During the chaotic celebration just moments after the United States clinched victory against Europe at the Ryder Cup last month, Zach Johnson was looking for somebody to hug. He was walking down the 18th hole at Hazeltine when he saw Tiger Woods — make that vice captain Tiger Woods — barreling toward him. “T sees me out of the corner of his eye and starts running at me,” Johnson recalled. “We had a big old hug. I was emotional; he was emotional.”
Then, Woods took off.
He was the assistant responsible for a quartet of team members that included Matt Kuchar, who was still playing in the last match on the course. As Woods quickly explained to Johnson following that tearful embrace, even though the overall result was decided, he still needed to oversee his man’s match to fruition.
That’s just one story about Woods’ first venture in a captaincy role, but there are plenty of others. Like the one about him calling captain Davis Love III with some ideas about potential Saturday pairings — before the roster was even finalized. Or the one about him teaming up with Jack Nicklaus during the week to poke fun at Love for a poor shot from years earlier. Or the one about Woods good-naturedly getting ribbed by team members in the aftermath for failing to play in each of the two U.S. victories this century.
“I told him, ‘All I know is that the last two Ryder Cups we won, you weren’t a part of, man,'” Brandt Snedeker recalled with a laugh. “Maybe we’ve got a trend going on.”
All of these stories about Woods’ time as an assistant are preceded and followed by connective tissue that tells more about his dedication to the role than any anecdote. He worked at it. He strategized. He formulated plans. And most importantly, despite what so many have often insisted in regard to his attitude toward this biennial competition, he cared — a lot.
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“He doesn’t do anything halfway — lift weights, ride bikes, whatever. He jumps in,” Love explained. “He was so focused and driven. I can just flip through his text messages and show you pictures of pairings, plan A, plan B, cold weather pairings versus hot weather, wet versus dry. No wonder the guy is so successful.”
If Love was the team’s general manager, then Woods was like the head coach calling the plays. Or maybe if Love was the head coach, then Woods was the offensive coordinator figuring out the X’s and O’s. There might not be a perfect analogy, but it’s clear that Woods’ role with the team was hardly ceremonial or lackadaisical.
“Tiger as an assistant, I think that raised a few eyebrows. I think folks were concerned about his level of involvement, but it was just the opposite. He was really a part of it,” said fellow vice captain Jim Furyk. “He was on top of pairings and ideas and lineups and orders, way, way, way ahead of time. He fully bought in.”
“He had situational options already on paper — practice rounds, formats, weather, Friday through Sunday,” Johnson added. “He was all-in. He was all-in with this team from Day 1.”
Woods’ impact extended beyond the details, too.
It’s no coincidence that he was assigned to the pod that included Patrick Reed — and perhaps no coincidence that Reed turned in one of the most impressive performances in Ryder Cup history with his childhood idol watching. “It was a big part of what Patrick Reed did that Tiger Woods was his guy,” Love explained. “Everybody had their role …. That was for a reason.”
“You look at some of those young guys on the team,” Furyk said. “They grew up idolizing Tiger Woods. He was the most dominant player in the history of golf at one time. Now he’s a captain. One of them said, ‘Wow, he’s actually our captain and he’s talking to us.’ They just looked up to him so much. They had him on this pedestal. They got to see him in the team room and be one of the guys pumping them up.”
For everything Woods meant to the team, the team — from all accounts — meant just as much to him. He wasn’t involved in the last U.S. victory in 2008, which means it had been 17 years since he’d been part of a winning Ryder Cup side.
“I think it really meant a lot to Tiger to be a part of something like that,” Furyk said. “All of us have done stuff on our own and accomplished different feats individually, but it’s special to do something as a group and I think it meant a lot to every one of us to win, and I think it meant a lot to Tiger to have those guys embrace him like they did.”
All of which leads to one more story about Woods from that week. It was hours after the team had clinched the win, after the champagne spraying and the closing ceremonies and the media interviews. In the midst of the afterparty, Woods pulled a few players together and recalled an old memory. This one was from 1999, when the U.S. had won at Brookline in come-from-behind fashion. Woods went to sleep before most of his teammates that night, only to be awoken by Payne Stewart, who implored him to return to the party.
Stewart told him to remember that night, because it was so special. Woods recalled this story as he huddled with those players Sunday night after the win. He echoed those words that Stewart had told him so many years ago.
“Remember this night,” he told them. “This is a special night.”