U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III has planned for nearly every conceivable contingency during his 17 months back on the job, including this one: His team features four of the world’s top-10 ranked players and none of them — not Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed nor Rickie Fowler — might be its biggest attraction come competition week.
That’s because Tiger Woods is back.
Absent from public view since August 2015, Woods recently announced he intends to play again at October’s season-opening event in Napa, Calif. But before he gets there, Woods will serve as one of Love’s four vice captains in the upcoming Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club.
With so much patriotic pageantry to sense already, the big-top biennial match-play circus this time around will offer fans watching Woods watch golf.
“We have a strategy for him at the Ryder Cup, too,” Love said. “We know this is going to be different. It’s a lot different than Davis Love being the assistant captain for Corey Pavin [in 2010]. Obviously people recognized me, but if I’m driving a cart it won’t create a stir. We’re going to have to do a little more planning for Tiger Woods when he gets out there on the course.”
Love calls Woods his “tactician,” a man who once thought his way around a golf course perhaps like no other and now has spent weeks and weeks devising player pairings and lineup orders Love will rely upon.
“Tiger looks at things from maybe a little bit higher viewpoint than all of us sometimes,” Love said.
Included are pairings for the Ryder Cup’s two separate formats the first two days and just where each pairing fits best among the four American groups teeing off each morning and afternoon.
“He has really thought all of this through,” U.S. 11-time Ryder Cup veteran Phil Mickelson said. “I’m really impressed.”
Winner of 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour events, Woods curiously has a losing record — 13-17-3 — in seven Ryder Cups. But his absence since the 2015 Wyndham Championship has demonstrated professional golf, for all its great young players, lacks the same steam and whistles without him.
Love called Woods a “ghost” on the worldwide golf landscape these past 13 months.
“You miss the buzz he creates at tournaments,” said Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the world’s third-ranked player who grew up just like those of his generation idolizing Woods. “He brings an aura and an atmosphere to a tournament that no one else in golf can bring.”
U.S. team players Spieth, Reed, Fowler and others — maybe everybody except for Mickelson — are from McIlroy’s generation and spent their youths watching Woods win major after major. Johnson, Spieth and Fowler all have had dinner occasionally with Woods since he accepted the vice captain position last November.
“The domination he has had, his knowledge of the game, how to play, it’s going to be great,” Johnson said. “He has always been very good in the team rooms. I’ve been on teams with him and I enjoy it. He already has been texting me a bunch about it.”
Love calls Woods’ presence and voice in the team room and roaming the course in a golf cart invaluable.
“I’ve told Tiger, ‘All we have to do at the right time is have you say one thing to these guys,’ ” Love said. “They just want Tiger to be on their team. Everybody wants to play with Tiger. Everyone wants to be around Tiger. Everybody wants to ride around in the cart with him.
“He’s Michael Jordan. He’s Wayne Gretzky. You just want him on your team.”
A 2009 sex scandal altered his public image and with swing changes and injuries changed the course of his career as well. Those injuries have included back surgery and a follow-up procedure since he last publicly struck a ball.
Woods hasn’t won a major championship since the 2008 U.S. Open or a PGA Tour event since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
At age 40, he remains four major victories behind Jack Nicklaus’ career 18, a record Woods has chased since he was a child.
The best ever?
When McIlroy looks at those many years when Woods was at its best, he sees nobody who ever played better.
“There have been a handful of great athletes in the world in my lifetime — or any of our lifetimes — who have put up numbers and consistent years like Tiger did basically for a 10-year period,” McIlroy said. “An athlete’s career usually is a 10-year span where you try to make the most of it, and what he did in those 10 years, whenever he doesn’t do that again people are going to say, ‘What’s wrong?’
“People forget how good he was. Those 10 years is the best stretch of golf we have ever seen on the planet by anyone. I don’t care what anyone says about Jack Nicklaus’ record or anyone else. I think people need to remember he has been — and is — the greatest player who ever played the game, maybe not by record but by that 10-year stretch of what he did.”
Named to the U.S. team last week, Matt Kuchar caused a small internet storm when he suggested — jokingly, presumably — that Woods could be named the team’s final playing member next week. Calling it “hearsay” and “rumor,” Kuchar said, “Gosh, imagine that, Tiger Woods playing for Team USA, being a captain’s pick, that would be incredible.”
Love responded in kind with his own jokes but never actually said no to the possibility.
Love did say he doesn’t worry Woods will overshadow his team or players in the week that is to come at Hazeltine. He said Woods wanted to attend last week’s announcement of captain’s picks but has “gone out of his way” to make sure he doesn’t distract from the team.
“He’s doing what he can to make it easier for the team,” Love said. “We’re going to have to do a little more planning for Tiger when he gets out there. He thinks he’s just going to get out and walk around, but we’re going to have to give him a leash, make sure we know where he is. This is Tiger Woods, you know?”