Tiger Prepares For An Away Game At The Presidents Cup; As Both Captain and Player

JERSEY CITY, NJ - SEPTEMBER 28: Tiger Woods, Captains Assistant of the U.S. Team, is seen during the Thursday foursomes matches of the first round of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club on September 28, 2017, in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Scott Halleran/PGA TOUR)

Chris Cox/PGA TOUR

Fred Couples never wavered. Regardless of the recent procedure, and despite what recent performances might have indicated, Tiger Woods was always going to be a playing captain at this year’s Presidents Cup. 

Couples knew it all along and no was going to convince him otherwise. Including Woods himself.

“I said, ‘Hold on, slow your roll,’” Woods recalled. “’I’m coming off of knee surgery. I don’t know how it’s going to be. Let me have Japan to test it and feel it and figure it out.’

“Freddie was pretty ardent,” he continued. “‘You’re on the team. Quit being stupid.’”

Perhaps Woods should just let Couples serve in the captain’s role this month at Royal Melbourne Golf Club. His precognition may come in handy.

Becoming A Reality

The worst kept secret in golf finally became reality in November, when Woods declared himself the first Presidents Cup playing captain since Hale Irwin in 1994. And though he won his 15th major championship earlier in the year at The Masters Tournament, Woods’ spot on the roster was by no means ensured. 

He ran out of steam toward the end of the 2018-19 PGA TOUR campaign, recording just three rounds in the 60s after that stirring win at Augusta National. He missed out on a chance to defend his title at the season-ending TOUR Championship, then underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee shortly thereafter to repair cartilage damage.

Couples was nevertheless undeterred. 

“I said (to Couples), ‘No, hold on. I haven’t swung a club yet. Let me rehab this knee and get it going. Give me Japan and I’ll get back to you,’” Woods said. “Well, I got back to him after Japan.”

It was in Japan that Woods made history, leading wire-to-wire for his 82nd PGA TOUR victory to match Sam Snead atop the all-time wins list. But even still, the tempered Woods was measured and deliberate in deciding on his final four captain’s picks, as a number of players warranted consideration to play in Australia. 

No amount of clamoring from the outside was ever going to change that. Above all else, the ultracompetitive Woods was always going to pick the players that gave he and the United States team the best chance to win the cup. 

That inevitably meant some hard decisions for Woods, who in addition to himself selected Tony Finau, Gary Woodland and Patrick Reed with his final three picks. They join a team already comprised of Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Webb Simpson, Matt Kuchar and Bryson DeChambeau.

Rickie Fowler, initially left out as a captain’s pick, later earned the final spot after Brooks Koepka was forced to withdraw. 

End Of A Run For Phil

One of the other big omissions to this year’s roster was longtime Woods rival Phil Mickelson, who saw a streak of 24 consecutive trips to the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup finally come to an end. Though he won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at the start of the year, Mickelson struggled down the stretch and in November dropped out of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time since 1993.

Kevin Na also won twice in the calendar year. Jordan Spieth had appeared for the U.S. every year since 2013, until now. 

All of them did enough to earn discussion for a potential pick.

But that’s just how it goes under Captain Woods, who is proving relentless in his quest to take down his International counterpart in Ernie Els. The two bring a wealth of Presidents Cup history to this year’s event, having famously dueled into the darkness in the 17-17 tie back in 2003.

“Ernie has a good team. Don’t forget, they have their home soil. It’s an away game for us. It’s a home game for them,” Woods said. “More importantly, the crowds will be an influence, and as we know from being in Australia, they will show some serious support for the Aussies that are on the team and all the other guys who are representing the international colors, and they will not be cheering as loudly for us and that suits us.

“Every other sport, the best thing about going over into their arena is silencing the crowd, and my boys are extremely competitive, they are fiery and I see them playing well in that type of environment. They love it.”

The mental gears have already begun turning for Woods as he attempts to comprise a game plan. Pairings debate started in earnest as soon as the top eight were named, with everything from temperatures and start times to the best putters and chippers considered. 

“Now it’s time for me and the vice captains to put our heads together and get our groupings together and try and figure out who is going to be in what team,” Woods said, “and who is going to be ahead of each one and how they are going to work it with alternate-shot, fourball, what golf balls are they using, personalities, odds, evens, certain doglegs they are going be to feeling more comfortable on, who has more comfort hitting a little burner on certain holes. 

“All that goes into it. Now the detail work of playing golf is going to start to come to fruition.”

Part of that detail is how Woods opts to set his own playing schedule. Players must participate in a minimum of two matches, and the captain could feasibly play just once prior to Sunday singles. 

That should benefit the 43-year-old as he balances the workload of both captain and player. He said he has discussed with both players and assistants about whom he might pair himself with. He did not divulge particular names.

He has partnered with four his 11 players in a team event before: Reed, DeChambeau, Kuchar and Johnson. Whoever plays with him will receive quite a boost to their odds, as Woods has an all-time record of 24-15-1 at the Presidents Cup and has clinched the win on three separate occasions.

“We need to figure out what is best, who is going to play the most, what sessions we’re going to play in, where we are the strongest,” Woods said. “Some players are stronger in certain sessions, and we need to figure that out.”

Though Woods appears reticent to share much of his strategy against the International Team, fans may have a better feel for his approach at Hero World Challenge, which falls the week before this year’s Presidents Cup. Woods, the tournament’s host, has control over the first-round pairings. A majority of his roster is expected to be in the field.

Regardless, expect Woods’ game plan to remain a mystery until play gets underway on Dec. 12. 

“They’ll want to get out and stretch their legs and look at the golf course,” Woods said. “Let them get a feel for it, and then as Wednesday comes along, we’ll get more finalized on what we need to do and who plays with who, and from there, it’s up to myself and my vice captains when we start pairing up players, and that’s the tough part about it.

“Sitting next to Fred when he gets all fired up doing that stuff, it’s one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. Fred is the best at it, and it’s going to be fun having him there running through it. I can’t wait to hear him.”

And if Couples has his way, Woods will play early and often. Just like he always predicted.