Tiger Woods embraces new role in Ryder Cup as leader
By Stephanie Wei under Hazeltine

A few months ago, a colleague and I mused over how Tiger Woods was spending his time. At that point, we weren’t sure if he was practicing or playing or how much he was able to do either because of his nagging back injury. We joked he was playing video games and being Mr. Mom. Oh, and he was definitely watching every minute of PGA Tour coverage on Golf Channel. Heck, he might have been tuning in for the Champions Tour, Tour and LPGA, as well!–seriously, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Well, turns out as of late Woods had fully embraced his role as one of five vice-captains under U.S. Ryder Cup head honcho Davis Love III. Don’t mistake Tiger for a glorified golf cart driver (actually, he isn’t even driving one this week — he has his own personal chauffeur in Notah Begay. He’s taken on a major leadership role as essentially the team’s strategist and tactician.

The Americans decided to employ Paul Azinger’s pod system from 2008, the last time the U.S. team managed to win the Ryder Cup. As a refresher, the 12 team members were divided into three groups of four. These pods played in all their practice rounds together and their partners in both formats fourballs and foursomes were some type of combination inside their groups.

This year the U.S. team is employing a rendition of Azinger’s approach, with Woods leading the process.

“He’s been amazingly involved,” said Love, referring to Woods, in mid-September after announcing the first three captain’s picks. “He’s been very thoughtful in the way that he’s handled the Tiger Woods factor of being an influence but also being a distraction.

“His openness of helping us with strategy, getting into how he prepares; that he’ll pick up the phone and call Phil Mickelson and work on things; that he’ll call Matt Kuchar — I gave him a list of guys to ask who they wanted to pick and who they wanted to play with. He’s just been willing to do anything we ask, just like Jim (Furyk) and Tom (Lehman) and Steve (Stricker).

“But his role has been more on strategy and more on helping us think out pairings and think out a game plan for actually playing the matches and playing the golf course.”

And Woods has been taking his job seriously (but I suppose you wouldn’t expect anything less — if he’s going to be involved with something, he’s going to do the best job possible. He was calling American player Brandt Snedeker so often that started making jokes about the extent of their relationship.

“He called me two weeks ago, you know, and started talking to me then,” said Snedeker of Woods. “We were on the phone for an hour and a half. Called me several times, and that’s not — to say it’s unusual to get a call from Tiger Woods would be pretty accurate. I don’t get a lot of those calls.

“Got to the point where I was joking around, like you’re calling me more than my wife is right now, we need to figure something out. But it’s great to have that kind of commitment and that kind of passion from a guy like Tiger. I think that’s something that gets lost.”

Woods’ conversations with Snedeker have ranged from the mental game to the physical and technical aspects.

“We’re talking about everything. How we are getting prepared as a team, how I should be getting prepared as an individual, what our thought processes should be, how we are going to come together as a team, why we haven’t been successful in the past and why we’re going to be successful going forward and things like that.

“He’s a 100 percent in. He’s probably spent more time in the last three weeks on this stuff than all of the other assistant captains put together. That’s the kind of guy he is and how much time — how much he cares about it. It’s infectious.”

It’s been obvious from various press conferences ranging from Captain Love’s to other players that Mickelson hasn’t been shy at all about sharing his thoughts and opinions on any and every decision involving the Ryder Cup.  Mickelson, as you may remember, was quite critical and vocal with his assessment of 2014 U.S. Captain Tom Watson. Following yet another loss to the European team at Gleneagles, the 46-year-old American, who is playing in his 11th straight Ryder Cup, slammed Watson for his leadership style and lack of organization and/or strategy in the post-U.S. team press conference. Which then led to the creation of the “Task Force”  (eventually becoming a “Committee”) — Phil and Tiger were both part of the 11-man team of match-play strategists, tasked with the goal of figuring out how to turn around their very poor, losing record to Europe in the last few decades in the biennial matches.

“You’ve got a bunch of vice captains that all are spending numerous hours on end every night trying to figure this thing out and getting together and doing all kind of stuff,” said Snedeker. “And I include Phil in that. Phil to me is a vice captain. He’s our sixth vice captain. He’s in there 100 percent.

“That’s infectious in the team room, when you have that many guys caring about one common goal and they are the best players of our generation. You’d better believe it’s going to motivate the rest of us to make sure we care as much and get our butts in gear and let’s get going. You know, tired of losing this thing.”

Snedeker isn’t the only member of the U.S. team that Woods was recently chatting with on a consistent basis.

“It’s been great,” said Mickelson. “The last few weeks, we’ve been talking on the phone multiple times a day. It’s been really exciting for us because we’ve been on so many teams for so many years, and to have this much input and involvement in the process, the way Davis has implemented everybody’s input, the way he’s brought everybody together and their ideas, has been truly an inclusive process and it’s been fun for Tiger and I to be a part of something like that.”

Love has referred to both Tiger and Phil as playing key leadership roles in this year’s Ryder Cup. The guys care about this event — they do a lot and they really want to start winning more often.

“Well, I think we all come into Ryder Cups as individuals the first year and we want to play five matches and we want to know when we are going to get the ball,” said Love. “And once you play it, you figure out, wait a minute, this is all about team.

“I think Phil figured it out; Tiger figured it out. They became team leaders. I’ll never forget Jack Nicklaus saying Phil was his MVP one year and he got zero points in The Presidents Cup, and Phil was a team leader and he figured out how to support his teammates and make his team better. That’s what Tiger has figured out, what Phil has figured out, and certainly Zach Johnson has figured it out in a lot of Ryder Cups.

“And we will have some young guys wondering what it’s all about, but those guys are going to teach them. And I think Jordan figured it out very quickly. He wants the ball; obviously he wants to go play, but he also wants — we all know that a team win takes precedent over individual needs or goals. Tiger and Phil are leaders in that.

Certainly this process over the last year has prepared all of us, me this year, whoever the next captains are of the next few Ryder Cups, it’s prepared us all better for being leaders and captains. But again, it didn’t take them a day, you know, for Tiger and Phil to take over in the team room to be telling the stories.

“My son and I were sitting all the way in the back behind Ryan Moore and Brooks Koepka and just listening and that’s what it’s all about. Those guys, we need to do the work behind the scenes to get them prepared. Those guys need to take leadership and go play, and Tiger and Phil are great at it.”

The task begins early Friday morning with the opening match teeing off at 7:30am local time. May the force be with the Americans.