Despite recent struggles, Presidents Cup captain still has sights on competition
MELBOURNE, Australia – The serene silence that engulfs Royal Melbourne isn’t bound to last much longer. In mere weeks, the clanking and banging of grandstands rising to the sky will begin, while the voices around the area start to grow louder and louder as the Presidents Cup draws near.
Of course, these boisterous noises will still seem like a pin drop come late October, when the eyes and ears of Victoria will temporarily shift away from the upcoming United States vs. International showdown and to the Chiba Prefecture on the outskirts of Tokyo.
It’s there, at the ZOZO Championship, where the biggest question surrounding the Presidents Cup will likely be answered. Will Tiger Woods feel confident enough in his game to join his 12-member team as a playing captain?
“At the end of the day, the decision of who rounds out this team will ultimately be my call, but I’m going to lean heavily on the opinions of my captain’s assistants and the eight guys who have already earned a spot,” Woods said. “My plan is to keep an open line of communication to ensure we find the four guys who best fit this team.”
It’s no secret that Woods has eyes on trading in his headset for a set of golf clubs. And when he won his 15th major championship at The Masters earlier this year, it seemed also inevitable that he would automatically qualify as one of the top eight players in the field. It appeared to be almost poetic: Woods winning at his beloved Augusta National, which just so happened to be designed by one Dr. Alister Mackenzie, who laid out the track at Royal Melbourne.
But late-season struggles undid those dreams, as Woods missed the cut, withdrew (because of injury) and tied for 37th in his final three starts of the 2018-19 PGA TOUR season. That top-40 finish at the BMW Championship wasn’t enough to carry his campaign into the season-ending TOUR Championship—open to the top-30 players—officially putting into question whether his game was in good enough shape to help to stave off a feisty International Team anxious to reverse its recent troubles.
There are many other players beyond the 81-time PGA TOUR winner who could contribute in the bout against Captain Ernie Els and his group of underdogs. And Woods is well aware of that.
“We will be watching the fall events closely,” he said. “There are so many guys who are world-class players who aren’t yet on the team like Rickie Fowler, Tony Finau, Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed, Gary Woodland, Jordan Spieth and many more.
Despite the laundry list of candidates for only four coveted captain’s picks, Woods hasn’t shied away from the fact that he is wont to call his own name if he feels confident in doing so. That makes his October start so critical, as it’s likely to represent the only time he tees it up in the fall prior to the Presidents Cup. As age takes its toll and injuries begin to mount, Woods is no longer so judicious in determining his playing schedule, which has slowly condensed over the last two seasons.
“While I was disappointed to not earn one of the top eight spots, I’m hopeful to perform well at my next start in Japan,” he said. “In the meantime, I’m going to rely on playing with some of the guys in Florida to stay sharp. I’ll practice hard, work on my game and we’ll have some matches. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also always fun.”
Of course, Woods wouldn’t be the first captain to play alongside his teammates. Hale Irwin was the first to break the barrier, in the inaugural 1994 bout, when he compiled a 2-1-0 record in the United States’ 20-12 victory at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Virginia. Irwin won the RBC Heritage the same week that the event was announced and was named captain shortly thereafter.
Perhaps the debate would be irrelevant if this were any other player. Alas, it’s not. This is Tiger Woods.
This is the Woods who has eight career Presidents Cup appearances, the hero who has holed the winning putt three times and compiled 24 career match wins in the event. Only Phil Mickelson has won more.
Whether he opts to play, Woods’ familiarity with Royal Melbourne should pay dividends for a United States team looking to capture its eighth consecutive victory in the series. He played in each of the last two Presidents Cups at the venue, going 2-3-0 both times but capturing his singles match in each year.
Neither of the team’s top two players—Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas—have played competitive rounds at the course in their careers.
“Having played in two Presidents Cups on the Composite Course, I’m looking forward to seeing how the guys attack it. When I first played there in 1998, I thought it was just an amazing experience to play something that quick, that fast and where you really have to think your way around the course,” Woods said. “The wind plays such a major factor in how the golf course is played. If you get the northerlies coming in there and it gets hard and fast and it’s hot, that place is one of the most demanding golf courses you’ll ever play.
“The guys will thoroughly enjoy the fact that the ball runs,” he continued. “It’ll move on the fairways and it’ll move on the greens. Some of the guys who have played events in the Sandbelt in the past will tell you it’s one of the best collections of golf courses on the planet. It’s really a unique experience and some of the greatest golf you play.”
That deep insight is coupled with veteran perspective as Woods was part of the struggling 1998 U.S. Team that delivered the Internationals their lone victory in the series.
“One of my goals is to make sure we learn our lesson from the 1998 Presidents Cup,” he said. “That was my first time playing in a Presidents Cup. With it being our offseason in December, we didn’t arrive quite as sharp as a team and were beaten pretty badly.
“I expect it to be different this time around.”
One thing that might not be so different?
Tiger Woods with a club in his hand.
Time will tell.