Tiger Woods hasn’t appeared on the PGA Tour this season, but he’s at Hazeltine this week. Only, he’s not stalking fairways and making birdies to help the United States defeat Europe in the Ryder Cup. He’s riding in a golf cart, wearing an earpiece and sunglasses, serving as a vice-captain to Davis Love III.
Woods was named a vice-captain last November, about three months after his last start at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro. He spent the 2015-16 season recovering from yet another back surgery and was never a serious candidate to earn one of Love III’s four captain’s picks (but that didn’t stop U.S. team member Matt Kuchar from playfully planting the seed recently after Woods announced he’ll return to competition Oct. 13-16 at the Safeway Open).
It’s the second Ryder Cup in a row Woods has missed and third in the last five.
Woods has embraced his role as vice-captain. Love III called him the team’s “tactician” and a “future captain.” The owner of 14 major championships is helping the team devise a strategy for Hazeltine, a course where he finished runner-up in two PGA Championships this century. The men who beat him (Rich Beem, 2002; Y.E. Yang, 2009) are destined to live on forever in Trivia Nights across the land.
Woods is also helping Love III make the team pairings, hoping to find combinations that will send the U.S. to its third victory since 1999.
PHOTOS: TIGER WOODS' RYDER CUP CAREER
If anyone knows the value of finding the right partner, it’s Woods, who had 12 different partners in his seven Ryder Cup appearances. His record in the foursomes and fourball portion of the matches is 9-16-1. He’s 4-1-2 in singles. It's a difficult hole to explain in the career of a golfer who spent more than 600 weeks as No. 1 in the world from 1997 to 2009. Woods has played on one winning Ryder Cup side - he was part of the comeback at Brookline in ‘99, going 2-3 but beating Andrew Coltart in the Sunday singles.
Of the dozen partners Woods tried, he has a career winning record with only two of them. Love III (2-1 in ‘02 and ‘04) and his pal from Southern California junior golf, Chris Riley (1-0, in ‘04). His success with Riley coupled with a 1-1 mark with Steve Pate in '99 fed a theory that Woods thrived when paired with the "11th or 12th man" on the U.S. team. Because they had the game's best alongside, their game thrived.
Still, Woods failed to win a point with five partners.
Various captains tried every conceivable formula to find Woods a steady partner, although it would’ve been interesting to see which “pod” Paul Azinger placed Woods in at Valhalla in 2008 when the U.S. won. Woods missed that Ryder Cup with a leg injury.
In his first Ryder Cup in 1997, the obvious partner was Mark O’Meara, who was Woods’ neighbor in the Isleworth community in Orlando, mentor and frequent practice round companion. But their chemistry didn’t click on the course in Valderrama, producing a 1-3 record as the U.S. lost 14.5 to 13.5.
“Super” pairings didn't fare well either either. The captain Ben Crenshaw paired Woods with David Duval in 1999 when they held the top two spots in the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR). They lost to European stalwarts Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, 1-down.
WATCH: Love III talks Tiger Woods and the Vice Captains
Of course the 2004 pairing with Phil Mickelson was a disaster - twice. Hal Sutton sent the world’s best two players out together in the opening match of Friday fourballs at Oakland Hills. Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington beat them 2 & 1 and they lost to Clarke and Westwood in foursomes in the afternoon, setting in motion the Americans’ worst home loss in Ryder Cup history (18.5 to 9.5). Woods and Mickelson, by the way, are tied for the most matches lost (17) in U.S. Ryder Cup team history.
Woods’ partner problem seemed to be solved in 2006. He and close friend Jim Furyk played all four matches together, splitting them. But any individual results were lost in the shuffle of yet another European romp.
In 2010, Woods teamed with another accurate veteran, Steve Stricker, one of the Tour’s best putters. They finished 2-1, which is the only winning team record in Woods’ seven Ryder Cup appearances.
Love III was the captain in 2012 at Medinah and selected Stricker with one of his four picks. It was clear Woods had finally found his ideal partner. Until it was unclear. Woods and Stricker promptly lost their first three matches and Love III kept both on the sidelines for the Saturday afternoon matches.
When he turned pro in 1996, fresh off winning three consecutive U.S. Junior championships and three consecutive U.S. Amateur championships at match play, many saw Woods as what the U.S. needed to start dominating the Ryder Cup again. It hasn’t worked out that way, which has already sparked heated debate this week. It’s easy to speculate he may never compete in the matches as a player again.
Regardless, the captain Love III, four other vice-captains, 12 players and a nation of golf fans hope his decision making and presence in the team room can turn the Americans into winners again.