Playing for Tiger, the U.S. refuses to lose
6 Min Read
Written by Mike McAllister @PGATOUR_MikeMc
MELBOURNE, Australia – It started with the twirl of a club on the first tee. It finished with tears of joy.
That was the final day of the most unique week for Tiger Woods, who for the first time in his legendary career was the captain of a U.S. national team. Along the way, he also added playing responsibilities. Doing something -- again -- that few people have ever done.
The ending, of course, turned out to be a familiar one for Woods. He was the best player on the winning team, the Americans claiming the Presidents Cup, 16-14.
“It’s the same feeling,” Woods said. “We won.”
Unlike two years ago on home soil at Liberty National, winning this Cup at Royal Melbourne wasn’t easy. The Americans entered Sunday Singles trailing by two points. Counterpart Ernie Els seemed to pull all the right levers. The Internationals were in their best position to end their 21-year drought in this event. The hometown support was going to make a difference.
PRESIDENTS CUP: Final scoring | Day 4 Singles match recaps
But there’s a reason why Tiger Woods has the most wins (with Sam Snead) in PGA TOUR history. There's a reason why he passed Phil Mickelson on Sunday for most match wins (27) in Presidents Cup history. He refuses to lose.
On Sunday, that spirit permeated the American roster. Woods set the tone by batting leadoff and taking down the Internationals’ hottest player, Presidents Cup rookie Abraham Ancer, 3 and 2. Tiger celebrated the win as if it was his first one. He hugged assistant captain Zach Johnson and then made a beeline toward another assistant, Fred Couples.
“I have a bad back,” Couples pleaded as he began to retreat. Didn’t matter. Tiger had won his match, finishing off a week in which he was 3-0-0, the only player on either side to win each of his matches. Couples finally relented.
Meanwhile, the group of American fans called “We the People” started chanting for Woods, trying to entice him for a quick visit outside the ropes. Tiger couldn’t resist. He did a little dance as he met the group for some high-fives and selfies.
By the way, the Americans were still trailing at this point, 10-9.
Already, though, you could sense how this would go. Lots of red was on the board, the U.S. Team getting off to quick starts. Patrick Reed had birdied six of his first seven holes. Dustin Johnson was 5 up through 11. Tony Finau was in the midst of rallying from a 4-down hole against Hideki Matsuyama. The Americans won or tied the first five matches of the day, and eventually lost just two.
The signs were there. Woods was not to be denied. Nor was his team. For the first time, Americans were playing for Tiger Woods. They refused to let him down.
“It was pretty awesome to play for the greatest player ever,” said Matt Kuchar, who supplied the clinching point in the 11th match of the day, rallying from 3 down to tie Louis Oosthuizen. “To have a chance to make a team captained by the greatest player ever that is also a player on the team, I can’t tell you how unique, how cool of a thing that is – to not only play for him, but alongside him.”
Woods was in the first match out because he wanted to resume his captain role as quick as possible on Sunday. Steve Stricker has assumed captain’s duties while Tiger was playing. Eventually, those duties were handed back.
“Stricks was on 14 and the last group just went through and he says, ‘I don’t want to be captain anymore,’” Woods recalled with a laugh. “That was one of the great moments, and to hear that in my earpiece was definitely a moment I’ll never forget.”
Hard to imagine anybody doubting Woods would be a successful captain. He’s meticulous, always thinking, constantly encouraging – his text messages in the middle of the night became legendary among his U.S. players.
But he was not overbearing. He knew his team was talented, perhaps among the most talented the Americans have fielded in some time. Arguably no one had played golf better than Woods, but he didn’t need to tell them how to play their sport.
Justin Thomas, who partnered with Woods to win two matches earlier in the week, had a conversation with assistant Zach Johnson. The topic of Woods as a captain came up.
“Someone who has done as much as he has and had as much experiences as he had in all these team events, he very easily, I felt, could have tried to take over the team rooms or try to give all this advice and try to do so much,” Thomas said.
But, as Thomas added, “we have 12 of the best players in the world. No offense, he just needed to get out of the way – and that’s what he did.”
And yet, whenever Woods did speak, it carried significant weight. It was also a new experience for the players, who generally have only seen their captain as a teammate, not a leader.
“We had a room full of some of the greatest golfers in the world,” Kuchar said, “and when he speaks, we all listen.”
Entering Sunday, Woods simply told his team that the Internationals had more a few more putts during the first four team sessions. Sunday Singles, he added, would be different. “We’re going to be fine,” he told them.
And they were. The match wins kept coming – Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and Webb Simpson, who combined played 50 holes on Sunday and only trailed after two of them. Cantlay and Schauffele, by the way, were partners all week, and on Sunday they played in back-to-back matches. That was deliberate.
Schauffele may have snuffed out the emotional support of the Royal Melbourne crowd by going 4 up through seven holes en route to beating Australian veteran Adam Scott.
“Xander, to beat Adam Scott on really a course that he plays very well, was really a huge point,” Couples said.
Finally, it came down to Kuchar’s match. The Americans were leading 15-13 and simply needed one more half-point. Kuchar clinched it by winning the 17th hole with a birdie.
The celebration started. Woods was overcome with emotion. Those tears began to swell. He tried to hide his face with his U.S. Team cap.
Woods has won a lot of tournaments as an individual player. He cried after a few but not after every one. This win – as a captain, also a player – was special.
“I’ve cried in pretty much every Cup we’ve won,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. Any time you have moments where you’re able to do something that is bigger than us as an individual is so much more meaningful and so much more special.”
Said Stricker, a well-known tear-shedder: “I love seeing other people cry – especially Tiger Woods.” Then he added, “Tiger did an unbelievable job. It was a privilege – and we’ll keep this on the forefront of our minds forever.”
Tiger the player was unbeatable this week. Tiger the captain may have been even better.
“All of us will look back and have these pictures hanging on our walls and say we played for and alongside Tiger Woods, the greatest player ever,” Kuchar said. “It was awesome.”