting the captain hat on [during the match], no. I passed it on to [vice-captain Steve Stricker] at the range. My obligation today was to go out there and earn a point with J.T. I was focused on that,” Woods said. “Obviously, we're looking at boards and seeing how guys are doing. There are TV boards everywhere, so yeah, we're taking a look to see how our guys are doing, and there were some tight matches out there that flipped.”
Late in the match, Stricker lingered behind the 13th green watching Woods. Stricker had the metaphorical keys to the captain’s golf cart but there was nothing worth saying to Woods. There were no updates, no impromptu brainstorming sessions, only a player locked in on his match.
Woods’ longtime confidant Rob McNamara was also following along in case Tiger needed anything, but the only thing he asked for was a sandwich. Stricker and Woods spoke briefly on the 15th hole with the match all but decided but even then the only exchange was “play hard.”
“Yes, sir,” Woods said with a smile.
Whatever hat Tiger is wearing this week, he’s doing it well. Whatever concerns may have lingered about Woods’ ability to balance both roles can now be pushed aside as he’s proven in commanding third-person style that his super power is prioritizing.
Following the duo’s 4-and-3 victory over Marc Leishman and Joaquin Niemann, Thomas was asked what was working so well for the tandem Thursday. He deadpanned, “Tiger was.”
It was fitting that Tiger’s 4-footer for birdie at the 15th hole secured the U.S. side’s first, and only, point of the day. Less than five minutes later the earpiece was back in. Stricker had ceded control back to Woods and the captain was in an entirely different kind of grind mode.
Tiger Woods the player had himself a day. Tiger Woods the captain still had plenty of work to do.