Who's laughing now? Tiger returns to the Ryder Cup six years on

History

He was supposed to be at Le Golf National as one of Jim Furyk's vice-captains. Instead he's headed to Paris with a club in his hands. And to think we all doubted him, writes Mark Townsend

When Tiger Woods was named as one of Jim Furyk’s vice-captains on February 20 many of us allowed a wry smile when he said he was keen to also make the team as a player.

Here we go, we tittered, he’s talking up his chances again. Bless him.

At the time he was three tournaments into his long-awaited comeback, 544th in the world and had just missed the cut at Riviera.

While his driving had been badly off at Torrey Pines the previous month it was his iron play that let him down in Los Angeles. In the two rounds he hit 16 just greens, his distance control not even close.

Then it all started to happen.

At the Honda Classic his radar was back on and then some, he led the field for the week in proximity to the hole, hit 14 greens on the Sunday and his clubhead speed on one of his Saturday drives was measured at 128.2 miles per hour – that number would have led the PGA Tour every year for the past decade. One ran out to 361 yards.

After the Honda his average clubhead speed put him in fourth spot on the rankings, just ahead of Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, not bad for a 42-year-old who has undergone four back surgeries.

Tiger Woods

Two weeks later at the Valspar it was even more impressive. With Paul Casey in the house at 10-under he sunk a 43-foot bomb at 17, there was an enormous smile back on his face and he ended up just one shot shy. It was all coming together – his body would allow him to be back in the gym hours before daybreak lifting weights and strengthening his obliques and all those years of gingerly moving about the place seemed a distant memory.

Viewing figures were through the roof and he was all most of us could talk about. The previous week he wasn’t even eligible to play in the WGC in Mexico.

A week later he was 5th at Bay Hill and, from pretty much nowhere, he was the 8-1 favourite for Augusta despite still being outside the top 100 in the world.

The chipping yips of late 2014 and early 2015, the strange vernacular and explanations for those and other areas of his game, that mug shot, the fact that he only started three tournaments from August 2015 to December of last year, they were all now firmly in the past.

You might have thought that the second half of his comeback season would tail off slightly. He’d done the really hard bit, we could all stop wondering ‘is he properly back?’ and he was smiling again and, this time around, it seemed a genuine one.

But, and it sounds corny to say it, this is Tiger Woods. He’s never done satisfactory – the 142 successive made cuts, the Tiger Slam, the scoring records, the 14 majors, the 79 PGA Tour wins.

But, and let’s look for the negative, where’s the 80th win? Has he still got it up top to get over the line?

The reality is it’s tough to win on the PGA Tour. You need a bit of luck at right moment and your timing has to be right. Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Tony Finau, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay and Matt Kuchar, all possible Ryder Cup team-mates in Paris, haven’t managed it this year.

If you want to look at the good stuff he nearly won the last two majors of the year.

1997 Ryder Cup

And now he’s back in the Ryder Cup fold for an eighth time as a player. He’ll get a chance to improve his ordinary record of 13-17-3 and, incredibly, he will get the chance to be on a winning team for just the second time.

Since 1997 there have been 11 different partners, this year we will get a 12th unless he spends the first two days with Phil Mickelson which one or two experts are predicting. We’re told that Woods’ role as a vice-captain, a role he has assumed at the 2016 Ryder Cup and last year’s Presidents Cup, is that of the stats man. Now his role will be with club in hand and with Bryson DeChambeau probably alongside him in at least one of the formats.

The strange thing is that he has already been named as next year’s Presidents Cup captain so, should his form continue on the same path, he might well be the competition’s first playing skipper.

All that is for another year. For now Woods is back on the American Ryder Cup team, they’re not laughing any more.

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