Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 13, 2012

Watson’s The Captain To Help End U.S. Ryder Cup Misery

For years the PGA of America has used the same formula for picking the captain of the U.S. team for the biennial Ryder Cup matches. Find an accomplished golfer in his 40’s who still plays at least part-time on the Tour; someone old enough to be looked at as something of an authority figure, but still active enough to know and have regular contact with the players who will comprise his team. This year 48-year old Davis Love III, with twenty PGA Tour wins including one major, met all of the usual criteria. Love followed in the footsteps of recent captains Corey Pavin, Paul Azinger, and Tom Lehman, all of whom were of similar age and boasted similar records when they were tapped to lead Team USA against the twelve-man squad from Europe. Based on that conventional wisdom the smart money was on 45-year old David Toms to get the nod for the captaincy of the team that will travel to Scotland for the 2014 matches at Gleneagles.

But in recent years the selection of the American captain hasn’t been the only thing about the Ryder Cup that has been predictable. There has also been the small matter of the outcome of the matches, with Europe winning five of the six meetings this century and seven of the last nine matches overall. With that record in mind, the PGA felt it was time to shake things up. On Tuesday PGA president Ted Bishop told the media that the organization was going to “do something a little bit different” for the simple reason that “we’re tired of losing;” and on Thursday the PGA announced that eight-time major champion Tom Watson will captain the 2014 team. As things “a little bit different” go, this was a stroke of genius.

Watson will be 65 when the U.S. and European teams tee off in September 2014, making him the oldest Ryder Cup captain in the event’s history. He will also be the first two-time U.S. captain since Jack Nicklaus held the post in 1983 and 1987. Watson was the captain of the 1993 team, when of course he was in his forties and still active on the Tour. His team, led by the likes of Payne Stewart, Raymond Floyd and Tom Kite, rallied from a three-point deficit after the Saturday morning foursomes. The Americans won three out of four fourball matches Saturday afternoon, and then dominated Sunday’s singles matches to retain the Cup by a final score of 15-13. That two-decade old victory at The Belfry in Warwickshire, England was the last time the U.S. won on foreign soil, a sure sign of how U.S. fortunes have waned.

Watson is an inspired choice not just because of his previous success with the U.S. playing an away game. Of his eight major victories, five were Open Championships. Four of those Opens were played in Scotland. At Carnoustie in 1975 Watson won an 18-hole playoff by one stroke over Jack Newton to claim his first major. Two years later at Turnberry Watson and Jack Nicklaus waged their epic “Duel in the Sun” over the final two rounds. Paired together in the third round when both started a stroke behind Roger Maltbie, they posted matching 65’s to move three clear of the field. On Saturday (the Open Championship didn’t end on Sunday until 1980), Watson duplicated his third round score, besting Nicklaus by a single stroke after his 7-iron approach to the final green stopped two feet from the cup for the winning birdie. The site of that first Open with a Sunday finish was Muirfield, and there in 1980 Watson used a third round 64 to pass Lee Trevino, and then coasted home to a four shot victory. Then two years later at Royal Troon he was seven strokes back after two rounds and still three adrift with just 18 holes to play. But as leader Bobby Clampett and a 25-year old Nick Price wobbled down the stretch, Watson turned in a steady 70, good enough to win by a single stroke.

Watson added a fifth Open the following year at Royal Birkdale in England, to go along with his two Masters and one U.S. Open championship; but it is dominance in Scotland that is especially important. In addition to the four Open Championships he has triumphed at the Senior British Open three times, in 2003 at Turnberry, in 2005 at Royal Aberdeen, and in 2007 at Muirfield. The 2014 Ryder Cup matches at Gleneagles will mark just the second time that the Cup has been contested in the country occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain. It is a country of avid golfers and golf fans, all of whom seem to hold a deep affection for the American who mastered the art of golf in the land where it began.

As captain Watson should be able to pass along to his players his wisdom at how to master the bumps and swales of the course, and the fickle wind and uncertain weather that are often major factors in how a Scottish course plays on any given day. Certainly he can do that better than David Toms, who despite his fine career has never played well at the Open; and who hasn’t even made the trip over since his last missed cut in 2009. In addition, while one can’t expect the Scottish fans to start rooting for the U.S. team, their respect for and admiration of the American captain may cause at least a few to be a little less vocal in their support of the home squad. If Watson’s presence helps to diminish the home course advantage for Team Europe even a bit, that can only help the U.S. team’s chances.

Despite his age Watson still has a strong competitive fire and plenty of game. As recently as last weekend he showed that when his 69 in brutal conditions was the lowest score of the final round at the Australian Open. In the galleries at Gleneagles there will also be plenty of fans with fond memories of the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry. There at the site of the duel with Nicklaus more than thirty years ago, Watson opened with rounds of 65 and 70 to sit tied for the 36-hole lead with Steve Marino. Less than two months shy of his sixtieth birthday, Watson became the oldest man to lead any round of a major. After a third round 71 he was one stroke ahead of the field, becoming the oldest man to lead a major going into the final 18 holes. On that epic Sunday a birdie at the penultimate hole put him in front, but Watson’s 8-iron approach at the last landed hard and bounced over the green. Two shots from history, age finally caught up with him as a poor chip and a stabbed putt yielded a closing bogey. Watson lost the subsequent four hole playoff to Stewart Cink. But even in defeat his reputation as the American master of Scottish golf and his popularity among the country’s golf fans only grew.

In the end of course, Tom Watson won’t be able to swing the clubs for his players. But he will get to pick at least two and perhaps as many as four members of his team. He will set the pairings for the two days of team competition, and decide on the order in which the twelve Americans will go off for Sunday’s singles. Still ultimately the 2014 Ryder Cup will be decided by how a dozen Americans and a dozen Europeans play over three days. But who knows what might affect the quality of that play? This year at Medinah the U.S. appeared to have the Cup won late Saturday afternoon. But then Ian Poulter, teamed with Rory McIlroy, closed with a run of birdies to salvage a point in the final fourballs match. For Team Europe hope was alive, and on Sunday the Miracle at Medinah unfolded. Now the leadership of the PGA of America, tired of losing, has recognized that while the matches will be decided inside the ropes, the inspiration that fuels that play can come from anywhere. In choosing Tom Watson as the 2014 captain, they’ve chosen to inspire their team from the very beginning.

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