Watson ready for intense scrutiny at Ryder Cup

By Randall MellSeptember 22, 2014, 1:30 pm

Tom Watson will be scrutinized anew when the final score is posted at Gleneagles in Scotland this week.

He won’t leave the Ryder Cup the same, with his legacy certain to be altered in some way.

That’s how it is now with captains in these pressurized matches. They either become more of what they already were, their greatness swollen with another triumph, or they become something less, their fame nicked or gashed by a grand failure, because that’s what losing a Ryder Cup has become, a failure more epic than losing ever was as a player.

In other words, it’s all become terribly overblown.

A captain passes through scrutiny to the extreme in a Ryder Cup week.

He is a genius. He is an inspiration. He is a winner.

Or he’s a dolt, a disappointment, a loser.

The blame came down so hard on Hal Sutton after the Americans lost at Oakland Hills in ’04, he went into virtual golf exile for four years.

“It drove me right out of the game,” Sutton said.

Nick Faldo was blamed for being too aloof to inspire the Europeans in their loss at Valhalla in ’08.

“It left a scar,” Faldo said of the defeat.

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Tom Kite was criticized for being too soft and ultimately outmaneuvered by Seve Ballesteros in an American loss at Valderrama in ’97.

“You prepare as best you can and hope your guys play well,” Kite said years later. “If they do, you look like a genius, and if they don’t, you look like an idiot.”

The captains live with post-mortem analyses that range from mythic to overblown.

Ballesteros was magnetic and infectious, willing the Europeans to victory with his charismatic presence in ’97 at Valderrama. He seemed omnipresent, zipping between matches in a souped-up golf cart. Faldo was the anti-Seve, too passionless to inspire his team in ’08 at Valhalla.

Ben Crenshaw was a wizard, a prophet predicting something historic was imminent on the eve of the American comeback at the ’99 Ryder Cup. Sutton was blindly autocratic, unable to see what a disaster it would be forcing the pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to open the matches in ’04 at Oakland Hills.

Paul Azinger was a master of the psychology of dynamic relationships, devising a “pod” system that put American players in position to succeed at Valhalla in ‘08. Mark James was the architect of collapse, dooming his team with the risky decision to bench three of his European players until Sunday singles in ’99 at Brookline.

Sam Torrance won the cup in ’02 at The Belfry, frontloading his Sunday singles lineup. Curtis Strange lost it, backloading his lineup there.

Conquering hero or blundering failure? For Ryder Cup captains, it seems as if there is nothing in between anymore.

This is the hornet’s nest Watson is stepping into at Gleneagles this week.

“I’m prepared for that,” Watson said. “I don’t have a problem with it. I have some thick skin.”

Watson said all he can do is try to make the best decisions possible at the time he has to make them.

“If the decisions turn out to be where the players lose rather than win, heck, I’m taking the blame,” he said. “I don’t care. I don’t care at all. I just want the players to win that one extra hole, one more hole than the other team in every match, and make me look good.

“Doesn’t matter if they make me look good. If and when we win the Ryder Cup, I’ll stand aside and give all the credit, all the credit to the players, their caddies, and that’s where the credit is due.”

Even more might be expected of Watson than most captains because his name is so iconic in the game, and because the PGA of America was so bold breaking tradition in bringing him back.

He was the last captain to lead the Americans to victory on foreign soil. Twenty-one years after leading that triumph at The Belfry, Watson was brought aboard to work his magic again, to restore American pride and keep the Euros from winning for the sixth time in seven tries.

He’s going to Scotland to do it, where he is so revered for winning four of his five British Open titles.

Savior and demigod, that’s a full plate of expectations.

“The U.S. is so desperate to win a Ryder Cup, that’s why they gave Watson a shot,” NBC’s Johnny Miller said.

At 65, Watson is old school, a throw-back whose leadership style could not be perceived more differently from the captain he succeeded, the democratic, management-by-committee style of Davis Love III. An eight-time major championship winner, Watson takes a tough-as-nails reputation to Scotland.

“The U.S. under Watson is definitely a win mentality,” Miller said. “Nothing else matters to Tom Watson. He's not going to be holding their hands saying, `It's OK, maybe you'll get ‘em next time.’ It's going to be, `You'd better win the danged thing.’ That’s all there is to it, no complaining, just win, like Al Davis says of the Raiders. I think that's the kind of captain that Watson is.”

Watson understands how the stakes have escalated in the Ryder Cup, but he doesn’t see his role being any different than it was 21 years ago. He isn’t making more of his ability to affect the outcome than is really there.

