PARIS — The numbers tell a hell of a story, if you take the time to read them:
Tiger Woods: 14 major championships, 13-17-3 in the Ryder Cup
Sergio Garcia: 1 major championship, 19-11-7 in the Ryder Cup
Now, read closer:
Tiger Woods: 9-16-1 in Ryder Cup matches with a partner, 4-1-2 in singles
Sergio Garcia: 16-7-6 in Ryder Cup matches with a partner, 3-4-1 in singles
These aren’t just stats. They are a joint appointment with a therapist: Tiger on one couch, Sergio across the room on another, both staring at walls instead of each other. The numbers help tell us who Woods and Garcia have been—as competitors, mostly, but also as people. Tiger Woods has always wanted to be The Man. Sergio Garcia is most comfortable as part of a machine.
Woods has often seemed oddly out of place at the Ryder Cup. He was like a famous actor who wandered onto the set of the wrong movie—it seemed like he should belong, but for some reason it never felt like he did. It’s not like Tiger didn’t care. He was Tiger Woods on a golf course. Of course he cared. It just wasn’t the most comfortable environment for him. He was wired to dominate as an individual. If he drove it into the deep rough, wasn’t he the best person to hit the recovery shot? Why should he have to cheer for somebody else?
This discomfort manifested itself in his performance. Woods could be socially awkward in private, low-key settings; asking him to be another golfer’s buddy in front of thousands of people was too big an ask. The low point famously came in 2004 at Oakland Hills, when U.S. Captain Hal Sutton decided to pair Woods and Phil Mickelson together.
As Hal said that day, “If we’re going to lose, let’s at least look dumb while we do it. Wait, what did I just say?” I made up that quote, but when Phil hit a drive out of Oakland County, Tiger’s wince was indisputably real.
To be fair to Sutton: finding a playing partner for Woods at that point in his life was damn near impossible. Chris DiMarco played on that team, and he says Tiger “was always great in the locker room,” but he also says he had no interest in being his partner: “It would have been tough for me.” So much of the Ryder Cup is about pressure, and anybody who played with Tiger felt a few extra tons of it. And as DiMarco says, “It’s also about who Tiger feels comfortable with.” In those days, Woods did not feel comfortable with many people. There was his buddy Steve Stricker, and Jim Furyk, and…well, does his caddy count?
But on Sunday, in the singles matches, Woods was his usual fiery and untamable self.
Garcia was a different Ryder Cup story. The great Spanish hope lived for Friday and Saturday. They were his two favorite days in golf.
Garcia had emerged as a future star as a 19-year-old at the PGA Championship at Medinah in 1999, hitting one shot off a tree root with his eyes closed and nearly toppling Woods. When Garcia opened his eyes, he realized we were all watching, and that did not go well for him. That PGA Championship may have been the last time that Garcia played a major unburdened by expectations.
Every successive major seemed to bring Garcia more agony to the point where he came to expect the agony. You wondered, sometimes, if he wanted to put his tee in the ground or into his eye. Every golfer, over a 72-hole week, will face something that feels like bad luck. Woods saw it as something to overcome. Garcia saw it as proof that the golf gods hated him personally.
Put him on a team, though, and Sergio was unburdened. The golf gods couldn’t possibly hate his entire team, could they? And while the majors often felt like a referendum on his career, the Ryder Cup was never going to be just about him. He went 4-0-1 in his first Ryder Cup, a few weeks after that ’99 PGA, and he was hooked.
Garcia loved the Ryder Cup, and (who knows?) maybe the fact that Woods didn’t love it gave Garcia some extra juice. He did not like Woods, and the Ryder Cup was one place where Woods was not in Garcia’s head. Garcia is 4-1-1 against Woods at Ryder Cups, though the two have never facd off in singles.
“He had a real passion that was learned through Jose Maria Olazabal, learned through Seve Ballesteros,” said DiMarco, referring to two Spanish greats of previous generations. “He is just another one with that lineage that is right in line with that. He is a competitor. For some reason every (other) year he would figure out his putting problems and his putting would get really hot at the Ryder Cup.”
And so here we are, on the eve of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National, and these two familiar stars are back. But they are not the Ryder Cup characters that we once knew.
Woods is not as great a player as he was a decade ago, but he may be better equipped for a Ryder Cup. This is well-covered territory at this point, but it is worth repeating: this version of Tiger is humbler, more grateful, more interested in relationships and more open to other golfers. He has been a member of the Ryder Cup task force and a vice captain, so he intimately understands everything that goes into winning this event. And, finally, he is invested in it.
U.S. captain Jim Furyk does not have to obsess over finding the right partner for Woods. He would be happy playing with just about anybody, and they would all love to play with him. The young American stars like Woods more than most of his contemporaries did, and they are less intimidated by him. That may hurt him down the stretch at majors, but it should help him this week.
And unlike all of Woods’s other Ryder Cups, this one largely defines his year. Nobody thought he could make it, but he did. You can be sure he appreciates the chance far more than he did when he was winning majors every year.
Garcia, meanwhile, will be playing his first Ryder Cup as a major champion after winning the 2017 Masters. He is also in a difficult position: by reputation and stature, he should be the leader of the European team, but by performance, he shouldn’t even be on it.
Garcia missed the cut at all four majors this year. He has only finished in the top 10 in four events in 2018 (though one of those, the French Open, was at Le Golf National.) Garcia finished 24th on the European team’s European Tour points standings and 13th in its World points standings (the top four from each automatically qualify). Thomas Bjorn used a captain’s pick on him because Europe’s talent pool is not that deep, and he is Sergio Garcia.
“I know that it probably wasn't an easy decision,” Garcia said, when Bjorn announced his picks. “I mean, he knows what I bring to the team, not only game-wise but inside the team room.”
This week, Europe hopes to find the old Sergio Garcia. But America will counter with the new Tiger Woods.