Perhaps this is the Ryder Cup game-changer the United States desperately needs.
The PGA of America and its new president Ted Bishop finally broke the mold of what has become a consistent losing proposition in the biennial team matches against Europe. Instead of choosing another late 40-something active PGA Tour crony of the prospective 12-man roster, it went outside the box and drafted a legend instead.
The 63-year-old eight-time major winner was tapped to skipper the 2014 U.S. team in the matches at Gleneagles in Scotland. There is nobody in the world more suited to coaching a road game in what is practically his adopted foreign nation.
“Tom Watson is Santa Claus over there,” Lee Trevino said of his old teammate and rival.
Watson, of course, was the last U.S. captain to win on foreign soil in 1993, and it’s that reason he was chosen to try to stop the streak.
“I know I speak for a lot of people when I say, we are just really tired of losing the Ryder Cup,” Bishop said during Thursday’s announcement in New York. “And the decision to name (Watson) as our next captain, a lot of that was just about our weariness of what’s happened in the past few Ryder Cups and we certainly hope that trend can change. We feel he’s certainly the perfect person to do this, based on his playing record in Scotland.”
Before we get too far into this, one clarification should be made. America’s disappointing record in recent Ryder Cups is not all on the shoulders of the captains. Davis Love III was an inspiring leader this time in Chicago and did a tremendous job putting the teams together and America’s best foot forward. It’s not his fault that his team couldn’t close out a big lead on Sunday.
But there is a growing concern that perhaps the “connections” that relative peers have with the top players isn’t entirely healthy in calling the shots. Teams need a leader, not a buddy. It never seemed to hurt Phil Jackson, Tony LaRussa or Bill Parcels that they weren’t pals with the guys the champions they coached.
All that matters is respect and inspiration, and Watson has that in spades. The age gap makes little difference, especially when he beat just about every one of the guys who will make up both rosters in almost winning the 2009 British Open at Turnberry at age 59.
“The idea of being captain for a team of youngsters will be questioned,” Watson admitted. “Why is Watson, being the old guy, being the captain? I deflect that very simply by saying – we play the same game. I play against these kids at the Masters. I play against them at the British Open, the Greenbrier Classic. We play the same game, and they understand that.”
Watson views his role as the “stage manager,” just coordinating the operation and putting the right pieces in the right places. It doesn’t hurt that he’s played ALL the roles just a little better in a Hall of Fame career than every player on his team. Nobody on his roster can sniff his 10-4-1 record and association with five winning teams and zero losers.
“And it’s my challenge simply to maybe set the stage with a little extra inspiration for them to go out along with some Watson luck,” he said.
It’s a shame that a class figure and accomplished champion like Larry Nelson got passed over yet again as captain. The PGA of America screwed that one up in the mid-90s and were too stubborn for too long to fix it. Thus we got Corey Pavin as captain instead in 2010 as the pattern of service rewards churned on unabated.
But it was the failures of Pavin’s Ryder Cup captaincy more than anything that led Bishop to break the cycle. Love was absolutely the right pick for 2012, but something different needed to be done for Scotland in 2014.
Bishop first thought of Watson on the flight back from the 2011 Grand Slam event in Bermuda when the late, great Jim Huber handed him a copy of his book, Four Days in July, documenting Watson’s remarkable Open challenge in 2009.
Bishop read it and called Huber when he got home to ask what he thought about Watson as a possible captain in 2014.
Huber thought silently for a moment and replied, “That idea is absolutely brilliant.”
So Bishop got Watson’s cell number and called while Watson was standing in a South Dakota field hunting pheasant. The response he got set the ball in motion.
“Boy, I’ve been waiting for this call for a long time,” Watson said. “Because I really wanted the challenge to do it again.”
So Bishop put together an 85-page document on all the reasons why Watson should get that challenge. No offense to traditional candidates like David Toms or Mark O’Meara, but you’d be hard-pressed between them to come up with 85 reasons much less pages for them to get this particular job.
“I spent a lot of time talking to former Ryder Cup captains,” said Bishop. “I spent time talking to players who had played for Tom in 1993. I talked to some people that I know that play on current Ryder Cup teams and the feedback was overwhelmingly favorable for making that move.”
This is exactly what the U.S. team needs. Picking Watson puts the emphasis back on winning and not just handing out the captaincy as an honorary role. The plan worked out well for the Europeans when they turned the losing tide around under the direction of four-time captain Tony Jacklin, whose teams won or retained the trophy three times and forever altered the Ryder Cup landscape.
If Watson’s second go-round works out, there’s no reason to exclude the possibility of older captains. Why not a Vietnam War hero, three-time major winner and Ryder Cup stalwart like Nelson getting a chance to captain at age 69 in the 2016 matches at Hazeltine? Why not bring back the fiery Paul Azinger to try to reprise his successful system from 2008?
“We have broken this mold and I would say it’s opened the door for anything in the future,” said Bishop.
As Watson said, the captaincy is about inspiration, leadership and a whole lot of luck. But the bottom line has to be more about winning instead of honoring.
“We’re tired of losing,” said Watson. “I always said that early in my career I learned to win by hating to lose. It’s about time to start winning again for our team. That’s the attitude that I hope that my players have, and it’s time to stop losing.”
This looks like a brilliant first step in that direction.