MELBOURNE, Australia – With a few painfully notable exceptions we’ve always known what to expect from Tiger Woods. The most consistent thing about Tiger has always been his unparalleled consistency.
The golf world has known exactly what to expect when it comes to Tiger Woods the player for the better part of two decades, but Tiger Woods the captain was an unknown commodity.
Given his resume it made sense that Woods would be up to the challenge, but sports is littered with singular athletes who were failures as coaches.
Since being named this year’s U.S. Presidents Cup team captain in the spring of 2018, Woods had said all the right things and he certainly looked the part at Royal Melbourne. If intensity won points, the U.S. team appeared to be well on its way to victory before the first meaningful shot was even hit.
“You definitely get more texts between 1 and 4 a.m. than any other captain, that's for sure,” Justin Thomas said of Woods. “He takes it very seriously and he wants to be a captain that has a great winning record and he wants all of us to feel comfortable and he wants there to be a lot of transparency. He doesn't want there to be a lot of unknowns and I think that's something that he's done very well.”
Every player, vice captain, caddie and assistant in the U.S. team’s orbit told a similar story of intense focus and an unwavering belief in his message. As a competitor, Woods never wanted to be surprised by any situation and his first turn as a captain was no different.
In practical terms that meant adhering to some firm rules. When the team departed the Bahamas a week ago on a charter flight everyone was free to drink, talk and be merry, but after the flight stopped in Mexico to refuel the captain closed the bar for the week.
When things didn’t go the U.S. team’s way on Day 1 neither Woods nor anyone in the team room appeared rattled. As he explained throughout the entire process this was a contingency for any situation.
The most detailed example of this à la carte leadership style was on display Saturday as the morning fourball session was wrapping up. Woods the captain needed to be with the last group for the conclusion of what was shaping up to be a pivotal match. Woods the player needed to be on the practice range or trainer’s table preparing to play. Instead, he was in the media center unveiling his pairings for the afternoon foursomes session, a lineup that did not include the playing captain.
Woods would explain that his decision to sit out Saturday’s action was “best for the team,” which means this was an option, a contingency, all along that he clinically adhered to regardless of how well he’d played to that point or how badly it seemed the American team needed him as a player.
Tiger's was an attention to detail that bordered on the obsessive and left nothing to chance.
“It's like any time we're together he's asking me questions, and I'm like, dude, we already talked about this,” Thomas said. “I understand he wants to be so perfect. He's done a good job.”
Following last year’s Ryder Cup, Paul Casey explained that Thomas Bjorn, the winning European captain, was the captain his team needed him to be. Unlike his normal, outspoken personality, the Dane instead offered a quiet voice when it was needed the most in Paris.
What kind of captain was Woods? He was exactly what this team needed him to be.
“I feel like every captain I've had captained within their personality. [Fred Couples] is laid back. That's how he captained. He didn't say a whole lot. He was easygoing,” Webb Simpson said. “Tiger is very focused, very determined. Doesn't say a whole lot but he says the right amount. It's been what you would expect, and even more. I think I've communicated with him more than any other captain.”
The distinction, as best explained by NBC analyst Paul Azinger, is that International captain Ernie Els had a young, inexperienced team and he spent the months before the matches convincing them to trust him. Woods, however, had experience on his side and simply stressed to his team that he trusted them.
Although this time was clearly different because of the title for those who have played alongside Woods in these team outings for the last few years, his role really didn’t change at Royal Melbourne.
“He may not have been the technical captain for all of these cups, but he’s been essentially a playing captain from a leadership standpoint over the years,” vice captain Zach Johnson said.
Perhaps the simplest endorsement of the captain and his qualities as a leader is that he didn’t try to be Tiger Woods the captain, he was captain Tiger Woods. It would have been easy to lead from the front and expect everyone to fall in line, but that’s not realistic.
As a player Woods was flawless and finished his week with a 3-0 record that included an inspired performance in the lead-off match Sunday to set the stage for America’s comeback, but after his flag was posted on the scoreboard he quickly transitioned to his role as captain. His team needed to see his early victory, but they also needed so much more from their captain and he delivered.
“Someone who has done as much as he has and had as much experiences as he had in all these team events, he very easily could have tried to take over the team rooms or try to give all this advice and try to do so much,” Thomas said “[Instead] he was like, look, including himself, we have 12 of the best players in the world. No offense, he just needed to get out of the way and that's what he did.”
Given Woods’ personality, taking a step back and knowing what not to say was very much out of character, but it was exactly what his team needed. We’ve always known Woods is a great player, and after last week’s performance we now know he’s a great captain.