Steve Stricker’s boss victory last weekend at the U.S. Senior Open marked the first time that a reigning Ryder Cup captain had won a major championship since Jack Nicklaus had that little throwdown on Father Time at the 1986 Masters, then went on to pilot the Yanks at Muirfield Village in ’87. You could protest this somewhat insignificant bit of trivia by noting that Stricker’s triumph came against men 50 or older, which hardly compares to Nicklaus’ remarkable performance en route to his 18th major title, but I’ll waive my right to a rebuttal and invoke my option to digress.
He may no longer rank among America’s 12 best golfers, but Stricker remains an outstanding player. His actual captaincy is still 15 months in the distance, but with current Masters champ Tiger Woods overseeing the U.S. contingent that will travel to Australia for the Presidents Cup in December, the idea of a playing captain suddenly seems quite relevant.
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Tiger Woods, who will captain the U.S. team this fall in the Presidents Cup in Australia, should bring his sticks Down Under. He might need them.
Let’s face it: Does Uncle Sam have anything to lose by at least pondering the concept? The trip to Melbourne offers a perfect platform for such an experiment. Woods stands fifth in the latest Official World Golf Ranking, third among his compatriots, and it’s not as if the Prez Cup is a storyline-producing machine. His participation as a competitor would draw some invaluable attention to an event stuck in the slowest month on the golf calendar. Though you certainly wouldn’t ask Woods to bring his clubs for the sole purpose of piquing interest, we’re not talking about a dude who isn’t worthy of a spot on the team, either.
All that being said, it’s all about whether Woods would want to play. He can hang out in a golf cart all week with his walkie-talkie. Or he can take on a dual role, becoming America’s first player-captain since Arnold Palmer in 1963, perhaps even utilizing the opportunity to light a fuse of momentum for the next tussle against Europe in September 2020.
As Yogi Berra might have once said, this is a thinking man’s no-brainer. It has become far too easy to postulate on the reasons behind Old Glory’s extended stretch of inferior play at the Ryder Cup. We’ve reached the point where the accumulation of those theories has added another layer of complexity to an event that the U.S. already overthinks. You can argue all day about unproductive pairings or sitting out guys who should have been playing, but when the sun goes down, team match play is largely about who made the 15-footers and who didn’t.
Perhaps America should simplify its Ryder Cup mindset and borrow a recipe from a bygone era, when it thrashed the Euros on a regular basis and spent more time agonizing over losses at the team’s poker table than a couple of bogeys against Peter Oosterhuis. To that end, a playing captain is one of the boys. He’s in the competitive foxhole with everyone else. As much as Ryder Cup skippers of the modern era do to integrate themselves with the roster, they’re still in charge. A separate entity.
Generals don’t carry rifles, but soldiers can’t live without them. In the biennial series against Europe, the commanding officers carry hand-held radios so they can communicate with their squadron of a half-dozen assistants. It’s a serious case of overkill with extra whipped cream, two cherries and a partridge in a pear tree. Fellas! Let’s have some fun and make some putts. Everything else will take care of itself.
Palmer was the last skipper to tee it up 56 years ago, but it was an abrupt end to a common practice back in the day. From the Ryder Cup’s inception in 1927 through ’63, there were just two instances when the skipper didn’t compete: 1937, when Walter Hagen ran the show, and 1949, when Ben Hogan was still recovering from injuries suffered in his car accident earlier that year.
The U.S. went 8-1 with playing captains during that stretch. For all that can be said about how much the game has changed, immeasurables such as team unity, competitive mentality and positive identity haven’t wavered even a little bit. There obviously are no guarantees that Woods’ willingness to do both jobs in December would amount to even an inch of progress as it relates to the Ryder Cup, but if the PGA of America assembled a task force to examine the problem and shake things up in search of solutions, then let’s shake the heck out of it.
And by the way, don’t even bring up the notion that a captain surely would struggle with such a demanding workload. It’s three days. It’s an honor to play for your country. The U.S. has been getting shelled for a vast majority of the 21st century. All hands on deck, gentlemen. And at the very least, don’t rule out the option of putting a rifle in the commanding officer’s hands. Nobody ever won a hole with a walkie-talkie.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org