ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Wednesday’s quiet at the RSM Classic was shattered by two announcements, the latter necessitated by the former.
In order, Brooks Koepka withdrew from next month’s Presidents Cup and was immediately replaced by Rickie Fowler.
A day earlier, Zach Johnson, one of Tiger Woods’ three vice captains for this year’s matches, referenced Tiger’s attention to detail and his no-nonsense leadership approach: “There are things that pop up, if this, then that, if this, then that. You just keep it simple,” Johnson explained.
Fowler’s selection was neither a surprise nor a reaction. Woods has known since Koepka re-injured his left knee last month in South Korea that he might need to make a late addition to his team room.
“He knew what he was going to do I think even before going to Japan [to play the Zozo Championship],” Davis Love III said. “He knew who he was going to pick, who his backup plan was. Now with Brooks, he's just been sitting on it, waiting for Brooks to say yes or no.”
Johnson confirmed as much on Wednesday when he explained the captain’s message the last few weeks.
“This is the beauty of Tiger Woods, once we found that news (Koepka’s injury) out, he turned the page. He's like, 'OK, we were going here and now we're going there. Rickie's coming in and this is our team,' ” Johnson said.
That is quintessential Tiger and a competitor who has proven himself as adept as anyone at compartmentalization. Woods could have waited. Under the captain’s agreement, he could have contemplated Koepka’s replacement until the week of the matches, but he’d seen enough. Or maybe he didn’t need to see anything as evidenced by the fact that Fowler hasn’t played a PGA Tour event since August.
Fowler withdrew from last week’s Mayakoba Golf Classic with an intestinal bacterial infection he contracted during his honeymoon in October, and, according to various reports, he isn’t back to full strength just yet. Having just lost one star to injury and with another, Dustin Johnson, also recovering from an ailment, it might have been prudent to assure Fowler’s availability before adding him to the lineup.
It’s a sensible suggestion but it ignores what we know of Tiger Woods, the captain. As Johnson and Love explained on Wednesday, contingency plans are what Woods does best, and it’s certain that the captain has a “Plan B” in the event that Fowler, or Dustin Johnson, follow Koepka to the DL.
“Building up to the '16 Ryder Cup, every scenario that could happen in pairings he had already thought it out. So now that he's in charge, I can't imagine the notes he has and the information,” said Love, who was the captain of that U.S. Ryder Cup team. “It’s no surprise that Tiger's on the ball.”
Woods could have waited to see if Brendon Todd made it three consecutive Tour victories this week at the RSM Classic. He could have paused just long enough to see if Kevin Kisner, a former champion a Sea Island Resort and a popular choice for a pick, gave him a reason to rethink his choices. He could have opted for a wait-and-see approach, but waiting for things to go his way really isn’t Woods’ style, not as a player, not as a captain.
According to Johnson, Woods' decision to tab Fowler to replace Koepka came down to three key components: Fowler's experience in team events, the camaraderie Fowler brings to the team room and Woods’ ability to easily work Fowler into his pairings.
“Nothing was done in a vacuum,” Johnson said. “It was one of those where communication started, if Brooks can't go, then what's our next option? Here are the options. Based on what all of us felt, collectively, we felt Rickie was the best option at this time. Ultimately, he made the decision, but it was based on the other guys weigh ins.”
In his stint as captain, Woods has proven to be a fiercely independent thinker. Earlier this month, he selected Patrick Reed as one of his four captain’s picks despite his dust-up with then-captain Jim Furyk and Jordan Spieth at last year’s Ryder Cup.
In a slightly less obvious move, Woods bypassed Phil Mickelson for a pick, ending a run of U.S. team starts that began in 1994. Lefty’s poor play this summer had made it impossible to seriously consider him for a pick, but it’s still worth noting that his historic run on U.S. teams ended under Woods’ watch.
Fowler, who has a 4-3-1 record in two starts in the matches and finished 11th on the final U.S. points list, might not be the right guy for every team, but in Woods' opinion he was the right guy for this team right now.
For Woods, this adheres perfectly to his simple philosophy – luck favors the prepared and the bold.