Don’t expect a fairy tale return for Tiger Woods at the Ryder Cup. It’s just too soon — even U.S. captain Steve Stricker himself admitted Woods’ return was “probably not” in the cards. But that doesn’t mean Woods isn’t a character in this year’s story. Far from it.
Once upon a time, Stricker had Tiger tabbed as a vice captain on this year’s squad. Woods was a natural selection, having served both as Ryder Cup vice captain alongside Stricker at Le Golf National in 2018 and as captain of the heroic 2019 U.S. Presidents Cup team. Also a relevant factor in Stricker’s thinking: his being Tiger freakin’ Woods.
“I’d love to have him there,” Stricker said at the PGA Championship in May. “Who wouldn’t, right? The guys really respect him, and he did a great job as [Presidents Cup captain], and he was an assistant of mine in 2017 [also at the Presidents Cup] and he was unbelievable. He would do anything for you, and he’s totally, totally vested in the situation and the process, almost to the point of, he’s on it early and so much, it’s like, ‘Dude, we’ve still got months to go yet.’ He’s really good at being an assistant, and I’d love to have him be there if it’s at all possible.”
In May, the table seemed set for a Stricker-Woods tandem atop the American side at Whistling Straits, but when the calendar turned to September, Woods’ rehab schedule thought otherwise. Instead, Stricker selected Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples as vice captains, delegating the unofficial role of stay-at-home captain to the 15-time major champion.
But Woods’ physical absence has not equated to a literal absence from the Ryder Cup. His legendary preparation and competitive drive have aided the U.S. team for the better part of two decades, and this year’s team is no different.
“He’s been obviously in my ear a lot, and I call him pretty regularly,” Stricker said Monday. “He’s part of our Ryder Cup team. He’s part of what we do. He’s been part of so many of these teams.”
Stricker isn’t being cheeky. He means it. Tiger is playing a serious role on this year’s team, albeit a different one from what he’s used to.
“Yeah, he’s so into it,” Woods’ close friend Justin Thomas said Tuesday. “He obviously wants the best for our team. He wants the best for all of us. It means a lot to him.”
For Woods, that’s meant embracing a more hands-off approach to the tournament — focusing more helping U.S. leadership with Xs and Os than pump-up speeches for the competitors.
“At the end of the day he also understands that we’re 12 of the best players in the world, and we know how to play golf,” Thomas said. “Sometimes less is more, so I think he’s great at balancing that out. It was more, I’m here if you need me kind of thing.”
Tiger’s prep work could go a long way, particularly for one of the greenest American teams in recent memory. Of its 12 players, the U.S. has six Ryder Cup rookies, and another three players who have competed in fewer than five matches.
It’s true, Tiger isn’t starring in this fairy tale, but make no mistake about it, he’s still gunning for a ‘happily ever after.’
“I think people would be surprised — obviously you all saw in Australia how much it meant to him — but just the amount of work and the amount of hours he’s willing to spend to make sure that he feels like the team is prepared and as ready to go as possible is pretty cool,” Thomas said.