SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France — Oh, this Frankie Molinari — he’s got Tiger’s number!
It was on July 1 that the Italian won Tiger’s tournament in Washington, by eight. (Shouldn’t Tiger win Tiger’s tournament, named for an American mortgage company, on a steamy summer day in D.C.? And, if not Tiger, at least some other American?)
Then, a couple weeks later, Molinari flat-out stole that British Open from right under Tiger’s Niked cap. And let’s not even dwell on the weirdness of the Woods-Molinari halved singles match that ended the day, and sealed an American loss, six long years ago, at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah. Just Google “Tiger Woods” and “concession” if you need a refresher on that whole thing.
Which brings us to Day I of this first-in-France Ryder Cup. Woods and his playing partner, Patrick Reed of the San Antonio Patrick Reeds, were 2 up through 10 holes against Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood. (TV’s Billions has hedge-fund golf all over its scripts, but did you catch that moment in Season 3 when they included a snippet of “I was born in San Antone” by Garrett T. Capps? Talk about good use of reverb!) As every schoolchild knows, 2 up for Tiger Woods in match play is like Alabama being up two TDs late in the second half. Roll Tide. But then Frankie goes cross-country on 11. He followed up with another birdie on 12 and before you could get to a second verse of that heinous Ole song the match was even. Do these Europeans not know what Woods did as a match-play assassin as an amateur? The nerve.
By the 13th green, Woods looked spent. Since the Sunday-into-Monday overnight Atlanta-to-Paris flight, the Americans have been aware that their two fortysomethings, Woods and Phil Mickelson, were running on black coffee and adrenaline. In years past, after winning the Claret Jug or some other cool prize, Woods has talked about celebrating with adult beverages. After winning in East Lake, and anticipating the team flight here, a reporter asked Woods, “Are you buying drinks?” Woods said, and it was a different and likely telling answer, “We’re going to — I think we’re all going to sleep well.”
All through that back nine on Friday, Woods really didn’t look like himself. For one thing, he was wearing team-issued white pants. You never see him wearing white pants. Then, as he stood on the 14th tee, waiting to play fourth and last, he was breathing through his open mouth. You never see him breathing through his open mouth.
It’s understandable. After the year he’s had — all the press conferences, the autographs, the text messages, the post-round ice baths, the mornings on the range after dropping his kids off at school, the grinding-it-out in hot weather in an all-out effort to reclaim a place in the game — it’s more than understandable.
His tee shot on the par-3 downhill, over-a-pond 16th might have been a shocker, but it’s not when you see it through the prism of exhaustion. The Europeans, still one up, had the honor. The pin was tucked, front right, about 15 feet over a bulkhead. Kid Tommy played first and did his job: hole high, left and safe, maybe 25 feet from the hole. Molinari followed with nearly the same shot. They’d have two chances but that’s all they had and that’s all they needed. Then came Reed and he did his job, his ball finishing about 15 feet below the hole. He gave Tiger a green light. Now it was showtime. Tiger time.
It looked like Woods was trying to hit a cut shot into the wind but the swing had no speed to it and the ball landed not with a thud but a plop. Suddenly, he was a bystander. He didn’t even bother to try to make his three and why should he? One hole later, the match was over. Three and one. A drumming, really. Frankie and Tommy. Let’s not forget Tommy, the man who had a putt for a Sunday 62 at the U.S. Open this year, who made that birdie putt on 16 with Woods watching. Woods didn’t do a whole lot of talking during the round. He never does, although he did have some nice exchanges with Fleetwood. Years ago, when Thomas Bjorn, the European captain, was in his playing prime, Woods would talk to him some when they were paired together. The lengthiest conversation Woods had with Reed came on the watery par-5 15th.
Woods, recounting the conversation later, said to Reed, “The worst score I’m going to make over here, with my wedge game right now, is probably par. I’ll hit up there inside 10 feet. I’ll make par and that should free you up to be a little more aggressive and make birdie.” Then Woods, with a candor you seldom used to hear from him, said, “He hit a bad shot, in the water.”
You can use this phrase at every Ryder Cup, in every session: It seemed like a good plan at the time. Woods and Reed were supposed to be the American cleanup hitters in these Friday morning better-ball matches. Condi Rice was out there, cheering on the boys in her fluffy Team USA quilted jacket, looking for a fourth U.S. better-ball point, schlepping through the lush rough with scores of photographers, reporters, WAGs and assistant captains. It just didn’t happen. Golf and life both.
Maybe you were surprised on Thursday, when Jim Furyk, the U.S. captain, announced that Woods would be paired with Reed. After all, the reigning Masters champion — two parts bulldog, one part fire hydrant — had been so successful with Jordan Spieth in the 2014 and ’16 Ryder Cups. Since 2014, they had been partners 11 times in the last two Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups, compiling a record of seven wins, one loss and three ties.
But here’s a thing you should know: Yes, Jim Furyk, at the end of the day, signed the U.S. lineup card. But he did more team polling to get it filled than George Gallup did in the 1936 presidential election. (FDR over Alf Landon.) Through the FedEx events, on the flight over, during the practice rounds, in text messages and private conversations, Furyk learned that he had 10 or 11 American players who wanted to be paired with Tiger Woods. (Dustin Johnson, aka King Whatever, will play with anybody.)
But Patrick Reed, who stole Tiger’s red-and-black Sunday look long before he won his first Tour event in 2013, wanted to play with Tiger the most. Plus, for all his talent, he’s not exactly an easy golfer to matchup. You know the deal: He practices with his earbuds in. As for Woods, any golf with a partner is, at the end of the day, not really his thing. Jack Nicklaus was the same way.
Nobody could have been too surprised when both Reed and Woods were given Friday afternoon off. In the afternoon, 48-year-old Phil Mickelson was paired with Tiger’s protégé (of a kind), Bryon DeChambeau. (They lost, to Sergio Garcia and Alex Noren, 5&4.) Nobody could have been too surprised to see Frankie and Tommy getting a second call to action. (They won, 5&4, over Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth.)
At the end of his 17-hole round, Woods was asked, “Will you go work on anything?”
“I’m not going to work on anything,” he said. If he sounded tired, it’s because he was, is and has reason to be.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]