Tiger Woods talks Presidents Cup, thrills junior golfers on surprise trip to Melbourne

MELBOURNE, Australia — On a busy Wednesday in Australia, Tiger Woods singlehandedly stopped Royal Melbourne Golf Club in its tracks. The world-renowned Sandbelt club is a hotbed for golf-mad celebrities, but none have won 14 major championships.

In the afternoon, three members were putting out on the par-5 4th hole of the West course when they were all but frozen with disbelief. There, standing on the tee of iconic par-3 5th — in red Nike shirt and all — was…

“Is that Tiger Woods?!” said a wide-eyed bystander.

Most members and guests at Royal Melbourne were unaware Woods was in town to promote the 2019 Presidents Cup, where he will captain the U.S. team against Ernie Els and the Internationals. Like something out of an old Nike commercial, golfers basically shanked their practice balls when they saw Woods glide across the driving range to greet a group of local juniors.

Among the excitable juniors were Hugo Ruffel, 10, and Jemima Heughan, 11, who enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime experience of playing the short par-3 with the 80-time PGA Tour winner.

An Australian commercial TV network was on hand to capture the rare content.

“He’s amazing, like the best golfer ever,” Jemima said.

Tiger Woods will lead the U.S. Presidents Cup team to Melbourne a year from now.

Tiger Woods will lead the U.S. Presidents Cup team to Melbourne a year from now.

In the wake of the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, Woods made the 25-hour, 10,000-mile dash to Australia. He was visibly jetlagged at Royal Melbourne but also gracious and warm. This time next year many members of Capt. Woods’s squad will make the same haul from the Hero to Melbourne for the 13th staging of the biennial Presidents Cup. (There is speculation that the scheduling of the Hero will be modified to end on Saturday next year to allow U.S.  players, caddies and families time to charter a flight to Australia and arrive Monday morning.)

Woods could join Hale Irwin (1994) as just the second playing captain in Presidents Cup history. He says if he is one of the auto-qualifiers when the team is finalized after the 2019 Tour Championship, he will perform dual roles in Melbourne.

“If I am part of the top eight, yes, I will play,” Woods told GOLF.com on Wednesday. “Obviously, it’s still a year out.”

Woods currently sits 16th in the standings, which are calculated using FedEx Cup points accrued during a weighted two-year period which started at the 2017 BMW Championship.

Woods, a veteran of eight Presidents Cups with a sparkling 6-2-0 record in singles, would also have the opportunity to use one of his four captain’s picks on himself.  “If I’m not [a qualifier], it’s up to myself, the vice-captains and the players [to determine] who we round out the team with,” he said.

“If we think it’s me, then how I can I best serve this team? Is it playing or just captaining? We’re going to figure that out when it’s time.”

This was Woods’s first trip to Australia since 2011, when he led the Australian Open in Sydney through 36 holes and finished third, before helping Fred Couples’ USA to a victory over Greg Norman’s Internationals at Royal Melbourne a week later.

He has a deep affection for Melbourne’s iconic Sandbelt courses, having won the 2009 Australian Masters at nearby Kingston Heath before finishing fourth in his title defense a year later. He also made his Presidents Cup debut at Royal Melbourne, in 1998 — the only edition the Internationals have won.

Woods said the Alister MacKenzie-designed West course at Royal Melbourne was as majestic as he remembered.

“This course is one of the most unique courses you can play; it’s so short, so fast and so tricky,” he said. “But it’s always been one of my favorites to come down here because we don’t often get chances to play venues like this.”