Tiger Woods was texting last week from Melbourne, Australia, with Davis Love III and Steve Stricker, discussing with the two former captains what Love likes to call “Team USA Golf.” Woods commented on all the moving parts and media requests in his role as leader of the 2019 U.S. Presidents Cup team – like flying to Australia immediately after the Hero World Challenge for a news conference and photo shoot.
“I’m like, ‘Aren’t you used to that?’” joked Stricker, captain of the victorious 2017 U.S. team.
The injection of Woods into the Presidents Cup next December has created an energy and global buzz to an overshadowed event that has been dominated since its inception by the United States. Having Woods as a captain, and quite possibly a playing captain, has changed not only the event’s dynamic but also Woods’ responsibilities.
As Love, a two-time Ryder Cup captain, expressed in one of his texts to Woods, “You’re a different leader now.”
Different in that Woods is the face of the event. Different in that he could be joining Hale Irwin as the only other playing captain in Presidents Cup history. Irwin did it in 1994, the year Tiger graduated from high school.
Whether it was back home at the QBE Shootout in Florida, or at storied Royal Melbourne, the talk was about what Tiger brings to the U.S. side, in the team room as a strategist and motivator and out on the course as a potential participant.
Woods becoming a U.S. captain was an idea that began bubbling up after the 2017 Presidents Cup, when Woods served as an assistant to Stricker. With encouragement from the other assistants, it was Tiger – still recovering from back surgery – that formally pitched the idea to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.
Woods was told there was nothing in the bylaws that prevented him from serving as a player-captain, but the conversation changed in the closing stages of Tiger’s 2018 comeback, when he was made a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup team two weeks before his victory at the Tour Championship. With that, Woods officially removed himself the captain's staff at Le Golf National. That will not be the case at Royal Melbourne.
“Most players think he’s going to be on that team, ” Brandt Snedeker said after the opening round of the QBE. “So it will be cool to have him being a playing captain. Any time Tiger is involved in any of that, it brings together a huge sense of pride, a huge sense of exposure for the event. It’ll be fun to have him down there with us, hopefully with us that are playing on the team.”
Snedeker added that there would be a little more pressure on the team, too, as players will want to make sure that Tiger comes out a winner. “If he’s there as a captain," Snedeker said, “you want to play your best for him.”
Bubba Watson, who served with Woods as a vice captain for Love in the 2016 Ryder Cup, underscored the change in Woods from the start of his career, when a captaincy would have never entered Woods' mind.
“He was thinking about being No. 1, being the best player ever, getting to 100 wins, all the majors,” Watson said. “Now seeing his love for golf, his passion about being a captain, is pretty remarkable. And then being a player. As good as he’s playing right now, he could easily make the team.”
Behind the scenes, what does Woods contribute inside the team room? Love saw it in 2016, with Tiger’s mentoring of Patrick Reed in the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. He sees Woods being more decisive and direct. “A lot of things that made him a great player, “Love said, “are going to make him a great captain.”
Close friend Notah Begay served as designated cart driver that week in Minnesota and observed Tiger’s intensive preparation on the research side, both statistically and analytically. According to Begay, Tiger is extremely observant and the first to reach out and play practice rounds with players new to the system. “He understands that it’s important to know people on a personal level,” Begay said.
Love has noticed how Woods has taken more responsibility by saying, “Hey, I’ll play with that guy. Let me talk to him for you.” He describes Woods as being “more willing to get in somebody’s face, or give words of encouragement, or motivate a guy" than himself or Stricker, who "get more emotional and don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
As for delegating the logistics and media requests while tending to the pairings that put points on the board, there is some back-channel talk about Freddie Couples being brought into the rotation of assistant coaches. Couples was a winning captain at Royal Melbourne in 2011 and selected Woods, who recorded the winning point. Freddie has not served as a vice captain of a Ryder Cup team since Medinah in 2012 but has not missed an assistant captainship at a Presidents Cup.
While not reflected in the seven-point Ryder Cup loss in Paris, Love sees value in the big picture that will one day see Woods as a Ryder Cup captain, maybe even a Ryder Cup playing captain. He hates it for Jim Furyk that the U.S. team lost, but loves it that the United States is 3-1 in Cup competition since the formation of the task force. Should the U.S. go 3-1 over the next four years, members of "Team USA Golf" would be happy.
“They’re working together more now that they realize they both have a franchise that needs to feed off of each other,” Love said of the PGA Tour and PGA of America alliance. “They don’t need to compete against each other. For the Presidents Cup team and the Ryder Cup team, it’s important that they have to work together. These are the captains. They’re going to be chosen back and forth so that it will help us down the road. We started looking at it like, how do we take the success of the Presidents Cup record and translate that to the Ryder Cup record? We do it every year. The PGA of America doesn’t do it every year. But we players do it every year. They understand that now.”