How the 2016 Ryder Cup lit a fire under Tiger Woods

NASSAU, Bahamas — It was a quick moment, a quick flash. The American Ryder Cup team was lining up for photos prior to its eventual thrashing of the European team. Woods, a vice captain, had lined up in the back row of the team when a photographer told him to move. Woods simply walked around to the other end of the row, but then the photographer motioned for him to get out of the frame entirely. Woods didn’t belong in this photo at all.

Oh, sure, everyone had a fine laugh about it, the world’s onetime finest golfer banished like a child sent to the kids’ table at Thanksgiving. But it had to burn, getting shamed like that in front of players he’d once stepped over on his way up the leaderboard, and players who were still in elementary school when Woods was stocking his closet with green jackets.

Woods, who returns to competitive golf this week at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, got a Christmas Carol-esque glimpse of his future, a time when he would be a remember-when. For a guy who once prided himself on breaking, beating, and then burying opponents, it must have been hell.

At that Ryder Cup, you may recall that the United States thrashed the Europeans 17-11, blending wrestling-ring showmanship with cold-blooded precision … exactly the kind of game that Woods used to deliver. It might be making too much of it all to give Woods a full share of credit for the victory, but captain Davis Love III did note that Woods served as a pairing tactician, sizing up each player’s strengths and weaknesses and suggesting pairings. It makes sense; Woods was always the greatest in the game at determining opponents’ pressure points, so why not have him use that keen eye in the service of his country? Hiring a thief to catch a thief, that kind of thing.

But what that led to was the unfamiliar sight of Woods riding the hills at Hazeltine in a golf cart, talking on walkie-talkies rather than swinging a club, and standing behind the actual players, observing but not participating. This was worse than seeing, say, an injured LeBron James in street clothes on the Cavaliers sideline. This was a graduate coming back to party with the juniors and seniors, looking on with visible regret as the world moves on without him.

“To have him behind me without a club is different,” Matt Kuchar said at the time, “but I still feel like here’s a guy willing to help out if I have any questions on technique.”

“The last few weeks, we’ve been talking on the phone several times a day,” Mickelson said prior to the Ryder Cup, and if the idea of the Cold War between Woods and Mickelson thawing to the point that they’ve become phone pals galls your competitive desires, you’re not alone.

But for Woods, who had spent the previous months in virtual seclusion – unable to lift his kids, unsure whether he’d ever swing a golf club again – the time at the Ryder Cup came as a revelation. “I got a chance to be out there with the guys and see it and feel it and experience it,” he said, and multiple pros noted how Woods would throw an arm around their shoulders and offer up a hint, a tip, some motivation, or just some trash talk.

Since then, to hear the players talk, the bonding has only grown stronger. “Patrick Reed and [Woods] have really buddied up, and so it was cool to see the grief that Patrick was giving him in this group text that we had going,” Bubba Watson said Tuesday. “If I could share it with you, y’all would cry how funny this was, and listening and seeing some of these comments that we had going for a few weeks.” (Whether or not it really happened, the idea of Woods making dad jokes on a group text with millennials like Reed is just a beautiful one.)

Tiger Woods looks on during morning foursomes competition at the Ryder Cup. (Getty Images)
Tiger Woods looks on during morning foursomes competition at the Ryder Cup. (Getty Images)

The end, in golf, rarely comes suddenly. Golf careers almost never end the way football careers do, with a snap, or baseball careers do, with one last call to the manager’s office. No, if you’re a pro, you can get paid to play golf for decades upon decades, if you’re of a check-cashing mindset. What Woods surely always knew, but now understands, is that the end comes one short putt, one wayward drive at a time. You think you’re competitive, you think your game is the same it’s always been, and then you turn around and you’re struggling just to make the cut.

“I can’t play this game forever at a competitive, high level,” Woods said Tuesday. “Would I love to? Yes. Guys have played into their 70s and 80s, but they’re not competing at a world‑class level … You can still play golf for a lifetime and I want to play golf for a lifetime, but also I know I can’t compete out here for a lifetime.” For Woods, who used to proclaim he expected to win every single event he entered (and for awhile, damn near did it), the recognition that Father Time is winning almost every hole these days has to be a rugged one.

During one of his finest seasons, the 2000 monster where he won three majors and placed fifth in the Masters, Woods averaged 298 yards off the tee, good enough to rank second in the game. Last season, that would have ranked 37th, between Charley Hoffman and Graham DeLaet. Yes, today’s players use different equipment and all that, but still: the guys playing today are beasts compared to Woods’ era, and at the Ryder Cup, he got an inside-the-ropes look at just how good they are. Was that enough to throw a bit of a scare into Woods, forcing him to rethink his planned return earlier this fall? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The Ryder Cup week’s structure didn’t help. “It hurt me by not being able to practice for a week [at Hazeltine],” Woods said. “We had the most perfect range, the most perfect putting green and we’re not allowed to hit balls as captains.” Again: imagine the idea of a golf course that doesn’t let Tiger Woods play. It’s the photo debacle all over again.

If Woods is able to return to anything approaching his old form, if he’s able to win a tournament — let’s not say “major” just yet, let’s not get crazy — he’ll be able to point to the 2016 Ryder Cup, a time when he put team ahead of pride, as a reason why.

“All credit to Tiger for stepping up to the plate and saying, ‘Yes, I am not playing but I will be there to support America’,” European Ryder Cup legend Colin Montgomerie said in September. “I think the Ryder Cup does probably mean more to him now. It is good for him to be seen to be in a supporting role for the first time ever and I hope it gives him the incentive to get fit for France in two years’ time.”

If that journey from Ryder Cup vice-captain back to player is going to happen, its first big challenge comes this week.

Via Jay Busbee, Devil Ball Golf, Yahoo

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