The conventional thinking is that the Safeway Open in Napa in mid-October is the first event of the rest of Tiger Woods's golfing life, but it's not. The Ryder Cup, where Woods will not hit a single shot, at least not in anger, is a far more significant event, for golf and for Woods's place in it.
Woods will be one of American captain Davis Love III's four assistants—along with Jim Furyk, Tom Lehman and Steve Stricker—and it is a role that, according to Phil Mickelson and Love and others, he is taking, as he has every aspect of his life in golf, with the utmost seriousness.
"He's told me, 'Anything you want me to do, I'm ready to do it,'" Love said recently.
Love announced Woods as an assistant captain 11 months before the event, at a time when in theory he could have still made the team.
"I know what it's like to be playing in a Ryder Cup and having someone like Tom Watson following you for a few holes, or playing in a Presidents Cup and you look over to the side of the fairway and there's Jack Nicklaus in a cart, watching you," Love said. "You're like, 'This matters. I better get my game together here.' It inspires you."
Love said he has been impressed by how his four assistant captains formed a team before the actual Ryder Cup squad was assembled. He said that he and Woods have had long, detailed conversations about who should play with whom and which assistant captain should be looking after which player, among various other nitty-gritty details of the three-day competition, which will be held Sept. 30 through Oct. 2 at Hazeltine National, in rural Chaska, Minn. These include course set-up, public appearances and team-room speeches. Love also recognizes that Woods in a cart, during Ryder Cup play, will draw many, many eyes.
It is hard to imagine any other assistant captain for what is, at its heart, a goodwill golf exhibition, getting the kind of scrutiny Tiger Woods will get in this role. There's really no equivalent to it in other sports. But nothing Woods does, whether he is opening a restaurant or hiring a caddie or signing an endorsement deal, is ever done quietly. That's been the case for him for about 25 years now.
There's already been a lot of talk about his role as strategizer-in-chief. In a Golf Channel interview, Mickelson talked about how Love and Woods were working together. He said, "I can't believe our conversations just this week, how detailed he is and the pairings, the possibilities, the players. Not just what matches they're going to play, but where on the list."
Woods, along with Brandel Chamblee, Charles Howell III and the golf statistician Mark Broadie, is one of the great golf nerds in the game today. That is not a denigrating statement. In addition to all his monstrous physical gifts, golf for Woods was a giant game of chess, with the course as his board and his ball as the ever-protected king. His prodigious memory for the shots he had played served him so well on so many Sunday afternoons. So did his ability to study leaderboards. He could process and interpret so quickly so much information that guided his decision-making down the stretch. In his often unremarkable winner's interviews, he would sometimes make precise references to who stood where and when as he played certain shots. The point is, his strategy changed based on all the information he had. It is an unsung part of his greatness as a player.
Love also talked about what kind of role Woods could play in the team room in general and on Saturday night in particular. "He's been in every kind of situation you could possibly imagine in golf," Love said. "He's shared very little about how he approached things, what his mental approach was on a Sunday, that sort of thing. Whatever he is willing to share, guys are going to be hanging on every word."
Given his long history of physical injury, and the unknown psychological impact of having your private life exposed and ridiculed, it is hard to know what Woods's future as a golfer looks like. He has said many times that there is nothing more important to him now than being a father. Johnny Miller recently predicted that Woods could win six to eight more times before calling it a career, but there's no way to know. Of course, he could win more than that. It is also possible he will never win again.
But golf is the thing he knows best in the world, he is still in the process of rehabilitating his image, and team golf, on the management side, could represent an important new challenge. Furyk, Stricker and Mickelson will all be Ryder Cup captains before Woods, according to some insiders. But Woods surely is a future captain and he may find that he likes it so much, and is so good at it, that he takes the job more than once. The Hall of Famer Tony Jacklin, who won the 1970 U.S. Open at Hazeltine, was a superstar in Great Britain as a player but redefined his golf career with his four terms as a Ryder Cup captain in the 1980s. Woods could do the same. It would likely help his business life as well, as it did for Jacklin.
"Tiger likes being part of the team," Love said in a recent GOLF article. "He wants to be a Ryder Cup captain himself one day, and I'm sure he will be a great one. But what's clear is that he's ready for another phase of his career. All the greats have had a transition period from world-beater to elder statesman. He knows that that day is coming."