LOUISVILLE, KY. — Tom Watson, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, held a relaxed press conference on the eve of a PGA Championship that will determine the nine points-qualifiers for his team. Jovial and nostalgic by turns, the Hall of Fame golfer reminisced about past Ryder Cups, introduced three-time Ryder Cupper Steve Stricker as his third and final vice-captain, and dismissed the loss of highly-ranked Dustin Johnson (to a six-month suspension following a failed drug test) with a sympathetic, “I want him to get well.”
But some part of Watson’s brain had to be churning over the late arrival of Tiger Woods, who had just made a dramatic appearance at Valhalla Golf Club after three days of speculation about his surgically repaired back, which didn’t make it through the final round of last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Watson, if you need reminding, has said he plans to make Woods one of his three captain’s picks — but only if golf’s biggest draw is “healthy and playing well.”
The key question came midway through the press conference. “Regarding Tiger’s fitness,” asked Golf.com’s tallest correspondent, “are you content to evaluate that simply from conversations with Tiger, or do you need a doctor’s report?”
Watson didn’t flinch, nor did he hesitate. “Conversations with Tiger,” he replied. “He’s straight up with me.”
Watson’s reading of this line was so good that James Lipton couldn’t have found fault with it; so good that nobody in the interview room snorted in derision, not even the questioner. Which was amazing, because Watson knows as well as anyone that Woods is straight up with nobody about his injuries. A self-confessed control freak, Tiger will limp around for months, swearing he’s 100 percent, and then announce that he’s having knee surgery. He’ll go out and win a U.S. Open on a broken leg, but then withdraw from lesser tournaments with much vaguer complaints.
Watson as much as admitted to Tiger’s lack of transparency when he said he’d talked to the superstar “a couple of weeks ago by phone” and texted him, as well. “In fact, I texted him after he got hurt on Sunday and just wished him well. Hoped he got it figured out. Then he texted me back and said, ‘That’s what we’re trying to do, figure out what’s going on.’”
At that point, Watson was undoubtedly thinking, There are experts who can help with that, people with medical degrees and fancy machines that can see right through skin and bone. We all remember instances where a U.S. President went in for a routine colonoscopy and had the results delivered on national TV by a renowned proctologist in his sweat-stained greens, the historic latex gloves dangling from his waistband.
Woods’s medical condition, by way of contrast, is usually hinted at by his agent as he’s stepping into a car — or, as was the case on Monday at Valhalla, divined from the fact that his caddie is walking the course and making notes in his yardage book.
So forgive me if I think that Watson was just being diplomatic when he said he won’t need a professional evaluation of Woods’s condition. There’s no WAY he’s going to spend one of his three captain’s picks on a player’s word alone. He’d be derelict as captain if he didn’t talk directly to Tiger’s medical team, from the sawbones who re-arranged Tiger’s spine to the physical therapist who puts him on a table and twists him like a pretzel. Without their input, he would be guessing about Woods’s fitness for Gleneagles. And Tom Watson isn’t the guessing type.
Now I’ll snort in derision.