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Why now? Inside how Tiger became Presidents Cup captain so soon

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The text popped up on his phone, and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan had to contain his giddiness. Tiger Woods wanted to discuss being the U.S. Presidents Cup captain, meaning Monahan had to somehow play it cool while still digesting what he was reading.

What once seemed a far-in-the-distance scenario appeared ready to occur in time for the 2019 Presidents Cup.

How did we get here?

Woods, about to turn 44, still playing a high level of golf after capturing the Masters in April as well as three total PGA Tour titles in his past 14 starts, might seem an odd choice to captain the team this week at Royal Melbourne, where he will become just the second player in Presidents Cup history to also serve as captain.

The job is typically anointed to those who are older, and toward the end of their playing careers -- which perhaps says something about Woods' mindset when he agreed in early 2018 to take on the role.

As it turns out, when first approached by Monahan, Woods was not interested.

The commissioner had visited Woods at his home in the summer of 2017 -- at the time when Woods was recovering from spinal fusion surgery and his DUI arrest resulting from taking painkillers -- and among other points of discussion the subject of a future Presidents Cup captaincy was broached.

"He was noncommittal as his head just wasn't there at that point in time,'' Monahan said. "We were going down a path, and that was not something Tiger was interested in.''

No problem, Monahan thought. There would be other captaincies to consider for Tiger.

But later that year, Woods served as an assistant captain to Steve Stricker at the Presidents Cup played at Liberty National. A year earlier in 2016, he had assisted Davis Love III at the Ryder Cup played at Hazeltine.

Both experiences -- along with the positive feedback Woods received from all of the players -- helped change his thinking after his initial reluctance.

"I wasn't in the right physical state or mental state to be thinking about that,'' he said. "At that time, I didn't know if I could ever be a part of the game of golf again. I was in a completely different frame of mind.

"After being part of it at Liberty, my back was getting better. I was part of the team again. Seeing the guys at Hazeltine was big for me, too. Watching from that perspective. The responsibilities as a vice captain there was more than I had assumed.''

It didn't hurt that some of Woods' contemporaries continued to lobby him.

"Davis and Stricks and Fred (Couples) and Jim (Furyk) ... they were all in my ear about continuing my progression of being a vice captain or a captain,'' Woods said. "Being part of it with those guys and going through it with them and getting to know them and the responsibilities and then they were big about getting in my ear about it.''

Sometime in the fall of 2017, Woods had a change of heart about being a captain and decided to contact Monahan -- but well before he had any inkling as to whether or not he could resume his playing career.

He had performed admirably at the Hero World Challenge, tying for ninth in his first tournament appearance since the spinal fusion surgery. But whether he would become truly competitive wasn't known. And so Woods let Monahan know he was on board for 2019 in Australia, the announcement coming at the Arnold Palmer Invitational -- just two days after Woods tied for second at the Valspar Championship. He was appointed captain; South Africa's Ernie Els would lead the International side.

Woods said that day that he "hoped'' to be a playing captain because the bylaws allowed it. Hale Irwin had been a playing captain at the first Presidents Cup in 1994.

"It was a joke, but turned into reality,'' Woods said. "Here we are. I'm the second playing captain in the history of the Presidents Cup, so it's a pretty neat responsibility.

"And the role's not easy. There's lots of moving parts, whether it's talking to the guys, talking to my vice captains, organizing what we need to have done, not only to be ready but also I need to keep sharp. I need to keep practicing, I need to keep working on my game, make sure my game is sharp and ready to go, because at minimum I'm responsible for two points.''

Woods was referring to the fact that he is required to play at least once before Sunday's singles, although it is likely he could play more, depending on circumstances.

All of that is to be sorted this week, but Woods acknowledged it is far easier to manage the workload at a Presidents Cup than it would be at the Ryder Cup, where there are double sessions on two of the three days; at the Presidents Cup, the competition is spread over four days, with only Saturday (Friday in the United States) having two sessions.

