CHASKA, Minn. — This Tiger Woods coming out party might not look like much from the outside. There he is, in plain sight, in a role you never saw occupied by Ben Hogan or Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus: Ryder Cup assistant captain.
But behind closed doors, a variety of people have said they’ve seen a Tiger Woods they almost didn’t recognize. To boil down a half-dozen conversations and interviews on the subject to a single thought, this would be it: He wasn’t in a rush to go anywhere.
Normally, anytime Woods is in a contained area, even at private dinners for former champions at one of the four majors, Woods eats quickly and quietly, sometimes with one eye on the exit.
“Here, he’s paying attention to you, making you feel good about your game,” one player said. “The guy is the first or second best player of all time, and he’s telling you how good you are. You can’t help it, you’re walking around with your chest puffed out just that much more.”
Maybe this new generosity is a function of Woods being 40. Maybe it tells you that he must realize his days as a world-beater are over. Maybe he is tired of seeing Americans lose the Ryder Cup on such a regular basis and has figured out that there’s a role for him that does not involve hitting a shot.
One must always speculate with Woods because he so seldom offers meaningful insights into himself. Regardless, through two days of this three-day competition, the Americans have a 9.5-6.5 lead, and Woods has something to do with it. He has embraced the all-hands-on-deck team management concept in a significant way.
If you saw glimpses of Woods on TV, or if you were on the course, you saw nothing that would make you say this is a new day in the life and times of Tiger Woods. On the course, Woods was doing pretty much what the other nine assistants (each team has five) were doing. He was all over Hazeltine—sometimes in a cart, sometimes on foot—taking notes, sharing observations and information with his boss (Davis Love III) and offering encouragement, but only sparingly, to the U.S. players. How much could he tell them? His particular charges—four assistants were each assigned three players to look after—were Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth. Not exactly a group of insecure wallflowers.
But it was off the course, particularly back at the team hotel, a nondescript suburban Sheraton, that the players, the caddies, the wives and former captains saw the new Tiger Woods, who invited people to sit down and have a drink with him. Four years ago, when Woods last played in the Ryder Cup—possibly for the last time—various team members said they could tell Woods wanted to be one of the guys but really didn’t know how. He was the first player out the door heading home in the wake of the defeat at Medinah.
“Now,” said one person with access to the team room, “it’s like he actually wants to hear what you have to say.”
We apologize for the cryptic source descriptions. It’s Tiger: Anything you say about him publicly, even when it’s positive, can and will be used against you in a court of public opinion. And on the course, you’d never know anything was different. He was not interested in engaging in chitchat with fans. With his sunglasses on, you could not tell what was catching his eye. When he talked to players on the course, it was brief and to the point.
But this new period of intraclub glasnost has been brewing for a while. Night after night, for weeks and months now, Woods has been texting with Love, with Phil Mickelson, with the players in his pod. If he was on a texting roll—save your Donald Trump jokes—he might send as many as five texts in an hour. Love has not settled on a single two-man team on his lineup card without consulting with Woods. That includes the expected ones, like the Spieth-Reed Texas duo, and the unexpected ones, like the Saturday afternoon pairing of Ryan Moore and J.B Holmes, who (with some help from poor Lee Westwood and his balky putter) stole a full point on the final hole of a hard-fought match.
Love will tell you that the role of the captain is overrated and overstated, but he does do two important things: He decides who will play with whom, and where in the lineup they will go off. In the modern way of captaining—this will make Raymond Floyd and Tom Watson and Hal Sutton ill to read—there are two broad areas of study to determine the teams, the personality of the players and the statistical analysis of what they do well.
You’d expect Woods to be good on the numbers side of things. He is almost a savant with numbers. The surprise of the week has been the human side.
When he returns to PGA Tour play for the first time in 14 months in mid-October in Napa, Calif., you will most likely see an all-business Tiger Woods again. But by the time he’s the Ryder Cup captain in 2026 or whenever it is, well, you may not even recognize the man.