Tiger Woods arrived at Ridgewood Country Club on a bright Tuesday morning.
The Northern Trust was starting to gear up at this tree-lined New Jersey safe haven about 20 miles northwest of downtown Manhattan.
It would mark Woods’ first FedEx Cup Playoffs appearance since 2013, a little more than a week after his Sunday charge to finish solo second at the PGA Championship in mid-August.
He made it to the driving range at 9:35 a.m. wearing a thin-striped white polo, gray pants and gray hat. Patrick Reed was already there, and Woods immediately went over to slap hands and say what’s up. Five minutes later, Jordan Spieth dropped in to get ready on Woods’ left.
A few days later, Woods was finishing up on the sixth green in Round 2.
He spotted Bryson DeChambeau, a frequent practice-round partner who was near the green after a big miss off the fifth tee. DeChambeau waved at him like Forrest Gump greeting Lieutenant Dan, and Woods started cracking up.
This is Woods’ scene now and these are his guys. He’s completely embraced this generation of his own creation. He’s really gotten to know them over the last few years. Had some of them over to his house.
That’s how the younger players know Woods, and it’s totally normal.
Players from older generations knew a different Woods. Some of them sound like they can’t believe what they’re seeing.
“He’s much more approachable,” said eight-time Tour winner Fred Funk, who teamed with Woods on the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup squad. “He seems to have a much bigger circle of trust than he did before. … Now he’s pretty much engaging everybody and even engaging Phil (Mickelson). Those two are friends, which is something I don’t think anybody thought would ever happen.”
This has all been building toward something, even though no one recognized it until recently.
Woods has competed against many of them for the first time this year at age 42, stacking up better than anyone could have imagined when he returned
from a spinal fusion.
They know the legend of Tiger Woods.
They’ve come to know him as a man.
This month in Paris they’ll get to know him as a U.S. Ryder Cup teammate.
And word has it the young guys already are trying to get dibs on Woods as a four-ball and foursomes partner.
“I can tell you it has his full attention,” said Zach Johnson, who played on three Ryder Cup teams with Woods. “Whether he’s playing or captaining, it doesn’t matter. He is constantly thinking about it. He is constantly piecing things together and picking things apart from a preparation standpoint.”
Much of this started with Woods’ role as a vice-captain for the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine and 2017 Presidents Cup at Liberty National.
He opened up in the team room and obsessed over pairings scenarios, coming up with backup plans for backup plans for backup plans in the months leading up to Hazeltine.
“Being part of the last two teams really gave me a chance to know the younger generation,” Woods said. “These guys were coming in when I was on the way out, so I got a chance to get to know them and their games, and their families, and it’s been a lot of fun for me.”
U.S. captain Jim Furyk announced him as a vice-captain for Paris without hesitation before he was considered a likely playing option.
“He’s priceless, to be honest with you,” Furyk said. “He’s been really a big help to our captains in both 2016 and 2017 from a strategy perspective, from personnel, personalities, and also really serving on the golf course. I mean, walking with players.”
I think it’s been a big boost having the best player maybe to ever live following your group and being there for support.”
That’s when Woods says he first really got to know guys like Spieth, Reed and Justin Thomas. He completely bought in, even though he wasn’t used to being a spectator with no control inside the ropes.
“I remember in ’16, when I was playing and he wasn’t, he said, ‘This is way harder,’” Johnson recalled.
Back when Woods was still playing regularly in these things, the hard part was figuring out with whom to pair him. Steve Stricker and Furyk became regulars, but in the early 2000s there was immense pressure on anyone paired with him.
Playing partners felt if they lost, it would be their fault, because he was so dominant. Their European opponents could play pressure-free, and Woods always had the biggest bull’s-eye on his back.
Woods still held his own with a 4-1-2 singles record, but he was 9-16-1 when paired with a partner.
Woods wasn’t the same guy in the team rooms back then, either. It wasn’t necessarily that he rubbed people the wrong way. He just wasn’t as willing to share information or let people into his way of thinking, because his way of thinking was a huge advantage in each of the four majors.
“I think sometimes, maybe some of those teams kind of sat back and said, ‘Let’s see what Tiger is going to do,’ instead of going out and winning their point and thinking about that,” said John Wood, who has caddied in Ryder Cups for Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar. “I think he was such a big presence, such a big personality, and week in week out was so intimidating that I’m not sure guys would be as comfortable as they are now being in that room with him. I don’t think he did anything purposely. It was just who he was then. I think he was a different person than he is now.”
He’s a different player, too.
Woods is winless in 17 starts during his 2018 comeback, with a runner-up at the PGA Championship and six top-10s, including T-6s at the British Open and BMW Championship. He finished the run-up to East Lake first in strokes gained approach the green but fell to 50th in strokes gained putting.
The question, particularly for alternate shot, is off the tee, where he ranked 134th during the regular season.
Some have suggested he abandon the driver altogether, but it’s still a big asset at times, such as during the BMW. When he shot a third-round 66 to get into contention at the British Open, five of his six birdies were on driver holes. And he was in control again off the tee at the Northern Trust, where his cold putter prevented any serious moves.
“I can’t stand when I hear people say that,” caddie Joe LaCava said. “They make it sound like he’s a terrible driver, and I don’t think that’s the case.”
He’s not the most dominant player in the world anymore, but he’s playing like one of the best in his country. Definitely one who deserves a pick based on merit and a host of intangibles that have emerged in recent years.
“He’ll be a great teammate,” Funk said. “He’s totally different than where he was. Before it was, all right, who can we put with Tiger? … Now all of us love playing with Tiger, and Tiger loves playing with everybody else. It’s easy to make a matchup.”
This will be Woods’ eighth Ryder Cup appearance with just one U.S. win to show for it. His game isn’t what it used to be. But in a lot of ways, he’s better prepared as a teammate and player going into battle with his guys at Le Golf National.
“I think you’ll have 11 guys on the team lining up, begging to play with Tiger,” Wood said.