HARTFORD, Conn. – For the past few months, an overriding question in professional golf has been whether Tiger Woods would make himself one of his four captain’s choices for the Presidents Cup.
After a fourth back surgery, the former No. 1 player in the world for a record 683 weeks, more than twice his nearest competitor, shot 13-under-par 275 to beat No. 1 Brooks Koepka, No. 2 Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele by a stroke for an emotional victory in the Masters in April, the 81st of his career, one shy of Sam Snead, and 15th major championship title, three fewer than Jack Nicklaus.
One of Woods’ most satisfying wins in a 23-year pro career was a prelude to being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor for an American, by Donald Trump on May 6 in the White House Rose Garden. But an ailing left knee led to missed cuts in the PGA Championship and British Open and serious doubt if Tiger would be among his picks for the United States team that would play the International side Dec. 12-15 at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Victoria, Australia.
Woods finished 13th in the Presidents Cup standings, with the top eight earning automatic berths on the 12-man team. He had a fifth surgery on his left knee to repair “minor cartilage damage” in August during the Tour Championship that he failed to qualify for to try to relieve more continual pain, returning two weeks ago for the inaugural ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP, the first PGA Tour event in Japan. With the repaired knee allowing him to rotate better and take pressure off his back, Woods again silenced folks who thought Father Time might have finally stopped one of the greatest runs in the history of golf.
But with caddie, close friend and Newtown native Joe LaCava cheering and encouraging his every shot and putt, Woods overcame three bogeys to start the tournament to shoot 19-under-par 261, tying the third-lowest 72-hole score of his career, and notch a wire-to-wire three-stroke victory over hometown hero Hideki Matsuyama for his 82nd victory. That tied Snead and LPGA Hall of Famer Mickey Wright for career wins but is six shy of the all-time professional record of Kathy Whitworth, who lived in Connecticut for several years as she notched victories from 1962 to 1985, the same span of time that Woods has been on the PGA Tour.
“Well, it’s a big number,” Woods said after recording No. 82 following a nine-week layoff. “It’s about consistency and doing it for a long period of time. Physically, I can’t do many of the things I used to do. That’s just the way it is. Four back surgeries and my body just can’t do what it used to do, but I can certainly think my way around the golf course and manage my game. … I’m very fortunate to have had the career I’ve had so far, and it’s ironic that I won in Japan because I’ve always been a global player, so this is pretty cool.”
It also was cool that Woods surpassed $120 million in career earnings and moved to sixth (he’s now seventh) in the Official World Golf Rankings, fifth among Americans behind Koepka, Johnson, Justin Thomas and Patrick Cantlay. In most corners, the win eradicated any thought that Woods would only be cheerleading from a golf cart with a trusty walkie-talkie in hand and giving pep talks and composing lineups with vice captains Fred Couples, Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker, a frequent partner in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.
Woods officially put any doubt about his playing to rest Thursday night when he named himself, U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, Tony Finau and Patrick Reed to the team. They joined automatic qualifiers (in order) Koepka, Thomas, Johnson, Cantlay, Schauffele, Webb Simpson, Matt Kuchar and Bryson DeChambeau.
Koepka might not be able to play after undergoing stem-cell treatment to repair a partially torn patella in his left knee sustained at the C.J. Cup at Nine Bridges in Korea on Aug. 26, forcing him to withdraw from the World Golf Championship-HSBC Champions. It’s the same knee that prevented Koepka from practicing for long stretches last season.
“It was a difficult process, so I wanted to see some form and hopefully see guys play well in Asia the last few weeks,” said Woods, the first playing captain since Hale Irwin in the inaugural Presidents Cup in 1994 who jokingly announced his picks in the third person at his restaurant, The Woods, in Jupiter, Fla. “I have dual roles and I felt I had to get the respect of the players for me to play, and they wanted me to play.
“There’s a lot of work to do once we get to Australia, but I have three great vice captains who have played a lot in team competitions and who have great minds.”
Woods said his biggest concern about possibly playing was how his knee responded after the long trip to Japan for the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP. A victory ended any worries.
“The knee responded well and gave me confidence that it will hold up in the long run down in Australia,” said Woods, who is undecided if he’ll add another vice captain now that he’s playing. “Winning got the captain’s attention, so the ZOZO was a big event for me. It validated I could play and help the team. It’s an honor with a tremendous amount of responsibility to be captain, especially going overseas and playing in front of the Aussie fanatics. I think it’ll be bipartisan, as it should be.”
