DUBLIN, Ohio –– And for his eighth Presidents Cup, 15th international competition and 69th session team match since 1997, Tiger Woods gets a 19th different partner.
Welcome to the club, Matt Kuchar.
When the pairings were announced Wednesday afternoon for Thursday’s opening session of four-ball matches between the U.S. and the Internationals at Muirfield Village Golf Club, it was hardly a surprise that Woods was lined up with Kuchar. They’ll take on Angel Cabrera and Marc Leishman in the fifth of six matches to help get the 10th Presidents Cup under way.
For Kuchar, it makes sense.
“I get along very well with Tiger. Certainly, I think if you could pick a partner, picking the No. 1 player in the world is a good partner to have. He’s got a great track record around this place (five Memorial wins), as well.”
For Woods, it is the same ol’, same ol’ – this storyline about finding a favorable partner for him in these competitions.
“I’ve had all different types of partners,” said Woods, whose teams on which he’s played are 1-6 in the Ryder Cup and 5-1-1 in the Presidents Cup. “Guys who hit the ball for miles, guys who are short, guys who are pretty mellow, guys who are pretty volatile.
“I’ve had it all.”
Of course, because the numbers do not crunch to bottom-line figures that one would expect from the world’s greatest player, there tends to be a feeling that something is grossly wrong. For a guy with 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour wins, Woods’ record of 24-28-2 in team play at Ryder and Presidents cups is hardly inspiring stuff. Yet there are those who try and rationalize this sub-.500 record, as if you can make sense of it.
Often, you can’t, said Charles Howell, who occupies his spot in the Woods’ timeline in these team events.
As a Presidents Cup rookie in 2003, Howell was picked by captain Jack Nicklaus to play alongside Woods in all four team matches, but if you’re thinking one of the game’s greatest icons pored over data to make that team, think again.
“I paired Tiger with whomever he wanted to play with,” Nicklaus said with total candor. He didn’t see anything wrong with it, either.
“I did that with a lot of the guys. I’d ask all the guys at the beginning of the week, ‘Who would you like to play with, who would you enjoy playing with, who would you like to give it a shot?’ “
To many of the old guard, this fascination and intense scrutiny over Woods’ partner is a testament to the times in which we live.
“It’s such a different era, media-wise,” said Jay Haas, 59, who made his Ryder Cup debut in 1983 and is one of Fred Couples’ vice-captains for a third straight Presidents Cup.
“I mean, in Jack Nicklaus’ day, I’m sure everyone wanted to play with Jack, but there wasn’t any media coverage to talk about who was going to play with him,” Haas said.
And so with whom did Nicklaus play when he finally was eligible for the Ryder Cup, in 1969 – after he had proved himself with seven major championship wins and a five-year apprentice-like program? Well, no one in the first session, because he was kept on the bench by captain Sam Snead. But when finally Snead got Nicklaus into the lineup, he didn’t put him with Lee Trevino, nor with Raymond Floyd, nor even with Gene Littler. Nope. Nicklaus played two matches alongside Dan Sikes, going 1-1.
Nicklaus said he didn’t have any qualms about asking captain Jay Hebert in 1971 to re-arrange the U.S. teams. Nicklaus just didn’t think his power game and Dave Stockton’s short-game prowess were a good fit, as evidenced by their 3 and 2 loss in foursomes.
“That didn’t work out so well,” said Nicklaus, who got his wish and was put in alongside Snead, then Littler, then Arnold Palmer in each of the next three sessions, each of them a victory.
There’s no record of any media onslaught when the game’s two most dynamic players – Palmer and Nicklaus – combined to play two more times in 1973. It was no big shock, either, that Nicklaus and Palmer joined forces to win four World Cup of Golf titles, or that Nicklaus and Tom Watson in 1977 and 1981 went 4-0 as teammates in Ryder Cup matches. Or that in 1973 Nicklaus watched his fellow Ohio Stater, Tom Weiskopf, lose in each of the first two sessions of the Ryder Cup before telling captain Jack Burke, Jr., “get me Weiskopf.”
Paired together, Nicklaus and Weiskopf won two team matches, then each went 1-0-1 in singles to lead yet another American romp.
Products of a different era, a simpler time of competition without the analysts, psychologists, specialists, and those who scrutinize, Haas and Nicklaus look at the record Woods has compiled in this Ryder/Presidents business and shrug. Howell considers it and brushes off the critics, those who suggest it shows a sense of apathy by Woods for these team events.
“I learned so much from Tiger, especially in South Africa (2003),” said Howell. “It was the most pressure I have ever felt, but he took me under his wing. He had a bull’s-eye on his back in every match and as his partner, I could really feel it.
“He is more competitive than you can imagine and you get a good sense of it as his partner.”
Haas just shakes his head at the scrutiny that Woods’ team record attracts, especially the analysis that the media puts forth about who his partnerships have been with. As a Ryder Cup rookie in ’83, Haas said he and good friend Curtis Strange, also a Ryder Cup rookie, wanted in the worst way to be partners.
Instead, captain Nicklaus put Haas with Watson (win) and Gil Morgan (halve) in four-ball matches before letting the Wake Forest guys join forces in a foursomes session. “We were best friends, practiced a lot together, and it worked,” Haas said. But that doesn’t mean that all good fits work well or that all good pairings remain that way over time.
At the 2005 Presidents Cup “everyone thought that Tiger found the perfect partner in Jim Furyk and they had success (2-0-1),” Haas said. “But then that fizzled out (at the ’06 Ryder Cup and ’07 Presidents Cup, Woods and Furyk were 3-3). Then he found Steve Stricker (4-0 at 2009 Presidents Cup) and everyone thought it was perfect. The best player with the best putter. Made sense, right? But that fizzled out, too (Woods-Stricker were 2-2 at the 2010 Ryder Cup and 2011 Presidents Cup).”
Clearly, Woods has been more effective at the Presidents Cup (he is 10-3-1 in foursomes and 20-14-1 overall as opposed to 13-17-3 overall and 4-8-1 in foursomes in the Ryder), but wouldn’t that be true of every American in this era? After all, the red, white, and blue has done a tap dance on the Internationals, while they’ve been drubbed by the Europeans.
Baffling? Perhaps. But so is a lot of this scrutiny. For instance, Woods and Howell are 3-0 in foursomes, a tougher format, but 0-2 in four-ball, a game in which you would think Woods would excel. Asked to explain this curiosity, Howell tried.
“I would say that four-ball matches take a lot longer than foursomes and it is hard to get a rhythm going and hard to get momentum going,” he said. “I know in foursomes you don’t hit every shot, but it moves along like a twosome.”
Then, as if catching himself trying to explain the unexplainable, Howell laughed.
“Other than that, it’s hard to say, other than that’s golf.”