Former captains will almost universally confirm that the most difficult part of the gig is the captain’s picks. As a leader you want to assure your choices fit seamlessly into the team and compliment the players who qualified, and as a friend you’re often forced to make tough choices and even tougher phone calls to players you didn’t select.
True to his longtime nickname, Ernie Els didn’t seem to be feeling any of those pressures last month when asked about his impending captains picks for this year’s Presidents Cup. The Big Easy even went so far as to opine that Tiger Woods, his captain counterpart for the U.S. team later this year in Australia, had tougher choices to make.
“Tiger, for sure. I don’t have to worry about picking myself,” Els laughed.
On Wednesday, Els was again asked about Woods’ choices and specifically if the U.S. captain should pick himself to play at Royal Melbourne next month. “I don't think he's got any choice,” the South African laughed.
When Woods names his four picks late Thursday the only real surprise will be whether he forgoes any suspense and names himself off the top or draws the show out and waits to be the last selection. He finished 13th in final qualifying and won his only start this fall two weeks ago at the Zozo Championship.
If there were any lingering concerns about his post-Masters swoon or his offseason knee surgery, he quickly quieted them with his commanding victory in Japan against a deep field and under difficult conditions.
Hale Irwin has been the only playing captain at the Presidents Cup when he pulled double duty at the 1994 matches, but in this case it doesn’t seem either historic or contrived for Tiger to name himself. Els is correct that Woods really doesn’t have a choice. Tiger’s play over the last 15 months more than justifies the pick and, most importantly, the players who have already qualified for the U.S. team want this captain to be of the playing variety.
There’s also the novelty that this year’s Presidents Cup might be the only opportunity for a playing captain.
When Woods was named this year’s captain in March 2018, the PGA Tour also announced a format change that reduced the number of team sessions a player must play before Sunday from two to one. For Woods that’s built-in load management.
Just south of getting his captain’s picks correct the primary challenge during the matches, either at a Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup, is crafting the proper pairings. This job is magnified at the Ryder Cup where the first two days include two sessions each. At the Presidents Cup, only Saturday includes an afternoon session which means that Woods would likely skip the morning frame in order to focus on the afternoon pairings.
“[At the Presidents Cup] we submit our pairings post-round, in the Ryder Cup it’s not like that. You have to figure out, probably 12 to 13 holes into the match who is going to go back out in the afternoon,” Woods said. “If you’re a playing captain you couldn’t figure out who is going in the afternoon if you were playing in the morning. You’d have to rely on your vice captains to submit [the afternoon line-up] or have your vice captains give you a bunch of information while you’re playing and you still have to figure out how to win your match, that would be a lot to handle.”
At Royal Melbourne, Woods will have no such issues. Depending on how he feels and how his team is performing, the captain will have the ultimate flexibility of playing once or twice before Sunday and compartmentalizing his duties as player and captain.
It’s the kind of luxury a Ryder Cup captain simply doesn’t have and why this year’s matches are likely the only chance for Woods, or any other captain, to pull double duty.
“As a captain, no. As a vice captain you could probably do it,” Woods said when asked if he could envision ever seeing a playing captain in the Ryder Cup. “As a playing captain now, with the amount of responsibilities and trying to get pairings submitted for the afternoon sessions and all that, it’s just gotten so much more complicated compared to what Arnold [Palmer] had when he played. You just couldn’t do it now.”
When Woods was named the captain of this year’s team, he envisioned it marking a new chapter in his career as he came to grips with the uncertainty of his competitive future. Nearly two wildly successful years later, the decision has only added a twist to an ongoing chapter.
“If I do play one of the things I’ve thoroughly enjoyed over the last couple years [as a vice captain] is listening in over the earpiece,” Woods said. “The stuff we say is priceless.”
Woods will select himself tonight and savor this rare opportunity to enjoy both, his earpiece and his spot in the lineup.