Woods said his biggest challenges in his first dual role will be communications with his vice captains and putting the players at ease as far as practice schedules, downtime, pairings and strategy.
“I want an open line of communications, and the guys have already been very cooperative with text messages flying all around,” Woods said. “And all the guys are about the same age except for me they’re already a close-knit group.”
Woodland, ranked 16th in the world, had a bit of a lull after his first major championship win at Pebble Beach Golf Links in June but tied for third in the C.J. Cup at Nine Bridges and finished fifth in the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP while playing alongside Woods for the final 36 holes. He finished 10th in the Presidents Cup points standings, and on Saturday, he displayed his U.S. Open trophy while being recognized at his alma mater Kansas’ football game against Kansas State.
“What Gary displayed at Pebble Beach was awfully special, and you can’t get a more competitive guy,” Woods said.
Woodland is a close friend of Woods and was with him during the announcement.
“This was my goal this year, and it was a little frustrating not qualifying for the team after such a good start to the season,” said Woodland, who teamed with Kuchar to win the World Cup in 2011. “But now it’s so exciting because I’ve been so close to make a few teams and now I can be part of the camaraderie with the other players. It has been hard to watch when I haven’t been picked, so the phone call (from Woods) was something special. I’m sure they’ll be a few deep breaths on the first tee.”
The energetic/enigmatic Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, was nicknamed “Captain America” by 2017 Travelers Championship winner Jordan Spieth when they excelled in team matches in three Ryder Cups and two Presidents Cup. Reed, ranked 15th in the world and 12th in the points standings, has been in the Top 20 in 10 of his last 13 stars, including a victory in The Northern Trust, the first event in the FedExCup playoffs, and a tie for eighth in the WGC-HSBC Champions. If he keeps his emotions under control, he could Make America Grate Again!
“Patrick has an amazingly solid record in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup,” Woods said. “He’s as fiery as they come. He bleeds red, white and blue and will do anything to win a point, and that’s what we want, we want to win points.”
Reed was unavailable on a conference call because he’s playing in Europe this week. But in a statement from the PGA of America, Reed said, “I live for events like the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup. I enjoy every minute of the competition and will do whatever I can to earn points for the team.”
The long-hitting Finau, ranked 14th in the world, has only one PGA Tour victory but finished ninth in the Presidents Cup standings and has been in the Top 10 in four of his last six starts. The personable and outgoing Finau also was one of only four U.S. players to have a winning record in the 2018 Ryder Cup that Europe won 17.5-10.5, going 2-1-0 as a captain’s pick, including a 6-and-4 singles romp over Tommy Fleetwood.
“Tony has been around, he gets it,” Woods said. “He’s a great team player, overall such a nice game, and can play both (team) formats.”
“This was a goal of mine this year, so I’m really pumped,” Finau said. “Making an international team is always neat, especially when Tiger is the captain so I’m just so pleased.”
Woods said he called five players to tell them that they hadn’t been picked and the toughest was to Rickie Fowler. So if Koepka can’t play, Fowler likely would be his replacement after finishing 11th in the points standings. He has five PGA Tour victories, including the Waste Management Phoenix Open in January, played on two winning Walker Cup teams and played well in the Presidents Cup in 2015 and 2017 and the Ryder Cup in 2010, 2014, 2014 and 2016. But he has slipped to 21st in the world rankings while not playing since August due to getting married and going on a lengthy honeymoon.
Woods has until the day before the event starts to select a replacement, though he hopes to have a decision before then.
“I talked to Brooks this morning and told him just to focus on rehabbing and getting better and keep me abreast of what the process is,” Woods said.
Phil Mickelson, 49, the only repeat winner in the Travelers Championship who dropped out of the Top 50 in the world this week for the first time since 1993, had his streak of 24 consecutive Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup appearances since the 1994 Presidents Cup end. He won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February but hasn’t had a Top 25 finish since the Masters. Three weeks ago, Mickelson said he didn’t deserve a spot on the team.
Woods, who is 24-15-1 in nine Presidents Cup appearances, will prep for his 19th international team competition as host of the 18-man Hero World Challenge on Dec. 4-7 in Albany, Bahamas. The event benefits TGR Foundation, established by Woods and his late father, Earl, to create and support community-based programs that improve the health, education and wealth of all children in America.
