Ryder Cup focus: Tiger Woods set to make United States team in Paris

Tiger Woods: Expected to return to the Ryder Cup side
Tiger Woods: Expected to return to the Ryder Cup side

In the second of a series of columns, Ben Coley looks at Tiger Woods and his expected return to the US Ryder Cup side.

Five days before, he'd been as big as 16/1 to make the US Ryder Cup team. Five hours before, he'd been 11/2. The yak, as one fellow Sporting Life columnist terms it, had filtered through: Tiger Woods was a golfer again, and that could mean all sorts of things.

Yet we still didn't know. Jason Day and Patrick Reed and Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka had all said Tiger could play, but there had been false dawns before. It was time for some hard evidence, and when Tiger Woods made his return to action in the Hero World Challenge, it was hard not to get carried away.

Come the end of this glorified exhibition on an expansive and easy golf course, Woods had eight players in front of him and eight behind. On the scorecard, it was little more than a promising return to action. But in the final analysis, which looked beyond finishing position and to the way he made his score, the speed at which he swung, the conclusion was overwhelmingly positive.

Now, Woods was a 5/2 chance and he'd stay that side of evens through a solid but unspectacular 23rd at Torrey Pines and a missed cut at Riviera. Then came a return to his adopted home state of Florida, 12th place in the Honda, and even-money before the market disappeared - perhaps for good.

On Thursday, as Woods prepared to tee it up in the Wells Fargo Championship, Sky Bet told me they made him 1/20 to make the Ryder Cup team. Case closed, gamble landed.

Change the record

The general consensus is that Tiger Woods has never been much of a team player, and that he's never been very good in the Ryder Cup as a result, and there is some truth in it. Given how dominant he has been when playing only for himself, the fact that Woods has never carried the United States to victory in this competition can be seen as damning.

What's also damning is that their best two performances since Brookline - indeed, their only two wins - have come without Woods the player. In 2008, when he'd been sidelined post-US Open heroics, they were dominant at Valhalla; in 2016, when Woods took part only as a vice captain as his rehabilitation continued, ditto at Hazeltine.

There's little doubt his influence in the team room played a part two years ago, but it can also be argued that this new batch of cocksure US youngsters benefited from making this team their own and the same was somewhat true a decade ago, when the heir apparent Anthony Kim led from the front without Woods' shadow cast over him. At Valhalla, Paul Azinger's four-men-in-a-pod approach was credited for their success, but would it have worked had the main man been there? Nobody puts Tiger in the corner.

Yet any criticism of Woods' team record should acknowledge that the list of players whose results in the Ryder Cup are a step-up on their personal achievements is both short and made up largely of those who have not competed at the very top of the sport. When a player of Woods' capabilities has to share a scorecard or a ball, there is no possibility except that results will suffer.


Tiger Woods: Ryder Cup record

Overall (W-L-H): 13-17-3

Singles: 4-1-2

Foursomes: 4-8-1

Four-balls: 5-8-0


It should acknowledge that Woods has been born into an era of European dominance, too. Time may show that he had a role in this, that Europe thriving as underdogs owed plenty to names like Tiger Woods on the United States team sheet. Yet there is also evidence of poor captaincy and of a delayed response to what Europe were doing and why it was working; of a desperation not to function as a team, but to get Tiger winning five matches and doing much of the job on his own.

And it must also acknowledge that Woods does not own a particularly bad Ryder Cup record. He's lost more matches than he's won, yes, but his points percentage is twice that of Bubba Watson and bettered by only two United States players who've featured in a comparable number of Ryder Cups: Zach Johnson and Phil Mickelson.

It is telling that Woods hasn't lost a singles match since his 1997 debut on foreign soil, against Costantino Rocca. Since then only Jesper Parnevik and Francesco Molinari have stopped him winning, with Paul Casey among his victims. In a period of US struggle, singles records of 4-1-3 (W-L-H) are very hard to find.

It is also telling that in the Presidents Cup, where the United States have dominated, Woods has a perfectly good record. It is superior to Phil Mickelson's, the only player to have featured in more matches, and in percentage terms he's ahead of Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and many more of the youngsters who are guaranteed to feature at Le Golf National later this year.

Woods is not as effective in a team as he is on his own. Golf is an individual sport where thriving on that solo accountability is part of what makes great players rather than good ones, and it's one of the many things that set him apart from the rest. Viewed in this context, his record when playing for his country is nowhere near as bad as it is often portrayed.

New approach

Despite that, the USA would of course benefit from Tiger improving his points return, and that is an intriguing possibility: could Woods, who took to the role of vice captain so well, become a better and more effective Ryder Cup golfer now that that he has lost some of his intensity as an individual?

One of the most fascinating aspects of this latest incarnation has been seeing Woods the human, a 40-something dad who is happy firing jokes back and forth not only with competitors, but with reporters and fans. At his best, Woods could use the crowd when he needed to, but they were an asset he so rarely required and his relationship with the public was arm's length at best.

Now, he appears a different man, one humbled by the reality which approached him last year: that he may never play golf again. Woods II has a new lease of life and while still capable of turning up the intensity, suddenly winning is almost everything, where once it was simply everything. His reaction to finishing second in the Valspar and spurning an equally good chance at Bay Hill was not of fury. Tiger Woods was just happy to compete.

It seems clear that Woods is no longer feared by his competitors in the way he was, and nor should he be. That may prove translatable: no longer should the player paired with him in the Ryder Cup feel under such pressure not to let him down, and no longer should they feel unworthy. Suddenly, there might be a queue to play with Tiger.

Pick a pair

Therein lie the key questions for US captain Jim Furyk, should he select Woods or should he qualify for the team outright: how often should Woods play, and who should he play with?

Part of the failure of previous captains has been their inability to find Woods the right partner. They've tried friends and they've tried enemies, but perhaps not the players best equipped to stand alongside him. Fortunately for Furyk, so strong is his squad that he could stumble upon the right choice by accident.

The last time Woods played alongside someone not named Stricker or Furyk was 2004, and that's another important point when judging his record. Neither player has thrived in the Ryder Cup, both having shown signs of mental fragility later in their careers, and Woods has surely been hamstrung by playing with them.

Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker at Celtic Manor
Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker at Celtic Manor

This time, now that he is in the role of elder statesman, it is hoped that Woods might be unleashed with Justin Thomas, alongside whom he plays a lot of practice rounds. If not Thomas, then Dustin Johnson; if not Johnson, then how about Patrick Reed? Two Masters champions, one who prefers a draw and one who prefers a fade, would be nicely matched at an all-round test like that which awaits in Paris.

More likely - and this should trouble USA backers - is that Woods gets stuck with the new version of Stricker and Furyk: Matt Kuchar. It would be dangerous for Furyk to view their Presidents Cup success as a reliable guide and while Kuchar may thrive under the conditions of Le Golf National, it would be a waste of this new version of Woods to place him alongside one so lacking in weaponry.

The best use of Woods would be alongside someone whose game is fearsome, if not quite as fearsome as his name. It should be Thomas, who will be making his debut in the Ryder Cup, and whose partnership with Rickie Fowler at last year's Presidents Cup wasn't quite impressive enough, despite its success, to consider its renewal a done deal.

Whoever gets the nod to play with him, the overwhelming likelihood is that Woods will play in Paris. From where he was a year ago, that would be a remarkable turnaround.

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