How being an assistant captain made Tiger Woods great again

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How being an assistant captain made Tiger Woods great again

2019 Presidents Cup

How being an assistant captain made Tiger Woods great again

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MELBOURNE, Australia – When the last Presidents Cup was held in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in 2017, Tiger Woods was recovering from surgery and only permitted to hit 60-degree wedges. His future in the game was very much in doubt. The thought of him as a playing captain just over two years later seemed preposterous.

It was a sad day for golf to see Woods relegated to a cart driver, asking players if they liked mayo or mustard on their sandwich. It was a role that in the past would have seemed beneath someone of his stature in the game. And yet Tiger’s two stints as an assistant captain at the 2016 Ryder Cup and 2017 Presidents Cup may have been critical moments in his revival as both a player and person.

Woods embraced the job of serving as a Team USA pop-pom waver. No job was too small, and he spent countless hours plotting pairings and determining which matchups should go out first. Brandt Snedeker, who was a member of the victorious 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup team, recounted how he spent more than 90 minutes on the phone with Woods one night, and it wasn’t the only time the 15-time major winner dialed him up.

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“Got to the point where I was joking around, like ‘You’re calling me more than my wife is right now. We need to figure something out,’ ” Snedeker cracked.

Apparently Woods has evolved to sending early-morning text messages.

“You definitely get more texts between 1 and 4 a.m. than any captain, that’s for sure,” Justin Thomas said. “He takes it very seriously. … It’s like any time we’re together he’s asking me questions, and I’m like, ‘Dude, we already talked about this. You don’t need to go too into it.’ I understand he wants to be so perfect and wants to do all this, but being in Florida and hanging out a decent bit, I’m kind of a good sounding board to where he can kind of ask me some stuff but, no, he’s done a good job.”

The 2019 U.S. Presidents Cup team poses for a team photo at Royal Melbourne Golf Course on December 11, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

More than anything, the team environment allowed Woods to shed his lone-wolf label. For years, the biennial team competitions felt more like a burden than an honor to Woods. Instead, he enjoyed passing on some of his course knowledge to younger players in the pod he managed, such as Patrick Reed, and he even showed he could not only dish out jokes but take one, too. It was Zach Johnson who famously passed out “Make Tiger Great Again” T-shirts to his teammates.

“It’s not the Tiger we knew,” said NBC/Golf Channel commentator Paul Azinger. “He was uncomfortable if you were comfortable with him; now, he’s uncomfortable if you’re not comfortable with him. Tiger didn’t want to let anyone close to him. He came back and reinvented his personality with the players. These guys are so comfortable with him. They love him and he loves them back.”

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The friendships that were forged in those team rooms between Woods and Rickie Fowler and Thomas led to them calling up Woods and urging him to play with them back home in Jupiter, Florida, as he attempted to resurrect his career. Those rounds prepared Woods for his return to the PGA Tour. Azinger thinks Thomas is Tiger’s best friend on Tour now. These young guns, who grew up idolizing Woods, wanted to go head to head with him and after a Tour Championship, Masters title and Zozo Championship victory they may be regretting what they wished for, but they contributed to making Woods great again.

This week, Woods is the first Presidents Cup playing captain since Hale Irwin in 1994. He’s back in his element in the team room. On the flight from the Bahamas to Acapulco he yukked it up, playing $100 hands of high card, low card, according to one passenger on the team plane. Drinks were flowing until the plane departed from Acapulco and Captain Woods laid down the law – no more alcohol for the week. That is, he said, until the victory celebration on Sunday.

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