15-time Major champion Tiger Woods has thrown himself into the fire as the United States go out to protect their strong record in the competition.
After the dust had settled on the eight automatic qualifiers for The Presidents Cup, both leaders, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, had their four captain’s picks to make. The South African went first, some 24 hours before the American.
Els elected to name Jason Day, ranked 29th in the world at the time of selection, Sungjae Im (34th), Adam Hadwin (44th) and Joaquin Niemann (54th). A mix of Australian, Korean, Canadian and Chilean as the South African spread his International net as far and wide as possible for the year-ending matchplay showdown at Royal Melbourne in December.
Then it was Woods’ turn. All the talk was whether or not he’d include himself as a captain’s pick. He did. He began by selecting Tony Finau (14th), Gary Woodland (16th) and Patrick Reed (15th) before throwing himself into the frame, speaking of himself in the third person while doing so. Woods therefore became the fourth captain’s pick, ranked No 7 in the world, a two-time tournament winner in 2019, including the Masters and, of course, a 15-time Major champion.
The combined age of the four captain’s picks for the United States was 137 years, while Els’ quartet added up to 106 years. Some might suggest it is a battle of men against boys when the event gets under way in Melbourne. The US go out to preserve a Presidents Cup record that stands at 10 wins in 12 stagings, with one International victory, coming at the same Royal Melbourne venue in 1998.
Woods, 43, was in a playful mood at his own restaurant when making the captain’s pick announcement in Jupiter. ‘He’s made, what, nine Cups and he’s played in Australia twice at The Presidents Cup, so this will be his third appearance as a player,’ Woods said before catching himself and chuckling. ‘I find it interesting I’m talking in the third person.’
He recently won a record-tying 82nd PGA Tour event, at the Zozo Championship in Japan, and the success of that week contributed to him naming himself on the roster. The fact his left knee stood up to the strain of travelling and winning in Japan after surgery a fortnight before that event, was a huge contributing factor. He faces another long journey, over
15 000km, from the Bahamas – where he is playing at his annual Hero World Challenge – to Australia.
‘For me, the Zozo was a big event. It validated that I could play and I could help the team. The long haul to Australia is very much like the one to Japan,’ Woods said. ‘And seeing how my body felt and how I reacted in Japan, and how I was able to play, certainly gives me a lot of confidence that it will hold up over the long haul down to Australia.’
When asked how he will juggle playing duties with captaining the United States team, Woods replied: ‘By having that direct communication with these guys. The texts or phone calls have been free-flowing; any time, doesn’t matter, just shoot me a text. I want that open line of communication.’
Woods had to use all those communication skills to explain to 21st-ranked Rickie Fowler why he had not earned a captain’s pick; Matt Kuchar at No 22 was the lowest-ranked player on the team.
‘That was a tough phone call,’ Woods admitted. ‘Rickie’s a good friend of mine and I’ve known him for a long time. Kept it short and quick. No reason to make it a lengthy conversation. He’s obviously going to be very disappointed by it. I’ve been on that side. I’ve been there when the captain didn’t choose me, and I get it. It’s not easy. But Rickie is a hell of a player and he’s going to start winning tournaments here. He’s fresh off his wedding and honeymoon, and he’ll be focused and start winning tournaments.’
Woods could limit himself to the minimum of two matches required for each player. One would be with a partner, and the other would be in Sunday Singles. That could help reduce the strain on his body. However, he’s not putting a number on it. ‘If I happen to play more, I have to play more,’ he said. But he did say he’s given specific thought to his own partner, having discussed that possibility with his assistants and some of his players. He wouldn’t reveal a name, of course. ‘It’s one of the other 11 players.’
Former US Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III had predicted Woods was going to select himself. ‘He definitely wants to play,’ he said three weeks before the announcement. ‘If Michael Jordan can run up and down the court and pass the ball, I think I would want him on the team, so I think that’s probably what the players would vote for.’
Of his other captain’s picks, Woods explained: ‘What Woodland displayed this year at Pebble Beach when he won the US Open was pretty special. He’s such a competitor. All the players wanted him on the team.’
Of Finau: ‘He’s been around the Ryder Cup, he gets it. He’s a great team player, overall such a nice guy. He can play both team formats.
And of the combustible Reed: ‘He has an amazingly solid record at The Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup. 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.’
Now the talking is over and the event will inevitably be seen as Tiger against Ernie, while trotting out the usual cliches of their players all being the presidents’ men.
Certainly Woods and Els are two statesmen of the game and competitive spirit beats strongly in the chest. Who will prevail? The odds-makers have the US as heavy favourites, which is to be expected.
However, matchplay golf is a strange beast and Europe have often shown that the rankings aren’t the greatest guide to selecting the winner.
Els will be using those results as motivation to his team and the fact it’s been 21 years since the Internationals last knocked over their opposition. And he has two players who were born in the year that happened. For Els, he will be hoping it’s a real coming of age for Sungjae and Niemann, in particular.