He’s back, or he’s not back. Or it’s all about his back. The golf world wonders and waits once again on Tiger Woods.
Hours after the sport had its finest day of the year, the American Ryder Cup captain, Tom Watson, held a news conference to talk about the nine players who officially qualified for his team in the wake of a breathtaking P.G.A. Championship. Guess who was the major topic of conversation?
No, not Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson or Rickie Fowler. Don’t be silly.
Here’s a hint: He finished 71st in the 2014 Ryder Cup standings and missed the cut at the P.G.A. Perhaps it felt as if we had seen the last of Woods this year when he left the golf course on Friday, limping, forlorn and his game in shambles. Woods indeed knew he would not be playing — or was not eligible for — the remaining PGA Tour events this season. But Watson made it plain that he still had Tiger on his mind in a significant way.
“He is Tiger Woods, and he brings a lot to the team,” Watson said of Woods’s Ryder Cup chances. “If he has the ability to play and he’s healthy, he brings a lot to the team. I’d be a fool not to consider him.”
It is roughly six weeks until the Ryder Cup in Scotland, and on Sept. 2, Watson must name his three remaining at-large picks for the team. What transpires next is a 21-day boot camp in which Woods tries to prove himself fit and skilled enough for golf’s most demanding and pressure-filled competition. And since nothing about Woods’s career has been routine for the past five years, his audition for a Ryder Cup spot will not be on the golf course. Watson will essentially take Woods’s word about the condition of his balky back and his erratic golf game.
“I can’t assess his medical condition, and I honestly can’t assess how he’s playing,” Watson said. “It really is going to be having to come from information from Tiger himself. But again, I don’t make this comment loosely. He is Tiger Woods.”
O.K., this might all sound a little nutty. Have Watson and Woods signed a reality television show contract? “Tom and Tiger: Destination Scotland.”
But know this. Watson is a serious-minded, wise, golf-hardened man. He is not bending over backward for Woods out of personal empathy or benevolence, because the two have never been close.
At the same time, Watson is staring across the Atlantic Ocean at one of the most fearsome European Ryder Cup teams ever. The Europeans have Rory McIlroy, who is far and away the best player on the planet. The team also has Martin Kaymer, the reigning United States Open champion with a formidable Ryder Cup resume; Henrik Stenson, ranked third in the world; Sergio Garcia, another Ryder Cup veteran who is having his best season in years; and Justin Rose, a steely-eyed competitor who is ranked fifth in the world. That’s just the top of the European lineup.
With all that firepower and experience waiting to greet him in Scotland, does Watson trust the 2014 statistics and results that tell him that dozens of young, untested American golfers are the most suited for the Ryder Cup crucible? Or does he trust in the body of work Woods has compiled for most of the past 20 years? What would the nine American players currently on the roster, including, for example, Mickelson or Fowler, say?
Watson was asked point-blank if he trusted Woods.
“Absolutely,” Watson answered.
RECORD NOT STELLAR
Woods’s Ryder Cup record is not stellar. He is 13-14-2 over all. But Woods, who was a great match-play individual competitor as an amateur, is also 4-1-1 in Ryder Cup singles.
Listen to Watson’s words. He is not dissuaded about Woods’s poor play lately. “Obviously, Tiger has not been playing well,” Watson said. “But I think it’s been a result, as you well know, of his injury and his coming back from back surgery. It comes down to whether he can physically play and is he playing well? Right now, he can’t play 36 holes in a day, we all know that.”
But Watson has three weeks. His team has been decimated by injuries and personal crisis. Jason Dufner, a sturdy, mentally tough player, has a neck problem that caused him to withdraw from the P.G.A.
“I saw Jason Friday,” Watson said. “He didn’t look too good.”
Matt Kuchar, who qualified for the team, missed the P.G.A. because of a back problem. Dustin Johnson, who might have been expected to be one of the team’s stars, has taken a voluntary leave for “personal challenges.”
Bubba Watson, the Masters champ, has not been in the top 10 of any event since April. Patrick Reed, who also qualified for the team, has one top-10 finish since March. Jordan Spieth missed the cut at the P.G.A. and finished 49th the week before that.
Stealing the show
Is there any wonder Watson is leaving a light on in the window for Tiger Woods?
“I’m going to monitor the situation,” Watson said.
Later, Watson likened his job to being a stage manager.
“I set the stage for these guys to go out and compete,” he said. “They are the actors. I’m looking for the guys who remember their lines the best and who want to be there at the end with the curtain call, getting that standing ovation.”
One guy, even in absentia, is still stealing the show. He lingers in the wings. The golf world awaits his next act.