When Brooks Koepka called Tiger Woods to announce his withdrawal from next month’s Presidents Cup, Woods was presented with an opportunity.
Sure, it’s never a good thing to take the world No. 1 off your roster before flying halfway around the world, but the American playing-captain had no shortage of options at his disposal. He could have tabbed a rising star, rewarded an accomplished veteran or ridden the hot hand.
Instead, he played it safe.
On paper, the addition of Rickie Fowler to the 12-man roster has plenty of merit. He’s a decorated champion who hasn’t missed a U.S. team event since 2013 and is likely to factor on American squads for years. He’s well-liked in the team room, won on Tour earlier this year and went 3-0-1 at the 2017 matches while pairing successfully with Justin Thomas.
When he made his four original picks, including himself, Woods noted that the call to Fowler was perhaps the hardest to make. So it made all the sense in the world that he would choose his fellow South Florida resident to fill Koepka’s vacated spot on the team charter.
“Rickie has played on a couple Presidents Cup teams, was someone seriously considered for a pick and is well respected and liked by his teammates,” Woods said. “I know he’s going to do a great job for us.”
But that confidence is rooted entirely in Fowler’s past since his recent form isn’t just mediocre – it’s non-existent. Fowler has made just three starts since The Open, and none since finishing 19th out of 30 players at the Tour Championship in August. His planned return last week at Mayakoba was wiped out by a bacterial infection he contracted on his honeymoon, and he won’t play again until the Hero World Challenge, just days before the matches begin in Australia.
Fowler’s high-water mark came when he won the Waste Management Phoenix Open in early February, but Woods of all people should have a keen sense of just how much the sport’s landscape has shifted since then.
Fowler said all the right things in accepting the gig, noting that the U.S. team events “have been some of the most memorable weeks of my career.” But that statement speaks to the underlying fact that this is simply the next in a long line of team appearances past, present and future for Fowler, one that will undoubtedly end with a captaincy of his own down the road. The specific impact of these matches will be lost in the wash of other memories and appearances, unlikely to stand out in a significant way.
The same can’t be said for Kevin Na, who at age 36 has never represented the U.S. in a team event and, with two wins in the last six months, presented his best-ever case for inclusion. Na would have relished the opportunity to don the red, white and blue, and his nifty short game would have been a great weapon on a course like Royal Melbourne.
For an idea of how much impact a single team appearance can have, look no further than two years ago at Liberty National. Charley Hoffman made an emotional team debut as a captain’s pick at age 40, savoring what’s likely the high point of a consistent career. Kevin Kisner was a match-play revelation while going undefeated as a 33-year-old rookie.
Given Kisner’s success two years ago and his WGC-Match Play title earlier this year, even his candidacy should have had serious merit. He certainly would have upped the swagger department inside team headquarters.
Two years before that, Jim Furyk withdrew from the 2015 matches in Korea and was replaced by J.B. Holmes. Holmes made the most of his first and to date only Presidents Cup appearance, earning 2.5 points to help the Americans to a narrow, one-point victory.
The other factor that should be noted is the competitive imbalance between the Presidents Cup and its even-year brethren, the Ryder Cup. While the Americans are still trying to solve the European riddle every other year, their dominance over the Internationals goes back two decades and, on paper, is likely to continue next month.
Even with Fowler subbing in for the world’s best player, 10 of the 12 Americans (including Woods) are ranked ahead of the highest-ranked International team member. Only Fowler (No. 21) and Matt Kuchar (No. 22) are looking up at world No. 18 Adam Scott, and they’re both still ranked ahead of the other 11 players on Ernie Els’ squad.
It’s a state of affairs that indicates Woods could have simply gone with an 11-man roster in light of Koepka’s withdrawal and still been favored to win on foreign soil. Such is the depth of the American squad, the lack of it on the other side and the flexibility Woods had while selecting yet another all-star.
Woods could have used his unexpected fifth pick to invest in the future of U.S. team events, bringing in a budding prospect like Collin Morikawa to gain some invaluable experience. Or he could have gone with the hottest player on Tour, Brendon Todd, who has emerged from the depths and on Monday became the first player in more than a year to win back-to-back Tour events. Todd’s victories may not have come against stacked fields, but there’s no denying that he’s playing the best during a time when many stars are throttling back and would have brought untold confidence with him to Oz.
And if anyone’s in a position to gamble without fear of blowback, it’s Woods. Unlike the previous two U.S. skippers, Jay Haas and Steve Stricker, Woods won’t have a significant chunk of his legacy riding on the outcome in Melbourne. As the greatest player of his generation, if not all-time, he has more than earned the right to follow his gut with an outside-the-box selection.
Which only makes his choice of Fowler, announced nearly in tandem with Koepka’s withdrawal, all the less inspiring. The choice belies the fact that, still shy of his 31st birthday, Fowler is firmly entrenched in golf’s version of the old boys’ network. He’s among the most popular players on Tour, and that popularity extends as far into the locker room as it does the grandstands.
But much like head coaches in professional sports being recycled from one team to the next, his selection shows that a similar logic applies to golf’s rare team events: openings are given disproportionately to those with prior experience, which only bolsters their relevant credentials and in turn makes it all the more difficult for fresh faces to crack the rotation.
Woods is the ultimate competitor, and perhaps he simply made the choice that he felt would most help his side retain the cup. Perhaps Fowler will team again with Thomas to roll the Internationals, or even join the captain for a match or two. Perhaps it won’t matter in the end result.
All those questions will be answered in a few weeks. Until then, here’s what we know: Woods had plenty of reasons to bring Fowler on board. But in doing so, he took the easy way out.