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Woods' Presidential Thriller

by Chuah Choo Chiang / Images: Getty Images

Tiger Woods ended 2019 the same way he started it.

 

As a winner.

It started 245 days ago at The Masters Tournament, when Woods’ unforgettable year began with his first major championship in 11 years and first green jacket in 14 years. It continued into late October, when he matched Sam Snead atop the PGA Tour’s all-time wins list with his 82nd career victory at the ZOZO Championship.

And it ended in December, at Royal Melbourne, where Woods led the United States team to a nailbiting 16-14 win at the Presidents Cup over a formidable International team. The U.S. team rallied behind the strength of their playing captain, who was the only player on either side to win each of his matches.

 Woods went 3-0-0 on the week to reach 27 career wins in the biennial event, passing Phil Mickelson for the most career victories in the events 25 years of being held.

 

It was a truly poetic ending to one of the best years in the sport’s storied history.

 

“It was pretty awesome to play for the greatest player ever,” said Matt Kuchar, who clinched the U.S. victory with a birdie at No. 17 on the final day. “To have a chance to be part of a team captained by the greatest golfer ever who is also a player on the team is indescribable. I can’t tell you how unique and how cool it is, to not only play for him, but alongside him.

“For us to be in a hole and to come back and win this event was such a thrill. It’s one thing to share the victory as a team, but to do it with Tiger Woods as our Captain was just incredible.”

 

Woods was overcome with emotion following his team’s mighty comeback, and for good reason.

Since the moment he was officially named as the U.S. Captain at the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational, Woods has viewed his position with both responsibility and pride. From the outset, Woods - ever the competitor that he is - made it his mission to once again beat his long time rival Ernie Els, Captain of this year’s International Team.

 

He got it. 

Sungjae Im and Tiger Woods

Dustin Johnson and Haotong Li

“I’ve cried at pretty much every Cup we’ve won,” Woods said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. Any time you have moment when you’re able to do something that is bigger than as an individual is so much more meaningful and special.” 

 

Woods’ moment did not come easy, however. The U.S. team trailed for all three days before its stirring comeback in Sunday’s Singles, as the analytics-minded Els seemed to play every matchup correctly.

 

The Internationals put together a 4-1 advantage after Thursday’s Four-Balls, its first day one lead since 2005 and its largest advantage ever after the first session. And the Friday Foursomes appeared on track to follow the same pattern, as the team led in all five matches on the back nine and was projected at one stage to go up 9-1 on the scoreboard.

 

But Woods’ warriors managed to carve out some hope when they won a pair of matches one up on the 18th hole. Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele got the rally underway when Cantlay sunk a 14-foot birdie to beat Joaquin Niemann and Adam Hadwin, and Woods and Justin Thomas did the same 30 minutes later against Hideki Matsuyama and Byeong Hun An, despite not holding a lead since the sixth hole.

 

“I know one thing – if we don't make those putts, this is a pretty deep deficit,” commented Thomas.

 

But the U.S. saved its best for last, when Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland erased a two up advantage for the Internationals with three holes to play. The Americans carded birdies on the 16th and 17th after sticking their approach shots within 10 feet, then the teams halved the 18th to end in a tie.

 

“I wouldn't say we totally lost momentum, but I felt it was a bit of a blow,” Els said later. “The team didn't react badly which I was really proud of, but for me as Captain, and I didn't reveal it to them, I felt we had them right in a headlock, and we didn't manage to quite finish it off.”

 

Though the Internationals began Saturday’s double session with a 6.5-3.5 lead, only its third advantage after two sessions in the event’s history, Els knew that the Friday stalemate was a massive blow to his team’s shot at an upset. 

 

The U.S. had been headed for its first Foursomes loss in 14 years. Instead, the late rally provided a jolt of much-needed confidence into a team that began the event on shaky ground.

 

“There's not many times when you get a team like that under the pump,” said Els. “It was great, but it could have been unbelievable. It could have been a knockout blow. That was probably the difference. We had so much momentum, we had so much going for us… that’s 2.5 points, and where we were at 1.5 points shy was absolutely something.”

 

The heavyweight bout continued into the following day, when the Internationals opened up a 9-5 lead after winning the morning Four-Ball session 2.5-1.5. But the Americans charged back once more in the afternoon Foursomes, pulling together a 3-1 session win and narrowly pulling off a clean sweep.

Marc Leishman and Abraham Ancer were five down through 10 holes against Thomas and Fowler, only to reach even and earn half a point for the Internationals. Niemann and An did the same with a late two-hole deficit, though An missed a chance at a full point when his six-foot putt came up short at the last. Despite that, the late heroics were enough to salvage a 10-8 advantage for the Internationals heading into the final day, the first time it had taken a lead into the Singles since 2003. 

