Hawk's Nest: RC captain's role biggest with picks

By John HawkinsSeptember 2, 2014, 2:00 pm

NEWTON, Mass. – Once he’s hired a fleet of loyal assistants, finalized wardrobe details and signed off on the pillow mints, a Ryder Cup captain can bear down on his most crucial task: selecting the players who fill out his 12-man roster. No decisions made by either skipper will have a greater impact on the final outcome.

Compatible partnerships are obviously important, but there is no dictating how anyone will perform once balls are in the air. Months of preparation can become wholly insignificant. You spend hours in a golf cart watching, like everyone else.

“As a captain, you surrender control,” says Paul Azinger, who piloted the U.S. to victory in 2008. “The funny thing is, you control everything before it starts, then it all gets taken away.”

When Europe added a pair of captain’s picks to its team-composition process in 1979, it was partly out of desperation. The mighty Americans hadn’t lost a Ryder Cup in 20 years and would go on to win the next three, but as the series began to even out, then slide in Europe’s favor, the role of the skipper’s additions became a major cause for the turnabout.

Jose Maria Olazabal was 8-5-1 as a three-time pick, winning at least two matches in all three meetings. At the back-to-back Euro blowouts in 2004 and ’06, the four selections combined for an astounding 11-2-3 record. Then, of course, there is Ian Poulter, whose 8-1 mark as a captain’s choice tells us a couple of things.

He can look like dog meat from January through August, but put a flag on his back and he turns into a superhero.

If there’s a bright side to the American cause this year, it’s that Tom Watson’s picks as the 1993 skipper remain the most productive since the U.S. adopted the procedure in 1989. Raymond Floyd and Lanny Wadkins went 5-2-1 at The Belfry, which happens to be the last time the Yanks won overseas.

It also remains the best example of why experience is such a valued commodity at an event defined by intense pressure – Floyd was 51 at the time, Wadkins 43. When Lanny leaned hard on the same premise two years later, however, Curtis Strange lost all three of his matches and came apart down the stretch, losing a pivotal point to Nick Faldo.

Faldo, incidentally, had been added to the Euro squad by Bernard Gallacher. Wadkins was roasted for picking Strange well before that fateful Sunday at Oak Hill, but of all the memories I retain during my 20-plus years covering pro golf, Strange’s take-it-like-a-man confessional afterward ranks among the more poignant.

“Losing like this doesn’t hurt as much as winning feels good,” was the line that stood out.

AS A FEW cynical writers pondered what shapes up as the weakest U.S. team ever at TPC Boston this past weekend, the notion struck me: this year’s squad is so inferior, it might even beat the Euros at Gleneagles. Azinger’s group in ’08 was the first American side that wasn’t favored to win on U.S. soil, and then battered the bewildered visitors.

“Tiger not being there did a couple of things,” Azinger says. “It allowed us to play the role of underdog – Faldo [the opposing captain] said it unnerved him a bit. It also really helped us at a place [Valhalla] where you can hear things going on all throughout the back nine.

“Momentum is invisible. It’s like the wind. You can’t see it, but it’s really powerful.”

The problem with this U.S. team is that it has to play in Scotland, where love from the galleries will be very difficult to decipher. That would seem to make the value of Ryder Cup experience even more precious, although Rickie Fowler played pretty well as a rookie (and captain’s pick) in Ireland four years ago.

Regardless, it leaves Watson a bit cornered when he announces his three captain’s picks Tuesday evening. The practice of adding “hot golfers” is vastly overrated – the matches are still a month away. When you consider that Watson chose a couple of grizzled warhorses 21 years ago and emerged with a victory, there’s no reason to believe he’ll abandon the philosophy this time.

THE PGA TOUR’S on-site travel agent was as busy as I’ve ever seen him during the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship. Those still alive in the FedEx Cup derby (and not rich enough to own a private jet) were looking to hustle out to Denver for the third installment of the playoff series, and the Monday finish at TPC Boston obviously shortened the amount of time between the events.

We’re also talking about a site (Cherry Hills) a lot of players have never seen, making a practice round and acclimation in general more vital than usual. Add distance between the cities and the mile-high thin air, and you’re left with one big question: Why didn’t the Tour schedule an off-week – or move the Deutsche Bank up to a conventional Sunday finish?

Maybe that’s two questions. “Poor planning by our government,” griped one pro who rarely complains, although Camp Ponte Vedra was left in a tough spot this month. It basically comes down to this – do you take the bye week now and leave no gap between the Tour Championship and the Ryder Cup, or do you finish the season Sept. 14 and give America’s team some time to catch their breath?

The PGA of America isn’t going to move their shindig into October just so the Tour can hurl millions at everyone still standing in Atlanta. Move the Tour Championship to the week after the Ryder Cup? Now there’s an idea, but hey, we can’t do that. We’ve gotta get the second edition of the wraparound season off and running!

Just another reason to …

Oh, never mind.

TWENTY MINUTES AFTER I filed last week’s column, news broke that Tiger Woods had dismissed Sean Foley as his swing coach. Timing, anyone? Journalistically, I felt a bit deprived, kind of like the guy whose wife won’t let him attend his buddy’s bachelor party because it’s raining outside.

So the headline is eight days old. Which, in most cases, means I wouldn’t bother, but some people have been waiting three years for Woods to fire Foley. Which means eight days is more like eight minutes.

Some thoughts:

Red Shirt doesn’t need someone standing next to him on the practice range persuading him to overdose on mechanics. The Big Guy Upstairs (Earl) is his swing coach. At the age of 2, Woods was hitting golf balls on national television. He was blessed with an abundance of natural ability nobody else on earth can comprehend. Just go play, dude. Think shot, not swing.

That said, perhaps Woods’ increased reliance on a coach has become a crutch – or a convenient source of blame for shortcomings brought on by age, injury, a lack of practice, or all of the above. When Tiger was at his best, Butch Harmon wasn’t nearly as omnipresent as was Foley, who seemed to be constantly videotaping Eldrick’s move. Since when does a player-coach relationship have to be a 24/7 thing?

Woods’ search for perfection has gotten him nowhere. His visual memory, however, is ridiculously powerful, his instinct and sensory command almost otherworldly. Translation? He’s a feel player. Again, just go play.

As he approaches his 39th birthday, Tiger needs to come to terms with reality. His body keeps breaking down, his performance affected to whatever degree, and at this stage of the game, he needs to dance with whom he brung. Which is a pretty damn good-looking woman, regardless of how unsuccessful the Foley regime was.

Getty Images

Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

Getty Images

Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

Getty Images

DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

Getty Images

LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.