Expect Tiger Woods to continue his involvement in U.S. Ryder Cup preparation

He’ll be in their heads; he’ll be in their ears; he’ll be in their hearts.

© Bill Streicher, USA TODAY Sports Assistant captains to the U.S. team Tiger Woods and Fred Couples and Captain of the U.S. team Steve Stricker greet fans while riding in a cart during foursomes matches at the President’s Cup.

Whether or not Tiger Woods sets foot on the grounds of Whistling Straits for the 43rd edition of the Ryder Cup – and it’s highly unlikely he’ll fire up the jet and drop in for a surprise visit given his once-again hobbled status following a one-car accident resulting in a broken right leg, ankle and foot – his enormous standing and voice will nonetheless carry weight in the USA’s team room and across the massive Straits Course by Lake Michigan in Wisconsin.

“He’ll be there in some way, shape or form,” USA captain Steve Stricker said.

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The form probably won’t be physical, but he’ll be seen and heard on a Zoom conference call or through FaceTime and there’s little doubt he’ll be dialing up digits long before, during and after the biennial clash with Europe.

“He just means so much to so many of the guys, including me,” said Stricker, who will count Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson as his vice captains. And Woods from afar.

“He could be there physically with us or he’ll be at home on the phone with us,” Stricker added. “I’ve already gone back and forth with him with texts. He’ll participate, he wants to participate. He wants to be there for the guys. He’s an unbelievable player, right, but I think he brings more to the table as a captain or an assistant captain. It’s odd saying that, but he’s so fully invested in all things Team USA. So many guys look up to him. And when he was an assistant or a captain, he had the time to be in everybody’s back pocket.

“He is all there.”

Distant and self-centered? Hardly.

There was a time the public perception of Woods was that he wasn’t all there when the U.S. team stepped onto the pressure-packed Ryder Cup stage – the take being he was distant from his teammates, unwilling to lower the level of intimidation that made him the best player on the planet, wasn’t going to open up with any of the secrets and intangibles that helped guide him to a record-tying bounty of victories. He just didn’t care that much, was the thought.

His record fueled the criticism. Woods has played on just one winning team – in 1999 when the U.S. stormed back from a 10-6 deficit on the final day to win in Boston – and has been on the losing side seven times. While he is 4-2-2 in singles – feeding the argument that he only cared about himself – he’s 9-19-1 in foursomes and four-balls, though it should be noted he’s played with 14 different partners.

But if the players had any doubts, those started to wither in 2014 when a task force was created by the U.S. to examine all things Ryder Cup after Europe had won six of the previous seven matches. Among those entrusted to lead the Americans back to the promised land were Woods, Mickelson and Rickie Fowler.

“He’s always very intense and into it. I got my first glimpse of that when they put together the task force, and hearing Tiger and Phil talk about how much those weeks mean to them, how much homework they do, how much they think about everything, all the texts you get, it makes you sit back and realize why he’s been so successful. He’s really into it,” Fowler said. “I was in South Korea and I learned he’s always watching and he’s always keeping up. Leading up to those weeks whether it’s the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, that’s all he’s thinking about. When something pops into his head, he shoots out a text whether it’s 3 a.m. or 10 a.m.”

Fowler’s South Korea reference was the 2015 Presidents Cup. Woods was some 8,000 miles away in Florida rehabbing his troubled back, but his phone was working just fine. And working overtime.

“We couldn’t get him off the phone,” said Love, an assistant captain to Jay Haas that year when the Americans won a tense battle with the Internationals. The calls would come at all hours, but most started triggering the ring tones as the sun started to shine on Incheon, South Korea.

“I’d get a call at 5:30 in the morning and he wanted to talk pairings, strategy, course conditions. Bunch of other stuff. Then he wanted to talk to Freddie (another assistant captain). He was calling others, too,” Love said. “People back then said he wasn’t engaged, that he didn’t care. Well, that certainly wasn’t true.

“Those calls told me he wanted to help and see us win in any way he could.”

© Andy Brownbill, AP Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods walk the fairway at the 2019 Presidents Cup in Melbourne, Australia.

Zach Johnson was playing in the 2015 Presidents Cup and he got text messages.

“All the time,” Johnson said. “He was there for us if we needed him. And in some capacity in Wisconsin, we’ll have Tiger Woods in our corner.”

When Tiger speaks, they listen

In the captaincy realm, Woods made his official debut as one of Love’s assistants in the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National in Minnesota. His spine and an assortment of other injuries had curtailed his 2016 campaign, but his energy and enthusiasm were robust. He worked 24-7 long before and after he landed in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. With coffee in hand each morning – players said he was even working out in the gym at 5 a.m. – Woods was active on the practice tee and around the course all week as the U.S. pummeled Europe.

“He’s certainly a valuable component because the guys look up to him with a lot of respect and they want to hear what he has to say,” Mickelson said. “When he offers insight on things we’ve done well as a team in the past, things we’ve done poorly as a team, and try and learn from it, the guys really listen.

