An eighth Ryder Cup caps improbable Tiger Woods revival
Tour Championship winner was a museum piece a year ago - it is a remarkable turnaround
To describe it as a moonshot would have been underselling the moon. This time a year ago Tiger Woods had played in seven Ryder Cups and you could have walked the earth twice without finding anyone who imagined there would be an eighth. As the rounds have piled up throughout 2018, and the excitement has returned week-on-week, you occasionally forget just how unlikely it all looked.
Here’s how far off it seemed. In a press conference ahead of the Presidents Cup this week last year, Woods agreed that it was possible he might never play competitive golf again.
“I don’t know what my future holds for me. At the moment I’m optimistic. The pain is gone, but I don’t know what my golfing body is going to be like because I haven’t hit a golf shot yet. So that’s going to take time to figure that out, and figure out what my capabilities are going forward. And there’s no rush.”
As a measure of how far off the reservation you’d have had to wander back then to imagine Woods teeing it up in Paris, let’s tune in to the No Laying Up podcast posted on October 2nd, 2017.
For the uninitiated the No Laying Up lads are a grand listen, if wearingly frat-boyish at times. They refer to Woods as Big Cat, sometimes rounding it down to simply Cat. It can be a bit much to take at times.
They know their golf, though, especially their PGA Tour golf. And when it came to pondering who might be on the US team a year out, they had eight dead certs and then ran through a laundry list of possibilities to fill out the remainder.
The following names all were all mentioned in dispatches as possibilities, some more throwaway than others. Daniel Berger. Patrick Cantlay. Peter Uihlein. James Hahn. Brian Harmon. Brandt Snedeker. Zach Johnson. Webb Simpson. Bryson DeChambeau. Charley Hoffman. Kevin Kisner. Kevin Chappell. Kyle Stanley. Xander Schauffle.
Go on a run
The point they were making wasn’t that this guy would make it or that guy wouldn’t. It was that in the space of 12 months any one of up to 20 players had it in them to go on a run, win a couple of tournaments, show well at a Major or two and find his way onto the team. It happens at every Ryder Cup. Indeed, it happened this time around with Tony Finau.
And yet even in the midst of a stranger-things-have-happened conversation where names were being thrown about like snuff at a wake, the notion of Woods being on the team never came up. Nowhere, not even as a snorting, belly-roll gag, was Woods the golfer mentioned. Woods the vice-captain, yes. Woods the future captain, sure. Woods the golfer was a museum piece.
It was a fortnight later that Tiger posted a nine-second clip of him hitting a driver on his Twitter feed. When it came up at a joint one-year-to-go press conference between Jim Furyk and Thomas Bjorn a couple of days later, the US captain took the question he knew was coming with an answer he knew he could get away with.
“We really don’t know when Tiger will be healthy,” Furyk said. “We really don’t know when he’ll return to competitive golf. And the last part of that question was, does the US team need Tiger Woods to be a part of the team – I will say that Tiger Woods is a great resource and would be a welcome to the team, whether that would be as a playing personnel or whether that would be as a vice-captain. He’s been a great resource and a great person to have in the team room, so I’m hoping he will be part of that team.”
Even four months later, after Woods had played a few tournaments and featured on a couple of Sundays, Furyk was still talking pretty much exclusively about what he would bring to the side as a vice-captain rather than as a player.
Ahead of the Honda Classic in February, Furyk brushed off loose talk around him being potentially able to make the team. “He’s played now, what, three or four events...and we’re already talking Ryder Cup, right? That’s the nature of being Tiger Woods. We’ll see how things go, and we’ll do what’s best for him and for the team.”
A week later Furyk officially named Woods and Steve Stricker as his vice-captains. Tellingly, when Woods next spoke to the press and was asked about it, at no stage did he mention playing.
At that stage Woods was 104th on the Team USA Ryder Cup standings and ranked 544th in the world. It was a nonsense to seriously think he would be an on-course factor in the Ryder Cup just seven months later.
Apart from anything else, he had grown into the backroom role over the previous two team events that the Americans had been involved in. Furyk had watched him at both the 2016 Ryder Cup and 2017 Presidents Cup take on a gig that was about as far from the swaggering lone-wolf act of his early days on tour as could be conceived. Aside from his tactical contribution – which Furyk has always made a point of praising – just the fact that he is Tiger Woods makes a difference to those around him.
“When you look at our team room,” Furyk said, “and you look at a lot of the youth that we have in that team room now with the younger players, a lot of them became golf professionals, fell in love with the game of golf, because they wanted to be – they wanted to emulate Tiger Woods. They wanted to play against him on the golf course.
“So to have him in the team room really being that humble guy that’s ready to serve and to help them do whatever he can to play better, it means a lot to them in the team room. It’s been a huge asset for our captains the last couple of years.”
First real hint
The first real hint that there might be a shift in everyone’s thinking came with back-to-back top-five finishes in mid-March. A Sunday 69 at the Masters saw him finish in a tie for 32nd – nothing in the pantheon of his achievements at Augusta but enough to move him up to 89th in the world rankings.
By the time of the late-summer drama at the British Open and USPGA Championships, Woods was a different proposition altogether. The simplest captain’s pick imaginable.
“That was probably a sign that I should have picked up a lot quicker on,” Furyk admitted in August. “I know that Tiger always wanted to compete, but it came pretty, you know, quickly by March. I saw that his game was in a lot better shape, and his health was in a lot better shape. So he’s been challenging this year and moving up that points list, which has been fun to watch.”
And so here he is. Back on a Ryder Cup team, his exploits at the Tour Championship a warning to everyone this week.
Incredibly, Woods hasn’t been on a winning Ryder Cup team since 1999. Back then he was the best player in the world, untouchable and unapproachable, deliberately cold and distant to all. To see him now, the elder statesman with the whole of the sport cheering him on, is a pretty remarkable turnaround.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that he’s playing after all.