JERSEY CITY, N.J. — All around the Presidents Cup there are reminders of who remains the sport's biggest star. Players crowd around him, seeking advice, approval or a maybe just a fist-bump. Fans shout his name, and then, when he looks their way, stand speechless. Nearly every U.S. player has faced questions on two topics this week: the national anthem and assistant captain Tiger Woods. They've fled from the former; they're effusive when speaking to the latter. "To have him in the corner means a lot," Patrick Reed said. "Just having him in the team room is huge."
The golf world continues to wait to see if Woods will "come back," whatever that may mean. On Wednesday afternoon, he acknowledged for the first time publicly that he could "definitely" envision a situation in which he does not return to competitive golf. "I don't know what my future holds for me," he said. Fans already have seen this generation's greatest player as an assistant captain, but this week feels like it could be more than temporary. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. It's uplifting seeing a smiling, relaxed Woods fully embracing his elder statesman role.
"My timetable is based on what my surgeon says," Woods said. "As I alluded to last week, I'm hitting 60-yard shots. I'm hitting it really straight." Then flashed his trademark grin at a reporter in the front row. "It's a joke. Smile, okay?"
There's no questioning the influence Woods wields on the American squad. As the teams warmed up on the range Tuesday morning, an official came over to the U.S. side to inform the players that they should head to the 1st tee. Rickie Fowler and Reed took objection, sending the official back to his bosses to ask if they could delay the starting times. "I'm only on gap wedge," Reed told Fowler.
But a moment later, after a suggestion from a certain assistant captain, Reed dutifully departed for the 1st tee, full warm-up be damned.
"Where you going?" Fowler asked.
Reed looked back with a grin.
"When Mr. Woods tells me to do something, I'm going to do it."
To hear the players tell it, Woods is fully engaged. "I mean, he probably has spent more time on all the guys on the team as far as his homework and research and what he's doing and looking into everything… than he did on homework at Stanford," Fowler said Tuesday afternoon. "I think he's going to love being around all the guys this week, being able to hang out."
There are few formats more conducive to hanging out than an alternate-shot practice round. On Tuesday, Woods spent time following the group of Spieth, Reed, Berger, and Koepka. He rode shotgun in a cart piloted by his old Stanford buddy Notah Begay III. With each player hitting half the usual number of shots, there was plenty of time for banter.
"Who has more in the tank if they go all out," Woods asked Koepka beside the 14th tee as Berger teed off. "DJ or Woodland?"
"Oh, Dustin's got another 30 yards in the tank. I've seen him go at it, and he can fly it 30 more yards."
Woods: "Really? Hmm. Because when Gary gets after it…"
Koepka: "Okay, but that normal, everyday 300 DJ hits? That's because he's hitting down on it. If he hits up on the thing? Yeah, definitely DJ if he goes all out."
"I hit down, too," Koepka continued. "I mean, I've gotta keep it in play. If I don't hit down on it?" He shot his hand skyward.
Other players or caddies would periodically hop on the back of Woods's cart for easy transport to the next tee. Woods hopped out to walk several holes alongside a player, and dismounted other times to look at a particular part of the course. He looked slightly stiff getting in and out, particularly compared with the agility of Spieth and Koepka. Mostly he stayed in the seat beside Begay, looking cool, as he always has on the course, even as life has grown complicated.
Justin Thomas explained the importance of Woods's presence. "He loves it so much," Thomas said. "As competitive as he is, to be this involved and want us to feel as comfortable as we can be, and to want us to play as well as we possibly can, it means a lot."
In his press conference Wednesday, Woods reiterated that there is no rush or timetable for his return. And he appears to be relishing the time off. For the first time he genuinely seems relatable, and increasingly, as he said, "one of the guys."
"It's been fun for guys like myself and other guys on the team to get to know him," Phil Mickelson said. "I mean, I competed against him, many guys looked up to him and watched him win, but it's an opportunity as he's opened up over the last five or six years to really get to know him on a different level."
Don't publish his career obit just yet. "I'm still training. I'm getting stronger," he said, stating the obvious—although physique is no way to measure a golfer, Woods has built his body back up to near-Koepkan muscular composition. As he noted, though, "I haven't hit a golf shot yet. So that's going to take time to figure that out and figure out what my capabilities are going forward, and there's no rush."
Still, on the range and again on the course, he did what any jonesing golfer would do, fidgeting around with players' bags, grabbing a wedge out here and there, making little half-swings. The end isn't here—not yet. And that's a good thing, for the assistant captain, for his sport, and for the team he hopes to play for again.