News & Opinion

Tom Watson stirs up a few Ryder Cup ghosts

U.S. captain Tom Watson at 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles
Tom Watson tells a Scottish newspaper that Europe knows how to ‘keep it light’ and deal with pressure in the Ryder Cup, compared with the U.S. side.

Architect of Americans’ 2014 debacle at Gleneagles tells Scottish newspaper that Europeans deal better with pressure of matches

DUBLIN, Ohio – Tom Watson was a controversial pick as 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, mostly because he was perceived to have been out of touch with PGA Tour players.

When Watson allowed himself to heed the pleas of Webb Simpson in a 4 a.m. text for a spot on the Ryder Cup team as a captain’s pick, with no legitimate explanation, observers started to question Watson’s decisions. After all, Jason Dufner, Ryan Moore, Brendon Todd and Chris Kirk ranked higher on the Ryder Cup points list.

The clamor wasn’t as much about Simpson but about how Watson ignored Billy Horschel, who had won the BMW Championship, the last event before picks had to be made. The next week, the tenacious Horschel won the Tour Championship, magnifying the issue. Simpson, by comparison, won the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, the second event of the 2013-14 wraparound season. He would post eight top-10 results in the rest of the season but no more victories.

Questions about Watson’s captaincy, even before the 2014 Ryder Cup started, grew louder after his three picks, which included Keegan Bradley and Hunter Mahan.

Once the U.S. team got to Gleneagles in Scotland, Watson clearly didn’t have the 12 players on his side.  

After Simpson, who teamed with Bubba Watson to endure a 5-and-4 drubbing from Europe’s Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson in Friday morning four-balls, was relegated to team cheerleader until Sunday singles. That, despite captain Watson having sung Simpson’s praises leading up to the matches.

Phil Mickelson joined Simpson in Ryder Cup purgatory that week after going 1-1 in the first day.

In hindsight, Watson misread the room and his 12 players, costing the U.S. team, which lost, 16½-11½.

The reason for the history lesson is because Watson commented about U.S. team tendencies, according to a report Tuesday in The Scotsman newspaper of Edinburgh, Scotland.

“What I love about the Europeans is that their team lifts itself up,” Watson said. “Together, they keep it light, and they keep the pressure from really grabbing hold of them. But it does. I think they do it better than the American team does.”

As much as the media report about the captain and how he is not that important and doesn’t hit a shot, I maintain that many victories during the past 30 years of the Ryder Cup can be traced directly to the captains and their actions.

In 2008 at Valhalla, U.S. captain Paul Azinger brought the players into the process as never before with his four-man pod system, while European counterpart Nick Faldo alienated his team.

Azinger didn’t have injured Tiger Woods on the team, so he was without the game’s best player. Yet, Azinger, the 1993 PGA champion, seemed to push the right buttons, starting with a pep rally in downtown Louisville, Ky., on the eve of the matches.

Oddly, Azinger told his players that they didn’t have to attend, but to a man the team showed up. Their actions showed not only respect for Azinger but support for one another.

Europe’s Paul McGinley proved to be the counter to Azinger in 2014. Though Watson struggled with his team, McGinley played his squad like a virtuoso, making the week one that none of his 12 men could forget.

The final news conference on Sunday night at Gleneagles was telling from both teams’ experiences. While Watson came under a verbal attack from Mickelson, the Europeans beamed in their appraisal of McGinley and his captaincy.

Of course, winning cures many ills, but the genuine regard that the Europeans held for McGinley came from more than a winning score.

“What I suggest to the American team is that you've got to lift yourself up,” Watson said in his parting advice. “You've got to be strong supporters of each other going forward to be successful. You need that backup from your fellow players.”

Those words ring hollow from Watson, an eight-time major champion who had captained the U.S. to victory in 1993 at The Belfry, considering that as captain in 2014 he seemed not to follow his own advice.

The Europeans and Americans have had good and bad captains over the years in a biennial series that the U.S. leads, 26-14-2, despite having lost seven of the past nine. One constant theme among the best leaders is that they created a supportive environment in which players knew that the captain had laid the groundwork for a successful week.

Of course, a bad captain still can win a Ryder Cup, but it’s a lot harder.

Watson is right in that the players must be strong supporters of one another, but to suggest that the U.S. players fail in that area is an unfair assessment of the American woes in recent Ryder Cups.

Sometimes, the other side is just better, or one team simply is flat after a long and grueling season. 

Regarding Watson in 2014, he fell short of creating an environment that could overcome McGinley’s approach. Instead, Watson faced an insurrection from a squad that, at least on paper, should have been the superior team.

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