Woods, who will be 44 on Dec. 30, has won his 82 titles in only 27 different events, compared to 45 for Slammin’ Sammy, who was 52 when he ended his Hall of Fame run in the Greater Greensboro Open in 1965. It took Woods 359 starts to reach the magic number, compared to Snead’s 425, but Tiger was limited to seven starts in 2014 and only one in 2017 due to his litany of surgeries. And he once made a record 142 consecutive cuts, 27 more than the previous record of Nicklaus, and it was 1,876 days between wins 79 and 80 and 3,954 days between his 14th major and astonishing 15th earlier this year at Augusta National.
“It’s satisfying to dig my way out of it and figure out a way,” Woods said of his many comebacks, which have included the numerous injuries, a public scandal, a DUI, a mug shot, treatment for substance abuse and chipping yips. “There were some hard times trying to figure it out, but I’ve come back with different games over the years, moving patterns, and this one’s been obviously the most challenging. Then having another procedure a couple months ago and again coming back and winning an event, not easy to do.”
Woods’ next long-term goal is to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Countries are capped at two players, but there’s a provision to allow up to four players from the same country if all are ranked into the top 15 in the world rankings. But those rankings utilize a two-year rolling points system that currently runs back to October 2017, while points for the official Olympic rankings only began accruing in July 2018.
Though the two rankings systems will grow more closely aligned as the Olympics approach, Woods is now fifth and on the outside looking in. Koepka and Thomas would be the top two Americans, with Cantlay, now one spot behind Woods in the world rankings, being the third U.S. player and Johnson rounding out the foursome for Tokyo. The cutoff for earning points toward Olympic qualification is June 22, 2020, the day after the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., that precedes the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.
“I hope to qualify for the team and represent my country,” said Woods, who has played in eight Ryder Cups and eight Presidents Cups, including winning teams in 1998 and 2011 at Royal Melbourne. “I know some of my friends have made Olympic teams in the past, and they said it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I have never played for a gold medal before and certainly it would be an honor to do it. And especially at the age I’ll be, 44, and I don’t know if I have many more chances after that.”
International captain Ernie Els’ four picks on Wednesday night were Jason Day of Australia, Adam Hadwin of Canada, Sungjae Im of Korea and Joaquin Niemann of Chile. The eight automatic qualifiers (in order) were 2012 Travelers Championship winner Marc Leishman of Australia, Matsuyama, Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, Adam Scott of Australia, Abraham Ancer of Mexico, Haotong Li of China, Cheng-tsung Pan of Taiwan and Cameron Smith of Australia. Els’ assistant captains are Geoff Oglivy of Australia, K.J. Choi of South Korea, Trevor Immelman of South Africa and Mike Weir of Canada.
Day, a former world No. 1, finished ninth in the team standings and will return for a fifth consecutive Presidents Cup after compiling a 5-11-4 record. But he’s 22-14-0, won the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play in 2014 and 2016 and played at Royal Melbourne in the 2011 Presidents and 2013 World Cup of Golf, teaming with Scott to successfully defend on their home soil. With four rookies on the team, he’ll add veteran leadership, especially in the team room.
Hadwin will make his second consecutive Presidents Cup appearance and first as a captain’s pick. He finished the 2018-19 PGA Tour season with five Top-10s but made his best case for a pick after finishing second in his first start of this season at the Safeway Open, which was followed with a tie for fourth at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. He was 0-2-1 record in his Presidents Cup debut in 2017.
Im will continue a memorable first year on the PGA Tour with his Presidents Cup debut. The 21-year-old’s stellar rookie season was highlighted by 16 top-25 finishes in 35 starts, a trip to the Tour Championship as the only rookie in the field and earning the Arnold Palmer Award as the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. He continued his strong form early this season with a tie for second in the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP and tie for 11th in the WGC-HSBC Champions the last two weeks.
Niemann added another reason to celebrate his 21st birthday on Thursday after being named to his first Presidents Cup team. The former world No. 1-ranked amateur will be the first player from Chile to compete in the event after being the country’s first PGA Tour winner at A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier in September. He earned his PGA Tour card at 19 years old and enjoyed a successful first full season that yielded four Top-10 finishes in 28 starts. His win at the 2019-20 season opener was a coming-out party for the youngster.
The United States has won the last seven biennial matches and leads the series 10-1-1, with the tie coming in 2003 when a playoff between Woods and Els was halted after three holes by darkness at Fancort Hotel and Country Club in George, Western Cape, South Africa. The International side’s only win came in 1998 at Royal Melbourne.