News & Opinion

2020 Ryder Cup vision isn’t quite 20/20

Ryder Cup captains are more overrated than the Beach Boys. There, I’ve said it. It’s not as if the guy were flying an airplane or anything, as if the life expectancy of everyone onboard depends solely on whether the dude in the cockpit woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Come to think of it, flight attendants are overrated, too.

You serve a few drinks and tell everyone to sit down. They need a school for that? Tuesday’s announcement that Padraig Harrington will pilot the Europeans in 2020 was an ultra-serious affair, which is how they roll over there. While Harrington was talking about whether he wanted to accept the post, I really thought Tony Robbins was going to barge into the news conference and slap the Irish laddie upside the head.

Seriously, you had to think about it? A Ryder Cup captaincy on either side of the Atlantic is golf’s version of becoming a Playboy photographer – the coolest job ever. Pressure? So what? You spend half of your life trying to make 15-footers for trillions of dollars, and now you’re worried about a little criticism if you lose?

Not that anyone needs to be reminded, but back when the Americans were pummeling the Other Guys on a regular basis, becoming a Ryder Cup captain meant little more than getting the best seat at the poker game that Thursday evening. The event itself was ridiculously overlooked, but then Seve Ballesteros showed up with a sword and a mission, and the Euros went from invisible to invincible in a matter of minutes.

Thirty years later, we can’t see the forest because the trees are in the way. The hype, hand-wringing and hysteria have reached toxic levels, with far too much attention landing on the shoulders of a man sitting in a golf cart with a walkie-talkie. Tom Kite and Hal Sutton were among the U.S. skippers recast as villains. Jim Furyk? Loser. And if Europe had a president, Paul McGinley definitely should run for office.

Too much credit, too much blame. All because of a silly game.

“It’s about selling the event more than anything,” Paul Azinger told me a few weeks ago.

As a victorious U.S. captain (2008) whose Ryder Cup roots run as deep as anyone’s, Azinger quietly decided that he wanted the job again in 2014. “I actually called [the PGA of America] and lobbied for it,” he said. “I sat there for a few weeks twiddling my thumbs and wondering if I really wanted to go to Europe, if I wanted to take on the whole thing another time. It’s not something you just jump into, but I called them and said I was ready to do it.”

Logic tells us that it should have been a no-brainer, that Azinger’s formula for success in ’08 was worth trying to replicate in a series marked by almost two decades of European dominance. The PGA of America’s response? Thanks, but no thanks. Tom Watson got the job, which was a great idea if you were running a feather-ruffling contest but not so smart if you were trying to mold 12 rich guys into a successful team.

“They told me they had more [prospective] captains than there are Ryder Cups,” Azinger said. “Fair enough.”

Never mind that the recycling of Watson turned into a disaster. The PGA keeps overthinking this thing to the point where it can’t get out of its own way. It compiled a task force to address the issues that have turned Uncle Sam into Europe’s whipping boy, then filled it with guys who are largely responsible for America’s shortcomings.

It turned down the captain who had ended a nine-year U.S. drought for a no-nonsense cuss who knew very little about the men he’d be overseeing, but that isn’t why things went so wrong in 2014, or why the Yanks have won just three Ryder Cups since 1995. This is not rocket science, and it sure as hell isn’t more complex than flying an airplane.

Steve Stricker
Will Steve Stricker, the likely pick for the 2020 Ryder Cup captain, change things for the Americans?

The Europeans have a lot of really good players, and their passion for the event clearly exceeds ours. The top U.S. golfers haven’t come close to performing at their expected levels, which isn’t any captain’s fault, while Euro heroes of all shapes and sizes have seized the moment and made hay with it.

Maybe they’re just better than us. And maybe there ain’t no maybe about it.

Steve Stricker is likely to be given the U.S. captaincy before the teams meet at Whistling Straits in 21½ months. When it comes to soft-spoken, Stricker’s picture should appear next to that word in the dictionary. He’s one of the best putters of his generation, but like a lot of the men who previously piloted the Yanks, Stricker (3-7-1) didn’t experience much success in the Ryder Cup.

Too much credit, too much blame. It would be nice if things weren’t always the same, but as we journey through 2019 in anticipation of the matches in 2020, we can rest unassured while figuring that America’s Ryder Cup vision isn’t exactly 20/20.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com