"It's gotten so much more complicated, compared to what Arnold (Palmer) had when he played,'' Woods said, referring to the last playing captain at the 1963 Ryder Cup. "You couldn't do it now.''

Woods will undoubtedly be a U.S. Ryder Cup captain one day. Rome in 2022? Bethpage in 2024? (Although Bethpage is often cited as the place for Phil Mickelson to take on the role.)

To that end, Woods has plenty of help. Couples and Stricker, both former Presidents Cup captains, are his assistants. (Stricker will also captain the 2020 U.S. Ryder Cup team.) Zach Johnson is the other assistant, and he helped the Ryder Cup team last year in France.

And there is a strong sense that Woods is enjoying the challenge, especially the idea of juggling playing and being in charge. Ranked sixth in the world and coming off a victory in October at the Zozo Championship and a strong showing last week at the Hero World Challenge, the idea that Woods is not a worthy playing candidate seems silly now. And while he has a poor Ryder Cup record, Woods is 24-15-1 at the Presidents Cup.

How he will fare as a captain does not appear to be up for much debate. As far back as 2015, Woods was involved from afar, texting assistants Love and Furyk at the Presidents Cup in South Korea. He had his stint as a vice captain in both 2016 and 2017 and was an at-large pick by Furyk last year for the Ryder Cup, although he went 0-4 in the U.S. defeat in France.

"I think, as you all know, he's evolved a lot as a person over the years and I think he takes his leadership role in those team competitions a lot more seriously now than he might have before,'' said Rory McIlroy, who will watch the Presidents Cup from afar being a part of the European Ryder Cup team. "I think he really -- he put a lot into the U.S. team at Hazeltine when he couldn't play but he was a vice captain. Obviously, he played in France last year.

"He wouldn't have taken the job as Presidents Cup captain if he wasn't going to give it his undivided attention. I think he has. I mean, even talking to him a little bit (earlier this year), I would ask him if (he knew) what he was thinking about for picks and stuff. I think he's in daily contact with the guys, vice captains and players, just trying to make it as cohesive as possible and make everyone feel a part of what they're doing.

"So I think he'll be a wonderful captain. If he approaches the captaincy the way he's approached his whole career, yeah, he'll be great at that.''

Woods will undoubtedly have some tough calls this week about his team and himself.

Although he downplayed the toll playing back-to-back weeks would take after competing at the Hero World Challenge, the reality is a 20-plus-hour flight from the Bahamas to Australia is not ideal.

And then it's a jam-packed schedule that includes media obligations both Monday afternoon and early Tuesday morning followed by practice, a Tuesday evening Presidents Cup gala, more practice on Wednesday and the competition beginning on Thursday. (With the time difference, the competition in the United States will be Wednesday-Saturday).

Woods is without No. 1-ranked Brooks Koepka because of a knee injury, and Dustin Johnson hasn't played since the Tour Championship due to knee surgery. Bryson DeChambeau appeared out of form in the Bahamas after undergoing a fitness makeover, and Rickie Fowler is also rusty. How much Woods plays could depend on those factors. And piecing it all together will be part of the challenge.

"I think he's going to do great,'' said Justin Thomas, a possible partner for Woods. "I know how serious he's taken the vice captain roles in the past. He wants to know anything and everything that we're thinking, what could be possible alternatives ... if we do this, what happens with that. He wants to get all variables to where he feels like he's making the best decision.

"It's cool because I feel like it would be very easy for someone like him to say I'm just going to be a captain because it would be cool on my resume and everybody wants me to be a captain and we'll just go over there and hopefully play better than them.

"But, no, he has the full intention of getting the best team as possible sent out every day and for us to win every point that we play. So it's pretty cool to see how passionate he is about it.''

Monahan never had any doubts about that. The PGA Tour commissioner simply knew he wanted to have the game's most prominent player involved in the Presidents Cup at some point, the sooner the better.

And he wasted no time returning that call.

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