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Tense Tiger Woods-Ernie Els exchange raises Sunday stakes at Presidents Cup

December 14, 2019

Things are getting delightfully tense at the Presidents Cup. No, it wasn’t delightful that Patrick Reed’s caddie Kessler Karain shoved a fan after losing a third consecutive match. But the fans are into it, and the players are into it, and the tenor of Saturday’s post-round press conference showed that the captains are into it, too. There was a tense exchange between Captain Woods and Captain Els in which they said completely different things and yet each what each said felt completely correct, given the time and place and their roles. Let’s break down what went down.

Els and Woods faced questions after they’d selected pairings for Sunday’s singles matches. Woods fielded a question about the crowds; one reporter wondered how they compared to a Ryder Cup. Woods said they were “different,” but went on to answer the question he wanted to answer rather than the one that was posed. Maybe he has a future in politics after all.

“There’s obviously some yelling,” he said. “There’s people who have had a lot to drink and have gone over the top. Bipartisanship is part of playing in team matches, whether you’re home or on the road; it’s part of the deal. As long as, you know, the fans are respectful, and that’s all we ask is for them to be respectful, and hopefully they will be excited tomorrow and into the matches and be very respectful of all the players.”

He was asked a followup about whether fans have gone too far.

“You know, it has happened. Have people said things that have been over the top? Yes. I’ve heard it. I’ve been in the groups playing when it has happened, and I’ve been inside the ropes as a captain today witnessing it.

“As I said, all I ask for all the galleries is be excited but be respectful of the players, all 24 of us.”

Think about the fine line Woods is walking here. He’s sticking up for Patrick Reed, who has heard his fair share of heckling all week, without explicitly defending Reed’s caddie’s actions (which are, if you believe his own explanation, indefensible). He’s also using his platform to speak directly to the Aussie fans in the hopes of toning down their home-course advantage ever so slightly on Sunday, but again he’s stopping short of outright, explicit criticism. If you say “respectful” four times in two answers, it has to come true, right? It’s a wise appeal for civility, given his role. While Woods won’t (and shouldn’t) be held responsible for the actions of a caddie on his team, he will be held to account for the functionality of that team at large. Those two things are connected.

As the presser wore on, it became clear that Woods’ answer had stuck with Els. Woods was asked something innocuous about how he kept his players fresh, and as he finished his answer — before another one could be asked — Els jumped in.

“I just want to say one thing about the crowd,” he said. “I’ve played in many Presidents Cups. I’ve played in the U.S. many times. If you look back at New York and how these players were treated in New York, this crowd is pretty quiet.

“I mean, we just get treated the same. Wherever you go, as an away game, there’s some heckling going on and we all know that, and you prepare for that, and that’s just the way it goes.

“We shut up and we get on with things. That’s what we did in New York. So it’s part of the game. And I’m with Tiger; I absolutely, I’m against heckling. I’m against crowds being disrespectful to the players, but it happens. We as professionals, we move on.”

That’s some admirable maneuvering. Els is making a clear rebuttal to Woods’ suggestion that fans had gone too far. He’s not endorsing any player abuse, of course, but the remarks were a clear message to his supporters: Keep it up. We won’t back down to these Americans. All under the guise of “I’m with Tiger,” To keep things smooth, he went out of his way to compliment Woods again. The Big Easy at work.

“I think Tiger is one of the ultimate professionals that’s ever played the game. I’ve played with him where he’s been heckled in U.S. Opens and a lot of other places. He’s taken it on the chin and he’s moved forward. He’s been an example.

“Same has happened to me. It’s happened to a lot of players. But I must say, this Aussie crowd, okay, they got a little bit boisterous this afternoon with a couple of beers, but which crowd doesn’t? You take it and you move on.”

It all added up to a brilliant chess game; the captains sending messages to their fans and to their players through a typically snoozy press conference. Woods is first off for the American side on Sunday morning, but one thing was clear on Saturday night: The matches have already begun.

You can watch some of the exchange below.

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