MELBOURNE — When 49-year-old Hale Irwin captained and played for the U.S. Presidents Cup team in 1994, he succeeded in both roles, posting a 2-1-0 record and leading the Americans to a 20-12 victory. That was the inaugural Presidents Cup, and Irwin only had one assistant captain—Paul Azinger—to assist him. But the assistance was total, as Azinger noted in a story by Jim McCabe on PGATour.com
“From the day I got there, it was evident that Hale wasn’t going to be heavily involved in (decisions), but he was heavily involved in playing great golf,” said Azinger. “He was the captain, but he let me captain.”
That was also the last time the playing captain role was attempted at the Presidents Cup (or any professional team competition as the Ryder Cup hasn’t had one since Arnold Palmer in 1963) until circumstances led Tiger Woods to resurrect the position for this year’s event.
It’s a bold choice, and the payoff is huge if it works. It’s also a decision that comes with challenges. For one thing, there’s the factor that Irwin found so easy: delegation. Tiger has a few more assistants to work with than Irwin had, and he’ll have to decide which responsibilities, if any, to cede to Steve Stricker, Fred Couples and Zach Johnson. Stricker, of course, is also the U.S. Ryder Cup captain for 2020, and was the victorious Presidents Cup captain in 2017. He might welcome the chance to influence lineups and observe chemistry, particularly in the pairs sessions.
“I don’t want to say the word ‘test,’ ” Stricker said last month when asked about trying strategies in Australia that might be used at Whistling Straits, “but we get to see how those pairings play out and how the guys get along with one another to see if it’s even a possibility at next year’s Ryder Cup."
If Tiger follows Irwin’s lead and empowers his assistants to make the big decisions, the problem of delegation could be easily resolved. Whether that’s his intent—or whether it’s in his personality—remains an open question. In comments made last week at the Hero World Challenge, it seems more like the system Woods has in mind is one where his assistants relay information to him when he’s otherwise occupied playing practice rounds before he makes the final choice. “I’m going to have to rely on what my guys say and what my vice captains say,” he said, “and get a feel for what’s going on.”
The time commitments of a captain, too, could weigh on Tiger—far more than they would have for Irwin in 1994. Even if he delegates some or all of the decision-making, it won’t get him out of the opening ceremonies, press conferences and other media, fan and corporate obligations—such as Monday night’s launch event that came just hours after the team landed in Melbourne—that recent captains will tell you constitute a full-time job. (The media task, in particular, got harder with the Patrick Reed controversy, which is exactly the kind of early-week distraction he didn’t need.)
That’s in addition to the leadership role he’ll be expected to take, and indeed has taken thus far, with the other 11 players. A captain’s duties to his charges are manifold; they include elements as obvious as encouragement in the face of early difficulty, and as delicate as explaining his rationale to the players he benches. Collectively, these tasks require a lot of bandwidth, and it’s hard to imagine having to manage them all while maintaining the competitive concentration needed to win on the actual course.
With divided duties, Tiger would be wise to make it abundantly clear to his assistants what their roles are, and make sure that all the players understand the hierarchy. Who takes charge in team meetings? How much is an assistant allowed to “persuade” Tiger if there’s disagreement about the lineups? Who should players approach when they have a golf-specific or logistical concern that needs to be resolved?
There’s also the issue of when Tiger will play. My guess, which is no more than speculation, is that he’ll only play two of the first four sessions over the first three days, and will sit out Thursday four-ball to watch and evaluate 10 of the other 11 players before pairing himself with Justin Thomas in foursomes on Friday. No matter what he chooses, though, there are pitfalls. Take Saturday, with its two sessions: If he sits out in the morning, he won’t have much time to warm up for the afternoon, evaluate the morning wave and set lineups. But if he plays in the morning and sits out the afternoon, he’ll likely be ceding all lineup duties to his assistants, since they could be due before he finishes his match.
In 1994, Irwin was a committed player, and more of a figurehead as captain. That was his prerogative, he made it clear to Azinger and the others, and it worked. But in 2019, in our heightened media environment, there’s no such thing as a figurehead captain. Tiger’s responsibilities will follow him regardless of how he delegates the nuts-and-bolts tasks, and it will require heroic focus to do it all and still play well. His success this week could be a referendum on whether the dual role is feasible, and determine whether it’s ever tried again.
It’s the kind of responsibility that would crush a lesser player, but the good news is that nobody will be suited to juggling it all better than Tiger Woods. This is someone who has been an iconic figure since the moment he turned professional, and it’s hard to think of another figure in golf—no, in sports—who has been so adept at absorbing overwhelming attention outside the field of play and still delivering brilliant results when the pressure’s on.