Farewell, Tiger! Australia prepares to say goodbye to the U.S. playing captain for good

December 14, 2019

MELBOURNE, Australia — It’s time to address the Big Cat in the room. These words are difficult to write, especially for an Australian writer. But here goes…

The Sunday singles finale to the Presidents Cup is likely to be the last time Tiger Woods plays tournament golf in Australia.

Woods, the U.S. Team’s playing captain, will cap arguably the greatest edition in the 25-year history of this biennial contest with a match against International rookie Abraham Ancer. There is a good chance it will be the last time the golf world gets to see Woods, the artist, use Alister MacKenzie’s famed Royal Melbourne as his canvas. At least under the pressure of a tournament.

Tiger Woods could be playing in his last competitive round in Australia.

Why? For one thing, Woods missed out on automatic qualification for this year’s Cup. He was fortunate to have a self-pick up his sleeve and, thankfully, the choice was easy when he won a record-equalling 82nd PGA Tour title in Japan in late October. Gosh, we’re lucky he did — but there’s no guarantee he’ll do the same in the future.

The American team keeps getting replenished with studs like Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, rookies this week. In years to come, young guns like Matt Wolff and Collin Morikawa will fill out the team.

Secondly, the Presidents Cup won’t return to Australia until at least 2027, when Woods will be 51. The 2021 Cup is at Quail Hollow and TPC Harding Park in 2025 are the only confirmed venues. The 2023 edition is likely to be held in Asia.

It has been eight years since Woods played Down Under — when he was here for the 2011 Cup and Australian Open. It is getting harder and harder for Woods to make special trips to Australia with a PGA Tour schedule that encompasses nearly the entire calendar year. Finally, the Australian Open’s spot on the schedule — it’s usually held during the week of Thanksgiving in the U.S. — runs up against Woods’ Hero World Challenge held in the Bahamas in early December.

It’s heartbreaking to consider the possibility that Sunday at Royal Melbourne is Woods’ competitive swan song in Australia. The fans down here have relished every minute of the six trips he’s made. And hasn’t he been glorious to watch this week?

Consider that beautifully-flighted, sawed-off short iron draw he threw into the 18th hole in Friday’s foursomes match. It left his club like a laser but landed like a butterfly with sore feet, setting Justin Thomas up for a birdie to win their match. The pair’s subsequent celebration will go down in Presidents Cup folklore.

Remember at the par-3 5th during Thursday’s four-ball, when the 15-time major winner hit a bump-and-run from a nasty lie between two greenside bunkers that dropped obediently into the hole for birdie? It was so exquisite that teammate Thomas had no issues with Woods channeling Jordan Spieth and telling his partner, “Go get that!”

Those are just the two most recent additions to a long highlight reel of Woods on the Melbourne Sandbelt.

His obsession with the revered Aussie golf region began in 1997. The Californian made his first trip to Melbourne’s Sandbelt — his second to Australia after the 1996 Aus Open — to contest the Australian Masters at Huntingdale Golf Club. He tied for a respectable eighth.

That was in February, two months before he’d secure a historic win at another Masters. You know, the one at Augusta National.

Thousands of fans lined the fairways of Huntingdale to get a glimpse of the chosen one who they’d read about in magazines and newspapers — well before social media, of course.

They’d heard of his fearsome power, but Woods only hit one driver in the opening round. As a local reporter detailed at the time, “A graphic impression of the slightly built young man’s power was provided with almost every shot. At the par-5 14th, at 554 metres (605 yards) one of the longest in Australian tournament golf, Woods humbled the hole with a 3-wood and 2-iron.”

The fan stampede synonymous with Tigermania was in its infancy in 1997, but already annoying fellow pro golfers. In the same Aussie Masters, local pro Brett Ogle, himself a two-time PGA Tour winner, snapped to fans chasing Woods: “Tiger’s not the only one playing out here.”

Maybe not. But Woods is perhaps the only golfer who captures the imagination of Australians who don’t even play golf.

Woods’ next trip to the Sandbelt came in 1998, when in his Presidents Cup debut he demanded captain Jack Nicklaus send him out on Sunday face local star Greg Norman in the singles at Royal Melbourne. Woods beat the Shark on the 18th hole, but the International team secured their only Cup victory to date.

The pinnacle of Woods’ Sandbelt history came in 2009 when he picked apart the world-renowned Kingston Heath en route to a meaningful Australian Masters victory. Although his first appearance in Australia in 11 years cost the Victorian state government a reported $3 million, Woods justified the spend by wowing fans with beautifully-crafted golf shots while leading from start to finish. He added the now-defunct tournament’s gold jacket to the green jackets already in his wardrobe.

Ten years later, Aussie fans have jumped at the chance to see the reigning Masters champion tackle Royal Melbourne while in vintage form.

Among those in the crowd was Alex Gough, a New York-based Australian who made the 10,000-mile journey home from his Brooklyn residence just to see Woods. Gough, 32, has been a member of Royal Melbourne since 2008 and was on hand to witness Woods at the 2011 Cup.

But this time is different, says Gough.

“I was there in 2011 … it was cool, but Tiger hadn’t won in two years. This Presidents Cup has so much more pop in it with him playing so well.

“The way Tiger carves his irons around Royal Melbourne is so impressive. He knows exactly where to hit it and where to miss it.

“I went out and watched the (2001) WGC-Match Play at (nearby) Metropolitan GC as an introduction to golf. But Tiger was the catalyst for getting me out and taking up the sport.

Gough is just one of 30,000 fans who have crammed into Royal Melbourne each day to get a glimpse of Woods.

“To see him 20 years after I first picked up a club, and still dominating, is so special. I’ll tell my grandkids one day that I saw Tiger Woods in person.”

Sunday may be the last time they get to do so. I hope it isn’t. I want to be wrong. I want to look like a fool and Woods to announce next year that he’ll play the 2020 Australian Open at nearby Kingston Heath.

But it least today will be momentous. If Woods beats Ancer, his 27th match victory will take the outright Cup record.

“Wouldn’t that be the perfect bow to tie on his professional career in Australia?” Gough ponders.

Indeed it would. Here’s hoping the match goes all the way to the 18th.

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