“It was pretty cool to see how much time and effort he put into helping the team have success and play its best in 2016. He was more engaging than in years past. He’s long taken down the shield of intimidation from years past, and when he speaks everyone is going to listen because he’s the greatest to ever play.”

And Woods spoke often, especially about how to play the expansive course. He was second to Rich Beem in the 2002 PGA Championship there and was runner-up to Y.E. Yang at the same venue in the 2009 PGA Championship.

“Tiger showed us how to get ready for the course in ’16,” Love said. “We learned a lot of why he beat us all those years. He’s been great already. We as captains have spent a lot of time talking to him. He talks to the players for us. He went from a guy nobody really knew to a guy who is friendly with all the guys down there.

“Like the generation that was friends with Jack Nicklaus.”

In 2016, Woods was charged with handling a pod that included Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth. The two teamed to go 2-1-1 as partners.

© Michael Madrid, USA TODAY Sports Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed during a practice round at Hazeltine National Golf Club in 2014.

“He was a voice in my head,” Reed said. “He won’t sit there and push advice on you just to do that. But if you need something, if you need advice, he’s there for you. And come on, it’s great to pick his brain. Who else in this game would you want to pick their brains? He’s Tiger Woods. He has a response for everything and sometimes it’s not verbal.

“It was amazing. I learned so much from him in 2016 that I felt like that alone could save me so many shots throughout my career — just by thinking about just the little minor details.”

Spieth said Woods’ presence meant something and will again.

“A lot of confidence, a lot of expertise. He watches a lot; he talks to guys a lot throughout the year and offers opinions on pairings and strategy and all sorts of those things,” Spieth said. “He gets the best out of everyone. If he’s not able to be there physically this year, he’ll still be able to get the best out of everyone.

“I was surprised in 2016 because I knew he knew he was struggling with his health, but he could come back and make more teams, right? That’s got to be a tough position to be in because he wants to be back on the team but he’s an assistant captain. If he were selfish, there’d have been an unwillingness in offering everything he could.

“But he was always on the radio, always at the ready for any of the players if they needed something. We knew we could talk to him and he would talk to the captain and we knew that would have an impact.”

Brooks Koepka, who made his Ryder Cup debut at Hazeltine, thought likewise.

“I didn’t know quite what to expect because we weren’t close at the time,” Koepka said. “I don’t want to say that it becomes like a good old boys club, but once you get onto a Ryder Cup team and get into that team thing, it becomes a different connection with guys. You build a different relationship.

“You really get to know them. Because a lot of times we don’t get to spend time with a lot of guys out on the PGA Tour because we got our own thing going on. But in that team room, you become brothers, you become friends. And Tiger is your brother, your teammate, whether he’s there or not.”

© Rob Schumacher, USA TODAY Sports Brooks Koepka during the 2016 Ryder Cup.

Invaluable experience

Woods was Stricker’s assistant at the 2017 Presidents Cup when the U.S. demolished the Internationals. Then he was the playing captain in the 2019 Presidents Cup in Australia when he was 3-0-0 and led the U.S to a tight victory against the Internationals.

Justin Thomas, who has become close with Woods the past few years, was in a pod captained by his buddy in the 2017 Presidents Cup, was in the pod with Woods in 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris after Woods won the Tour Championship the preceding week, and was his pod mate and partner in the 2019 Presidents Cup.

“He does a lot. His experience both to the young guys and to guys who have been out there a long time carries a lot of weight,” Thomas said. “What I thought he did so well in Australia was he just let us play. He showed confidence in us. He didn’t over-captain. He doesn’t over-involve himself. He doesn’t speak just to speak.

“He’s there if you need him, no question. During the team events he’s an open book. There have been times I’ve tried to take advantage of him and Phil because I know if I ask them during a normal week on the PGA Tour they might not answer.

“But if you ask them anything at a team event, they feel obligated to answer.”

© Warren Little, Getty Images Playing Captain Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas celebrate defeating Byeong-Hun An and Hideki Matsuyama on the 18th green during Friday foursome matches on day two of the 2019 Presidents Cup.

He’ll be at the ready to answer a lot of question this year.

“We’re going to rely on him for info and input because we want to include him,” Love said. “He’s always going to be part of Team USA golf.

“What does he bring to the team? Passion and energy. He can motivate these guys from afar. He can put them on the plane excited to go. He was just their last captain. He’s played on teams with a lot of these guys, he plays at home with a lot of them. He’s going to be in their thoughts.

“We’re all happy that he’s come a long way in 6-8 months. It’s just unfortunate that the Ryder Cup is probably not the right place for him to try to move around right now. He’s going to be a part of it.”

‘He’s an asset, through and through’

Stricker refers to Woods as being hyper-focused and detail-oriented when it comes to golf. He’s been that way since he turned professional in 1996.

“He knows everything about how to play the game,” he said. “And he’s a student of the game. He knows everything about everybody, it seems like. You would think he wouldn’t care about somebody on the Tour way down in the world rankings, but if they are playing well, he knows everything about that guy. It’s crazy when he talks about guys you know he hasn’t made much contact with. He does his homework.