 

It wouldn’t last.

 

“Before the week started, we had a plan to get to 10 points by Saturday evening,” said Els. “So that's why we were so excited (Saturday), losing 3-1, because we knew we got to 10 points. I could have made different choices in the Singles, but I took it on my shoulders. It is what it is.”

 

A dominant display by the Americans clinched its eighth consecutive win in the series, and it all started with Captain Woods setting the tone.

Woods went out first against the surprising Ancer, who led the International Team alongside fellow rookie Sungjae Im with 3.5 points. But the Mexican never led against one of the best to ever play, as Woods put together a 3&2 victory to begin the U.S. comeback.

 

“Tiger, the story of his resilience, coming back from injuries and everything that he's been through; I think each of us believed in each other because we knew we could do what we did today, and we really believed that we could win the Cup,” commented Tony Finau. “We were very inspired to play for and with Tiger, and it's so satisfying to win this Cup because of that.  We were able to get the job done for our playing Captain.”

 

Finau delivered his own stirring moment, rallying from four down through 10 holes against Matsuyama to salvage a tie. He won four straight holes from 11 to 14 to square the match, then after Matsuyama regained the lead on the 16th, he promptly three-putted from 25 feet on the ensuing hole before ending in a tie. With Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson dominating their matches with C.T. Pan and Haotong Li, respectively, it was a critical hit to a reeling International squad.

Image: Russel Wong

Marc Leishman and Abraham Ancer were five down through 10 holes against Thomas and Fowler, only to reach even and earn half a point for the Internationals. Niemann and An did the same with a late two-hole deficit, though An missed a chance at a full point when his six-foot putt came up short at the last. Despite that, the late heroics were enough to salvage a 10-8 advantage for the Internationals heading into the final day, the first time it had taken a lead into the Singles since 2003. 

 

It wouldn’t last.

 

“Before the week started, we had a plan to get to 10 points by Saturday evening,” said Els. “So that's why we were so excited (Saturday), losing 3-1, because we knew we got to 10 points. I could have made different choices in the Singles, but I took it on my shoulders. It is what it is.”

 

A dominant display by the Americans clinched its eighth consecutive win in the series, and it all started with Captain Woods setting the tone.

Woods went out first against the surprising Ancer, who led the International Team alongside fellow rookie Sungjae Im with 3.5 points. But the Mexican never led against one of the best to ever play, as Woods put together a 3&2 victory to begin the U.S. comeback.

 

“Tiger, the story of his resilience, coming back from injuries and everything that he's been through; I think each of us believed in each other because we knew we could do what we did today, and we really believed that we could win the Cup,” commented Tony Finau. “We were very inspired to play for and with Tiger, and it's so satisfying to win this Cup because of that.  We were able to get the job done for our playing Captain.”

 

Finau delivered his own stirring moment, rallying from four down through 10 holes against Matsuyama to salvage a tie. He won four straight holes from 11 to 14 to square the match, then after Matsuyama regained the lead on the 16th, he promptly three-putted from 25 feet on the ensuing hole before ending in a tie. With Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson dominating their matches with C.T. Pan and Haotong Li, respectively, it was a critical hit to a reeling International squad.

 

Matsuyama’s team eventually lost its shot at a win after Adam Hadwin missed a 14-foot putt at the last against Bryson DeChambeau to half the match and leave only a chance at a tie in play for the Internationals. And that soon went by the wayside as Louis Oosthuizen lost a three up advantage against Kuchar, who closed out the U.S. win with a vital half point.

 

“We were up early in a lot of matches and it came down to the very end,” Woods said. “We knew that was going to happen. We had some really strong guys at the end. Actually, strong guys from 1 through 12. We were excited about going into this session. I know we lost the two-team sessions after the four-team sessions, but we were excited about our chances going into the Singles and we did it as a team.”

 

It is Woods’ job to share credit for this win, which moved the U.S. to 11-1-1 all-time at the Presidents Cup, but his own players and assistants are quick to applaud their leader.

 

“I love seeing other people cry, especially Tiger Woods,” said assistant Steve Stricker. “Tiger did an unbelievable job; it was a privilege and we’ll keep this in the forefront of our minds forever.”

 

Woods’ performance in Australia brought things full circle in 2019. After tying Sam Snead atop the all-time wins list just a couple of months ago, he did it once more when he became the first playing Captain to go undefeated in his team’s victory since Snead at the 1959 Ryder Cup.

 

It was quite the year for Mr. Woods.

 

“All of us will look back and have these pictures hanging on our walls and say we played for and alongside Tiger Woods, the greatest player ever,” said Kuchar. “It was awesome.”