In March 2018, Tiger Woods was named the next U.S. Presidents Cup captain and in minimalist terms explained that it was simply the byproduct of a phone call he made to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.
“'Hey Jay, might you be interested in me possibly being the captain of the 2019 Presidents Cup team?’ Silence,” Woods recalled that day. “And then he said, ‘Yeah, I think that might, we might be able to work that out.’”
For Monahan and the Tour, it was an easy decision. The most distinguished player of his generation and the game’s most recognizable athlete brings added cachet to everything he does, and if he wanted the keys to the captain’s golf cart at Royal Melbourne he was welcome to it.
What will be largely overlooked this week when the U.S. team travels to Australia for the third time to face the International side will be the nuanced forces that led Woods to make that phone call. Actually, according to Monahan, it began as a text exchange in January 2018 with Woods asking, “I’d like to talk.”
But that wasn’t the first time Monahan had spoken with Woods about taking over as captain. In the summer of 2017 the subject first came up and in December the two had what were characterized as “serious discussions” about the job opening.
As is the case with most things in life, this was all about timing. In 2017, Woods was mired in an injury-induced slump and he hadn’t played a full season on Tour in three years. He was nearly four years removed from his last victory and in the fall 2017 he seemed to have turned a metaphorically momentous page in his career when he seemed to suggest his best years might be behind him.
“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. Driving a car still hurt,” he said at Liberty National where he served as one of Steve Stricker’s vice captains. “There were some intrepid times; not just for this golf tournament but for life going forward . . . I don't know what my future holds for me.”
At that moment in time Woods wasn’t a ceremonial golfer, but at 41 years old he was hardly active. For both Woods and Monahan, the decision to accelerate Tiger’s turn as America’s frontman was less about being a captain of convenience than it was a lifestyle choice.
When Monahan first approached Woods about the job in 2017 it was a short conversation.
“I wasn’t in the right physical or mental state to be thinking about that at that time. I didn’t know if I could ever be a part of the game of golf again,” Woods recently said. “I was in a completely different frame of mind.”
What changed over the next few months is that Woods seemed to grow closer to the game as his health improved. Although he’d served as a vice captain before, his turn at Liberty National unleashed Woods’ notoriously detail-oriented personality on an entirely new set of challenges.
“We would go weeks without hearing from him and then he’d just start sending out all these text messages on pairings and who should play in what session,” explained Davis Love III, who tabbed Woods to be one of his vice captains at the 2016 Ryder Cup. “It’s amazing how he’s able to focus on something like that.”
After almost skipping the 2017 Presidents Cup because of his ailing back, the matches at Liberty National served as a turning point both physically and mentally for Woods.
“After being a part of it at Liberty, my back started to feel a little bit better, I was part of the team for the first time in a long time. Seeing the guys at Hazeltine was big for me,” Woods said. “Watching from that perspective and the responsibilities as a vice captain, there were a lot more than I originally assumed.”
The final piece of the puzzle was shaded with a touch of peer pressure. Following the crushing defeat at the 2014 Ryder Cup in Scotland, the U.S. side looked to create a legacy structure for future captains. Before ascending to captain, either at the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, a player needed to serve as a vice captain and former captains moved into the role of mentor after leading their teams.
Woods’ turn as a captain was accelerated by his injuries, and his exposure to the leadership side of the matches intrigued him. For those around him, Tiger was an obvious choice to lead.
“Davis [Love] and [Stricker], Fred [Couples], Jim [Furyk], they were all in my ear about continuing my progression of being a captain, from vice captain to captain,” Woods said. “At the time I was hopeful I could get on the team as a player and then all of a sudden I win a couple events and I’m there points-wise. Being a part of it and having gone through it with them, they were instrumental about getting in my ear about continuing my progression.”
In retrospect, Woods’ first stint as a captain seems premature given his status as the reigning Masters champion and as an obvious playing captain this week at Royal Melbourne. But two years ago when Monahan engaged in those “serious discussions” with Woods about captaining this year’s team, it was a different time. It was a different Tiger.