Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 28, 2014

Second Guesses For USA After European Glory At Gleneagles

This time, American golf fans were assured, things were going to be different. After two successive nail-biting victories by Team Europe at the 2010 and 2012 Ryder Cup matches, this was the year that Team USA was going to get back on track and reclaim the diminutive four pound golden trophy that is the preeminent prize of golf’s team competitions. No matter that the Americans would be the visitors this time around, traveling to Gleneagles in central Scotland. No matter that the two highest ranked players in the field, world number one Rory McIlroy and number three Sergio Garcia, would be playing for Europe. This year things were going to be different.

In 2010 at soggy Celtic Manor in Wales, the 12 singles matches were delayed until Monday, and the Cup competition came down to the final hole of the final match. That’s where American Hunter Mahan stubbed a chip shot from just off the green, allowing Graeme McDowell to claim the decisive point in a 14½ to 13½ win for Team Europe. Two years ago everything was going the Americans’ way through the two days of team play. Even after McIlroy and European stalwart Ian Poulter rallied through the closing holes of Saturday’s final four-ball match to defeat Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson 1-up, Team USA’s lead going into the Sunday singles was 10-6, a margin that had been overcome only once before. Now of course that margin has been overcome twice after the Miracle at Medinah, when Team Europe won the first four singles matches to be decided that Sunday and ultimately kept the Cup, again by a single point.

The effort to make things different in 2014 began with the selection of the American team captain. The well established pattern for selecting both captains has been to choose a veteran player in the latter stages of his career who has played on Ryder Cup squads for his side. The last three European captains were Jose Maria Olazabel, Colin Montgomerie and Nick Faldo. They faced off against Davis Love III, Corey Pavin and Paul Azinger, respectively.

For Europe that pattern continued this year with the selection of Irishman Paul McGinley as captain. At age 47, McGinley has just four wins in more than twenty years on the European Tour. But he played on three successive winning Ryder Cup teams in 2002, 2004 and 2006. As a Ryder Cup rookie he sank a 10-foot putt to save par on the 18th hole, halving his singles match against Jim Furyk and scoring the half-point that gave Europe the victory. Four years later he demonstrated the brighter side of golfing sportsmanship when he conceded a 20-foot putt to J.J. Henry on the final hole, after the match was disrupted by a streaker racing across the green. The concession resulted in the match being halved at a time when the outcome of the competition was still very much in doubt.

But PGA of America president Ted Bishop broke with tradition, naming 8-time major champion Tom Watson as captain. The 65-year old Watson first captained the American squad back in 1993, when his selection was in line with the typical pattern. That edition of the Cup, played at The Belfry in England’s West Midlands, was the last time Team USA won on foreign soil.

The selection of Watson was initially hailed as a masterstroke, both for its obvious connection to the last American road victory, but also because he was an old-school golfing legend who was sure to command the respect of his team. Yet more than anything the fact that Watson’s first turn as captain was the last time Team USA won on the other side of the Atlantic demonstrates how much the Ryder Cup has changed. A competition that was once so one-sided in favor of the Americans that the original United States versus Great Britain format was changed to include first Ireland and then all of Europe in an attempt to reinvigorate the biennial matches has swung to a European-friendly affair. Seven of the nine matches between Watson’s first captaincy and the start of play on Friday were won by Team Europe.

Watson signaled his adherence to a traditional approach when he announced his captain’s picks at the beginning of the month. In Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Hunter Mahan he named three established stars with Cup experience, ignoring the fact that the first two weren’t playing very well. By looking only at resumes that included spots on previous Ryder Cup teams, Watson passed over the two hottest American golfers, Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk, winners of three of the four FedEx Cup playoff events.

Team USA took an early 2½ to 1½ lead in the Friday morning four-balls, with the most notable result the 5 & 4 drubbing handed Poulter and Stephen Gallacher by American rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed. But after assuring his team and the media all week that he would set his pairings based on how team members performed, he then sat that winning twosome Friday afternoon. Team Europe won 3½ of a possible 4 points in the foursomes, taking a lead it would not relinquish.

In naming Simpson to the team Watson expressed high confidence in the 2012 U.S. Open champion. But after he and Bubba Watson were defeated Friday morning, Simpson didn’t play again until Sunday. Similarly, the captain of Team USA along with much of the American media had sung the praises of the pairing of Phil Mickelson and Bradley, who were undefeated together in three matches at Medinah. But after they followed a Friday morning win with a loss that afternoon, Watson refused to play either Mickelson or Bradley at all on Saturday. That evening a story in the New York Times referred to the captain whose naming had been deemed the stuff of genius as “a revered retread.”

By Sunday morning Team Europe led 10-6, requiring the kind of comeback from the Americans that they had been victimized by two years ago. When Spieth and Mahan took early leads over McDowell and Justin Rose in two of the first four singles matches, American hopes briefly flickered. But after being 3-down at the turn the unflappable McDowell rallied on the back nine to post a 2 & 1 win. Rose also fought back from a 4-down deficit after just seven holes, eventually earning a half point when Mahan once again imploded on the 18th hole. Meanwhile McIlroy was playing like the world number one, winning five of the first six holes on his way to a 5 & 4 trouncing of Rickie Fowler to score the first point of the Sunday singles.

When 38-year old Jamie Donaldson struck a 147 yard approach shot down the hill to within 18 inches of the cup on the 15th hole to dispatch Bradley, the familiar European celebration and the sing-song chants of “Ole! Ole! Ole-Ole-Ole!” got underway in earnest. The American players, led by Mickelson, were left to launch thinly veiled criticisms at their captain. But as inconsistent and unapproachable as Tom Watson was, it should be remembered that he didn’t strike a single shot for Team USA. American golf fans were told this year’s Ryder Cup would be different from the last two editions, and indeed it was. As they watched their team lose by a lopsided 16½ to 11½, for American fans it was worse.

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