SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – For the first time in six years, Tiger Woods arrived at the Ryder Cup with his golf clubs.
No more earpieces.
No more two-way radios.
No more golf carts.
No longer relegated to the vice-captain position because of injury, Woods returns to his usual role this week as the most important American player.
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So much has changed since Woods’ last Ryder Cup appearance in 2012. His body has betrayed him. He’s endured humiliating performances on the course. He’s pondered a life without golf. But during all of that downtime, Woods has dedicated himself to an unexpected cause: team competitions. Criticized in the past for prioritizing individual over collective success, he’s played an integral role in blowing up the U.S. selection process as a member of the task force, then the Ryder Cup committee and finally as an assistant captain, in ’16.
“It was neat to be a part of the team, to be a part of helping the guys in any way I possibly could to make them feel comfortable,” Woods said, “but as a player, you focus on your playing partner you’re playing with and earning your point.”
As much as Rory McIlroy tried to downplay Woods’ influence by saying that he’s merely one of 12 here at Le Golf National, we all know better. Woods can only earn a maximum of five points for his team, but he’s worth so much more than that – capable of powering the U.S. to new heights with wins, while providing a boost to the Europeans if he falters.
This week will be a particularly intriguing moment in Woods’ career. No three players are as synonymous with U.S. futility in the Ryder Cup as Woods, Phil Mickelson and this year’s captain, Jim Furyk. Yet here they all stand, together, with a chance to end a quarter-century of misery on foreign soil. It’d be the perfect coda to Woods’ unimaginably resurgent season.
“Not having won as a player since 1999,” Woods said, “is something that hopefully we can change.”
It’ll start with Woods’ performance in the team sessions. Though his singles record is strong (4-1-2), he’s yet to find much success with a partner, going an abysmal 9-16-1 in fourballs and foursomes.
Gone is his usual match-play partner, Steve Stricker. In his place is a pair of 20-something dynamos, Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau, who are sure to be wound tight while playing alongside their childhood idol.
Fortunately for them, Woods is playing his best golf in years. Last week at the Tour Championship, he not only won for the first time in five-plus years, but on Sunday he broke the spirit of Europe’s best players, leaving both Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose in the dust.
“It’s a nice boost for everyone, and I think for Tiger in general, it’s cool,” Furyk said. “But being a guy with his status and that number of wins, he can flip the page and turn his attention to this week. He’s trying to help this team as much as he can.”
There’s no reason to believe that his stellar play won’t continue here, as Le Golf National would seem an ideal fit for his revamped game. The tight, hazard-filled course will require few drivers off the tee, leaving Woods and everyone else to attack from virtually the same spots in the fairway. That plays exactly into Woods’ hands – he’s once again the best iron player on the planet.
What remains to be seen is how many matches Furyk will employ Woods. At 42 with a rebuilt body, Woods is no longer a lock to play all five matches, as he was in his prime. In seven career Ryder Cups, he’s played all but one of the team sessions – the only one he missed was at Medinah in 2012, when he said his back issues first started to surface.
But Woods’ improved health and brilliant play creates an interesting dilemma for Furyk: Can you really keep Woods on the bench for a team session if he’s one of the Americans’ best chances for a point? Or do you risk sending him out for all five matches, knowing that he’ll probably grow fatigued?
Of course, few could have envisioned this debate two years ago, as Woods zipped around in a golf cart, fetching sandwiches and extra towels for the players in his pod, his competitive future uncertain.
That’s not the case anymore.
He’s swapped out his walkie-talkie for a wedge.
With a new perspective and partner, maybe he’s ready for his best Ryder Cup performance ever.