Captaincy a logical next step for elder statesman Woods

The evolution of Tiger Woods from fearsome competitor to sage elder statesman took a giant leap when he was named Tuesday to captain the U.S. Team at the 2019 Presidents Cup at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Golf Club.

He will be just 43 at next year’s competition, making him the youngest captain in the event’s history. The appointment is the logical next step for Woods, a 79-time PGA TOUR winner who first played for the U.S. Team in Melbourne in ’98. In eight appearances as a player, he has compiled a 24-15-1 record and won more matches (24) than any other player on either side.

Although his last appearance as a player was in 2013, Woods has remained a vital cog in the U.S. effort. While not officially part of the 2015 Presidents Cup in South Korea, Woods was in regular contact with vice-captain Davis Love III, giving input in the wee hours of the night in the States, and at one point texting Love, “I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep, there’s no more pairings to make.” The U.S. preserved a one-point victory when Bill Haas beat Sangmoon Bae in the last match.

While sidelined by back problems in recent years, Woods began to reinvent himself, going from a one-man wrecking crew to a team-builder and mentor. He became a sounding board for stars such as Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, and later, in a more formal capacity and otherwise, for his fellow Americans. He drew raves as a vice-captain for U.S. Captain Love at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, and an assistant for U.S. Presidents Cup Captain Steve Stricker at Liberty National last year, both winning efforts.

“It’s the pure enjoyment about, one, the competition but also being with the guys,” Woods said at Liberty National.

The guys have responded. On the way to winning The Open Championship last summer, Jordan Spieth said he received encouraging text messages from Woods. Justin Thomas now celebrates his victories at The Woods, Tiger’s restaurant in Jupiter, Florida, and Thomas caught a ride with Woods on the latter’s plane to the Genesis Open in Los Angeles last month.

“It’s surreal, honestly,” Thomas said last year when asked about his friendship with Tiger.

Added Spieth: “It’s amazing. I was getting texts from him at The Open Championship after each round, like ‘Good start kid,’ and then it was ‘Keep it going,’ and ‘You’ve got this, stay focused.'”

What kind of Presidents Cup captain will Woods make? For starters, the kind who commands respect with his accomplishments, in the mold of highly successful players-turned-coaches/managers such as Joe Torre (baseball), Larry Bird and Lenny Wilkens (basketball), and Franz Beckenbauer (soccer).

In this respect, Woods will be the polar opposite of John Madden and Al Davis — former head coaches for Woods’ favorite team, the Oakland Raiders — who never played a down in the NFL.

“Ever since I can remember, it was Tiger Woods dominating golf on TV,” Patrick Reed said at last year’s Presidents Cup, which the U.S. nearly clinched on Saturday before ultimately winning 19-11. “You know, just to have him in the corner means a lot. Just having him in the team room is huge. To have him be part of our little group is going to be so much fun. We had a lot of success with him following me at Hazeltine, and to get him back, it feels right.”

One of just five players to go 5-0-0 in a Presidents Cup (2009), Woods has become a far more collegial presence in recent years. Day leaned on him for advice as he ascended to world No. 1 in 2015, and Woods has also taken an interest in the development of U.S. Presidents Cup players like Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Reed, Spieth, Thomas and others. They’ve soaked up his strategic acumen even while occasionally using his presence as rocket fuel.

Playing with Woods for the first time in competition at the 2014 Farmers Insurance Open, Spieth shot 71-63 to dust him by nine strokes. At the Hero World Challenge at Isleworth later that year, Reed, wearing red for his first competitive turn alongside Woods, went 8 under for his first 10 holes and shot a course-record 63 in the second round. Reed’s front nine was so jaw-dropping, Woods approached a reporter as they made the turn to ask, rhetorically, “Does this kid ever miss a putt?”

Said Reed afterward: “I feel like now, because of how mentally strong he was and us growing up watching that and how he played, I feel like a lot of young guys now have the same mentality.”

Fowler and Thomas knocked heads with Woods in the most recent off-season in South Florida, sometimes just on the putting green in Woods’ backyard. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising, then, that after firing an 11-under 61 to win the Hero World Challenge at Albany in the Bahamas last December, Fowler said of Woods, “I think he sharpened me up a bit.”

Woods becomes the eighth U.S. Presidents Cup captain after Hale Irwin, who led the U.S. Team in the inaugural Presidents Cup in 1994; Arnold Palmer; Jack Nicklaus; Ken Venturi; Fred Couples; Jay Haas; and Stricker. Having returned to competitive action on the PGA TOUR this year and coming off a tie for second at last week’s Valspar Championship, Woods might also qualify for the 2019 team as a player, although he said Tuesday his focus is on being captain.

Jim Furyk, an assistant captain for the 2017 Presidents Cup team who will captain the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup Team in Paris in the fall, cited Woods’ “knowledge of Xs and Os” in naming the 14-time major winner as one of his vice-captains. “I think he’s done a real good job of pairing players together in foursomes and four-balls,” Furyk said.

Captains are sometimes criticized for being disconnected to today’s stars, but Woods won’t have that problem. Indeed, the most pressing question surrounding his captaincy is what will happen if he makes the team as a player. “There’s a lot of us out here that look up to him and did and still do, and want to accomplish the things that he accomplished,” Thomas said last summer. “So any time that he wants to hang out or speak some words of wisdom, we’re going to listen.”

With his elevation to captain, seldom has Woods been in a greater position to be heard.

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