James Fairey of Leicester, England, and nine of his fellow Euros were dressed from court jester hats to tasseled toes in the visiting team’s colors. Meanwhile, a familiar American figure with 14 majors quietly trailed the Ryder Cup action as the final group in Friday morning’s foursome matches reached the third hole at Hazeltine National Golf Club.
“We love you, Tiger!” Fairey and his friends yelled.
Tiger Woods tipped his cap.
“It’s weird seeing him out there but not playing,” Fairey said of the U.S. team’s 40-year-old vice captain, who hasn’t played competitively since August 2015. “And he doesn’t have the best Ryder Cup record, has he? So including him in this vice president position seems a bit ridiculous. He’s a terrible team player but fantastic by himself.”
As a Ryder Cup player, Woods is 13-17-3. But in his debut as a Ryder Cup scream decoy, he crushed it. Heck, he drew more hoots and hollers than Paulina Gretzky, who got more neck-spraining head turns walking inside the ropes than her husband, Dustin Johnson, got for teaming with Matt Kuchar on a 5 and 4 rout of Lee Westwood and Thomas Pieters.
It was Westwood who told ESPN earlier in the week that Woods “could have an adverse effect in the team room [because] people have always seemed to try to do too much when they have partnered with him.” It also was Westwood who played so poorly in the alternate-shot format that poor Pieters had to hit three from the tee when Westy lost his tee ball without clearing the hazard on No. 7.
Woods, sporting a beard and wearing sunglasses and the American team’s red, white and blue windbreaker, mostly kept his distance in the fairway. He wore an earpiece in his right ear to be in contact with captain Davis Love III. And when he needed a ride from hole to hole, he hopped in a cart with friends Notah Begay, a former PGA Tour player, and Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish fame.
Woods has played Hazeltine twice. Both times, he finished runner-up in a major. But if he’s haunted by the place, he never would have heard the ghosts above the outpouring of love from the massive galleries on Friday morning.
On the fourth hole, seven people yelled, “Tiger!” before Woods got 100 yards from the tee. At that point, the yells morphed into a group chant of “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” There was a “Love you, Tiger!”, an “Attaboy, Tiger!” and a “See you soon, Tiger!”
There also was a Tiger Woods fist pump. It came from behind the eighth green when Johnson drained a birdie putt to put the Americans 5-up.
From there, Woods followed the group to the ninth tee. As they passed the NBC Sports VIP village, another sports icon named Michael Jordan leaned over the railing to say hello to his friend.
The love for Woods continued until the match ended on the 14th green. Woods gave Kuchar a chest bump and Johnson a handshake. A fan yelled, “Good coaching, Tiger!” And, hey, how often does a team make only four birdies and win 5 and 4?
Love and his players have said all week that Woods hasn’t been a distraction. Woods has even absorbed some good-natured ribbing with a self-deprecating sense of humor, the team has said.
Asked what it is Woods actually is doing this week, Jimmy Walker joked, “I hope guys are asking him to run and go get [food] for them, even if they don’t want it.”
When the Americans got their team photo taken, Woods assumed he was part of the picture and joined the lineup. When the photographer asked Woods to kindly step aside, a chuckle reportedly was had by all.
“He’s been very thoughtful,” said Love, “both in the way that he’s handled the Tiger Woods factor of being an influence but also [not] being a distraction.”
Of course, there’s only so much Tiger can do without his sticks. Johnson and Kuchar lost 3 and 2 with Woods and his 14 majors trailing them again in the afternoon.