“That’s just the way he is. He doesn’t leave anything to chance. And that’s how he played the game. And that’s how he is as a captain or an assistant captain. He puts in the time and the work and he wants to be the best at whatever he is doing.

“We spent so much time on the phone leading into the 2017 Presidents when he was my assistant talking about a ton of things. He gets on it early. He’s committed.

“And that’s what the guys see and appreciate.”

Zach Johnson, who held off Woods to win the 2007 Masters, has played in nine editions of the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup and was Woods’ assistant in 2019 in the Presidents Cup. He knew from the first day he put on the red, white and blue that Woods was fully invested.

“In 2016, he knew he had a job to do. He fully acknowledged that Davis Love was the captain and his role was to do the job he told him to do,” Johnson said. “He took the role and put the hat on, and it started weeks before the event.

“I remember Sunday afternoon. I had won my match and I’m coming up 18 and we had this massive embrace. We got teary eyed. He hadn’t been on a winning Ryder Cup since 1999.

“And then he said, ‘Holy crap, I’ve got a job to do.’ There was still a group in the fairway, and he had to get back to his job. Whatever the day, the week, whatever he is required to do, he’s there to do it and does it.

“He is an asset through and through and will be at Whistling Straits whether he’s there or not.”

Tiger Woods is embraced by his mother, Kultilda, after winning his third U.S. Amateur on Aug. 25, l996, at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, Ore. Woods defeated Steve Scott on the 38th hole. With Mike “Fluff” Cowan on the bag in October 1996, Tiger Woods won the Las Vegas Invitational for his first PGA Tour victory. On April 13, 1997, Tiger Woods receives his first green jacket as Masters champion from Nick Faldo at Augusta National Golf Club. Tiger Woods celebrates after winning the 100th U.S. Open Golf Championship at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 18, 2000. Woods won by 15 shots, the largest margin in major championship history. Tiger Woods completes the Tiger Slam at the 2001 Masters. He becomes the only player to hold all four professional majors at the same time. In 2002 Tiger Woods played in the Ryder Cup in late September. In December he had surgery to remove fluid inside and outside his ACL in his left knee. In July 2007, Tiger Woods ruptured his ACL while running on a golf course after the British Open. He goes on to win five of his next six tournaments, including the PGA Championship (shown here). Two days after a runner-up finish at the Masters, Tiger Woods has arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage damage. Here he’s shown at the Masters with Stewart Cink. In June 2008, Woods wins the U.S. Open in a playoff at Torrey Pines for his 14th major. A week later, he has reconstructive surgery on his left knee to repair the ACL and is out for eight months. In November 2009, Woods crashed his SUV into a tree and a fire hydrant outside his Windermere, Florida, home. The next few weeks his personal life unravels amid reports of multiple extramarital affairs. Here he’s shown with wife, Elin Nordegren, in San Francisco in October 2009. Woods withdraws from The Players Championship after a 42 on the front nine in May 2011 and takes a break of nearly three months. Woods wins the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March 2012 for his first PGA Tour victory since the scandal in his personal life. Here he hugs his caddie Joe LaCava. In August 2013, Tiger Woods won the World Golf Championships – Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club. It’s his 79th PGA Tour win. In 2014, Tiger Woods made only three PGA Tour starts before having back surgery in April, a week before the Masters. Here he’s shown at the WGC – Cadillac Championship in March. In September 2015 after missing the cut in three of the four majors, Woods has a second back surgery. Here he’s shown at the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. Woods has another back surgery in October 2015. Shown here Woods gives pointers to a young golfer, during a promotional clinic as part of the Bridgestone America’s Golf Cup in Mexico City on Oct. 20, 2015. In December 2016, Woods competes for the first time in 15 months at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. Here he’s shown with Jordan Spieth. In April 2017, Woods has his fourth back surgery to fuse discs in his lower back. He would make only one PGA Tour start that season. Here he’s shown signing copies of his new book in New York. On May 30, 2017, Tiger Woods is arrested and briefly jailed in Jupiter, Florida, on suspicion of DUI. He would later enter treatment for help dealing with prescription drugs. At the Valspar Championship in March 2018, Woods shows he’s close to his winning ways. He grabs a share of the lead early in the final round but finishes one shot behind winner Paul Casey. Woods closes with a 64 in the PGA Championship at Bellerive on Aug. 12, 2018 – his lowest round in a major – but Brooks Koepka keeps his cool and wins by two shots. Here Woods celebrates after making a birdie putt on the 18th green. Tiger Woods wins the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club, the 80th PGA Tour victory of his career. He claimed his first win five years. Tiger Woods receives his green jacket after winning the 2019 Masters, his first major championship in over a decade. Tiger Woods speaks after winning the Zozo Championship, which was his PGA Tour record-tying 82nd victory. Tiger Woods and son Charlie Woods fist bump on the 18th hole during the final round of the PNC Championship at the Ritz Carlton Golf Club on Dec. 20, 2020 in Orlando, Fla.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Expect Tiger Woods to continue his involvement in U.S. Ryder Cup preparation

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