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Of Loyalty, and Honor, and Rehab Assignments

by Blaine Newnham

Fred Couples had it right.

Not so much in picking Tiger Woods to play in the Presidents Cup, but insisting that he play competitively before the November matches in Australia.

Woods has nothing to prove, and everything to prove.

The Presidents Cup needs Woods. Golf needs Woods. The captain’s picks are not simply to add the next two most deserving members to the team, but to provide something missing on the team

Like star power. (Photo at right: The ball is now in Woods’ court. Will he justify Couples’ belief in him?)

As Couples, the captain, reminded us, Woods nearly won the Masters in April and has, as Freddie puts it, “been the best player forever.” And when Woods announced that he would compete in the 2010 Masters as his first tournament after ending his self-imposed exile, it was Couples who phoned Woods to join him in a practice round at Augusta National, at a time when much of the world considered Woods to be a public relations form of Kryptonite.

But Couples is right that Woods needs to play, not simply hide out and practice. He also needs to be humbled. So far he’s been resolute, and defiant, but not humbled.

You have to believe that in his own casual way Couples had the upper hand with Woods, that the reason that Woods announced recently that he would play in the fall PGA Tour event near San Jose, the Open, was because Couples asked him to – in effect, he made it a requirement for Woods’ selection to the U.S. Presidents Cup team.

I’d like to see Woods play in one other event before he heads to the Australian Open the week before the Presidents Cup.

Believe it or not, I’d like to see him play in a Nationwide Tour event, in a place like Midland, Tex. or Boise, providing a great boost for the tour as well as himself.

So he ties for 14th in a Nationwide tournament, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he learn how to compete again. And that he was humbled through all of this, that he can show a genuine respect for the game, even if it is at a lower level. Especially if it is at a lower level. In professional baseball, players will commonly do a rehab assignment in the minors, shaking the rust off their game before re-joining the bigs to continue playing at an elite level.

Woods could play in Europe for a guaranteed paycheck, but that isn’t what he needs.

It all reminds me of the Michelle Wie saga, when as a blossoming player she’d play only in the very top women’s events or in some cases men’s events.

She never learned how to win. Still hasn’t.

Woods is searching for a swing. He knows better than anyone that golf isn’t played in a laboratory, that the ability to get up and down, and to concentrate, really concentrate, makes the difference. And has for him throughout his career.

I don’t think Couples picked Woods for his commercial appeal. I think they’ve been friends and Couples respects what it means to be the greatest player of your generation.

There is one remaining captain’s pick on the team, a place for the recent PGA Champion, Keegan Bradley. Or for Rickie Fowler.

Couples has stuck his neck out for Woods, yes, but he also remembers how well Woods played for him in the last Presidents Cup matches, posting a 5-0 record to lead the U.S. victory.

Has there ever been a better match-play performer than Woods? His exploits as an amateur in head-to-head competition are those of legend.

So, unfortunately, are his recent exploits of another kind. They need to be put behind him, and the best way to do that is winning.

Blaine Newnham was the Sports Editor for the Eugene Register-Guard until 1982, before moving to Seattle to become the Times’ Associate Editor and sports columnist from 1983-2005. He covered the four majors of the “Tiger Slam,” when Woods won his four consecutive championships.