Watson is set to announce the three wild-card picks who will complete his 12-man team on September 2. Woods’ withdrawal has relieved the captain of considerable pressure ahead of the announcement and also made his decision far easier.
The American Ryder Cup points race closed following Rory McIlroy’s triumph at the PGA Championship at Valhalla. The nine automatic picks set to represent the U.S. at Gleneagles are Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Jim Furyk, Jimmy Walker, Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Zach Johnson.
Woods, though, will not be joining his countrymen in Perthshire at the end of September. The 14-time major champion issued a statement on his website explaining that he has been told by doctors and by his trainer that his "back muscles need to be rehabilitated and healed."
Woods stated that he hopes to return to playing competitively in early December and that, although he is "extremely disappointed" to be unable to represent America at Gleneagles, he is grateful to Tom Watson for considering him for a position despite his fitness struggles.
Watson’s response to Woods’ proclamation was suitably diplomatic. In a news release, the captain praised the player’s selflessness in ruling himself out in order to benefit the greater interests of the team.
Watson concluded that, while he is "disappointed" to lose Woods as a wild-card option for September, his "primary wish is for Tiger to be healthy and competitive." The captain added that golf "needs" Tiger and that he hopes Woods "will return to the game very soon."
In spite of all the posturing, however, it's impossible not to feel as though Woods’ withdrawal came as some relief to Watson.
The fact that Tiger is unavailable for selection means Watson is now free to pick what he truly believes to be the strongest team he can take to Scotland next month.
As former Ryder Cup player Andrew Coltart commented, per The Guardian, in response to Woods' withdrawal, "It’s a big break I think for Tom Watson, gives himself a bit of space." Coltart added that Woods’ absence is almost like Watson is "getting that extra pick."
In spite of the fact that Woods languishes at No. 71 in the U.S. Ryder Cup points standings and has endured undoubtedly the worst season of his professional career, it always felt as though Watson would be obliged to pick him if Tiger wanted to play at Gleneagles.
Golf needs Tiger Woods more than Tiger Woods needs golf. This is something of which all the commercial apparatchiks who surround the U.S. Ryder Cup team would be well aware.
The massive slump in viewing figures that characterized this year’s Tiger-less Masters would not have been far from the minds of those negotiating the broadcast and sponsorship contracts for the Ryder Cup.
One can thus imagine the pressure that would have been leveraged on Watson to include Woods should golf’s most marketable asset have declared himself fit and determined to play at Gleneagles.
It is to Woods’ credit that he has spared Watson this dilemma.
In spite of the absence of Dustin Johnson and (probably) Jason Dufner, talents such as 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley, 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, 2012 WGC Match Play champion Hunter Mahan and putting ace Brandt Snedeker constitute more attractive wild-card options for Watson's final 12.
Woods’ absence will also spare America’s inexperienced roster the added media scrutiny that his participation would inevitably bring.
Of the nine automatic picks Watson will take to Perthshire, Spieth, Reed and Walker are all rookies. Fowler has only one Ryder Cup appearance to his name.
All four players are exceptionally gifted young golfers, but the last thing any Ryder Cup debutant needs is more pressure.
And on current form, pressure and distractions are all that one could be assured of Woods bringing to Scotland.
Woods’ Ryder Cup record is far from stellar. With 17 career defeats in Ryder Cup play, Tiger is statistically the worst player in the competition’s history. The fact that Woods was absent from America’s last Ryder Cup victory in six attempts in 2008 is certainly more than a coincidence.
A 13-17-3 record through seven Ryder Cups is unconvincing at best and hardly marks a player out as a "must-pick," even with good form and full fitness.
And Woods currently has neither of those things. Tiger missed two majors this year due to back surgery and competed at only eight events. In those appearances, he was cut twice, withdrew twice and amassed only 45 FedEx Cup points.
Fundamentally, then, Woods’ withdrawal is best for the player, the captain and, ultimately, the team.
The decision allows Woods to focus on regaining his fitness and getting back to doing what he does best: winning majors. Watson, meanwhile, is liberated to pick a fit and on-form player in Woods’ place, boosting America’s chances of pulling off an unlikely upset.