In case you missed it, Tiger Woods is officially back — not to be confused with the time he was maybe back or partially back. The transcendent talent with 14 major championships to his name claimed his 80th professional victory Sunday at the Tour Championship in Atlanta.
Woods’s victory snapped a five-year winless drought and vaulted one of golf’s all-time greats back into the headlines ahead of this weekend’s Ryder Cup, the finish line of the season.
His career doesn’t include geographical discrimination; the 42-year-old has won tournaments in Europe, Asia, Australia and the United States. However, Woods has seldom been successful at the Ryder Cup, the biennial competition that since 1979 has pitted the United States against Europe.
The reasons for his lack of success are numerous. On an interpersonal level, Woods has been called aloof with his teammates in previous years. That, in conjunction with the oft-suffocating attention he carries with him onto the golf course, yields a toxic combination. “Tiger is an intimidator even if he doesn’t try to be one,” said Paul Azinger, who played alongside Woods at the 2002 Ryder Cup. Entering the 2018 Ryder Cup, his eighth, Woods has a losing record in four-ball (5-8), foursomes (4-8-1) and overall (13-17-3), but is 4-1-2 in singles, fitting for a player who was hard-wired at a young age to be cutthroat on the course and who carried the reputation of a loner.
Woods was dominant entering the 2012 Ryder Cup, ranking no lower than second on the PGA Tour in total strokes gained (2.31), strokes gained tee to green (1.971) and strokes gained on shots approaching the green (1.224). But his injured back hindered him, and he went 1-2-1. Often, former teammates have said, it felt as though Woods was tasked with carrying the country through the competition.
However, there’s reason to believe this year he will catapult the Americans to their first Ryder Cup victory on international soil in 25 years.
For one, Woods has embraced a leadership role, harmonizing with his teammates ahead of the competition. “He’s a different Tiger Woods,” said vice captain Davis Love III, who was a teammate of Woods on four Ryder Cup teams. “We know him now. We see him as a friend and a teammate and also a really good golfer. Before it was, ‘He’s Tiger Woods; we can’t mess this up.’”
For another, Woods’s strengths this season are more transferrable to the competition, most notably his short game. Woods has long been a big hitter off the tee, but despite his terrific play a week ago, he has largely struggled with his driver this season, ranking 104th in strokes gained off the tee (.045). However, at Le Golf National, the thin fairways and heavy rough will limit the number of drivers used in the event — not that the U.S. needs help in that department, with big hitters like Dustin Johnson, Tony Finau and Brooks Koepka on the roster.
Woods’s dominance this season has manifested in his short game: He ranks 39th in strokes gained with the putter (.304), 11th in strokes gained on shots around the green (.365, the best single-season mark he’s produced entering a Ryder Cup) and leads the tour in strokes gained on shots approaching the green (.938). In total, just three players are averaging more strokes gained than Woods’s 1.651. Pair Woods with an accurate player off the tee — like, say, Rickie Fowler, Bryson DeChambeau or Phil Mickelson, all of whom rank in the top 30 in total driving efficiency — and Woods can carry the hole home.
In that light, Woods’s pairing with Patrick Reed for Friday’s opening four-ball matches is a bit curious. Reed, this year’s Masters champion and the man nicknamed Captain America for his transcendent play at previous Ryder Cups, also struggles off the tee but boasts and above-average short game and ranks in the top 11 in strokes gained around the green. Both are also fierce competitors, unlikely to be fazed by the thousands of fans who undoubtedly will follow their every move.
Still, Woods is a good fit on the roster as whole, not least because of its overall ability. Woods has never competed on a roster this talented; the average world ranking of the U.S. roster is 11.8. That compares to 12.2 in 2012, 17.3 in 2010 and 29.4 in 2006.
Woods’s recent form puts him at the fore. The analysts at Data Golf estimate Woods is 2.06 strokes per round better than the average PGA Tour player, giving him the third-highest ability estimate of any player on the American roster. That’s better than Fowler, DeChambeau, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka, all of whom rank ahead of Woods in the Official World Golf Rankings.
The Americans are favored in the Ryder Cup’s first trip to France. That no doubt has to do with Woods’s resurgent play and transferrable skill set at Le Golf National, a course that places a premium on accuracy and deft putting.
“He’s not just another guy,” DeChambeau said. “I mean, he’s Tiger Woods.”