“From the start, I've said I'm a stage manager,” Watson said. “I set the stage for the players. I tell them where to go. I make the final decisions on who is paired with whom, the order in which they play, and they go out on stage and they perform.”

Ultimately, a captain tries to put players in position to succeed, but the truth is players have more ability to make or break a captain.

“If a man is down and has a curling putt on the 14th hole and misses it, how is it the captain’s fault?” Faldo told the Daily Mail in answer to criticism of his captaincy.

A captain’s IQ soars 50 points when his players have hot putters. His IQ plummets when they don’t.

“I don’t know where a captain has actually made that big a difference, with the exception of putting the right people in the right positions,” Watson said. “Sometimes, that’s just blind luck. Other times, that’s well thought out. It’s a rational decision.”

Watson won’t hole a putt this week, won’t hit a shot out of bounds, but he’ll end up with credit or blame for both.

“I can’t do a darned thing about it once those players are on the golf course,” Watson said. “They are in charge of their own destiny. That is the toughest thing about being a captain. I have no skin in the game.”

A captain can create an atmosphere, set a tone that puts a player more comfortably in position to succeed. Or, for some players, uncomfortably. That’s the thing. There are 12 players, and they’re all different personalities. Some players are better on edge, others aren’t.

“Keeping your players happy may be the most important thing a captain does,” Torrance one said.

Or keeping them dry. Corey Pavin got all kinds of grief at Wales in ’10 when the rain suits his wife helped design leaked so much the Americans had to abandon them in the middle of their matches.

Nobody may have been better at creating atmosphere suited to a player’s strength than Azinger, who grouped players in small pods according to personality types at Valhalla.

Watson sees the appeal in that.

“I’ll be using it in some modified form,” Watson said.

When he led the Americans to victory as captain at The Belfry, Watson created a ruggedly competitive atmosphere. He created controversy there when Torrance – then a player – asked Watson to sign his dinner menu at an official function and Watson refused.

The backstory is that Watson told his players not to sign autographs at the dinner, so as to spare them a long evening when rest was required. He was adhering to his own orders.

Still, his refusal almost mushroomed into an international incident in media accounts. Watson ruffled European sensibilities again before Sunday singles when Torrance complained he couldn’t play because of a toe injury, forcing the Americans to accept a halved singles match, as is Ryder Cup rule. Watson marched into the European team room insisting on seeing Torrance’s ingrown toe-nail.

Bernard Gallacher captained the Europeans that year.

“Tom Watson is a fair man, a nice man, but he’s also a hard man and a competitive man,” Gallacher told the Telegraph this past week.

When it’s all over, we won’t know how the captain’s decisions truly affected the final outcome.

“They could not even have a captain, and it wouldn't matter that much,” Miller said. “I just don't really believe the captain is that big of a deal, personally. You've got these players, 12 really terrific players, and they want to win so badly, and there's no magic formula.”

Magic or not, you can be sure the captain’s winning and losing formulas will be evaluated in the end for assignment of credit and blame.

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Kelly beats Monty with two-shot swing on final hole

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 3:21 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Jerry Kelly made an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole, Colin Montgomerie missed a 6-footer for par and Kelly turned a one-shot deficit into a victory Saturday in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

After Kelly drove it well right into lava rocks on the par-4 16th, leading to bogey and giving Montgomerie the lead, Montgomerie made a mistake with his tee shot on the last, finding a fairway bunker. Montgomerie's approach went over the green and after Kelly converted his birdie, the 54-year-old Scot jammed his par putt well past the hole.

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It was the third win on the over-50 tour for the 51-year-old Kelly, who finished tied for 14th last week at the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Honolulu. That gave him confidence as he hopped over to the Big Island for his tournament debut at Hualalai. The limited-field event includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Kelly closed with a 6-under 66 for a three-day total of 18-under 198. Montgomerie shot 69. David Toms shot 67 and finished two shots back, and Miguel Angel Jimenez was another stroke behind after a 66.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, closed with a 70 to finish at 10 under.

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Rahm manages frustration, two back at CareerBuilder

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 1:21 am

Jon Rahm managed the winds and his frustrations Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge to give himself a chance to win his fourth worldwide title in the last year.

Rahm’s 2-under-par 70 on the PGA West Stadium Course left him two shots off the lead going into the final round.

“I wasn’t really dealing with the wind that much,” Rahm said of his frustrations. “I was dealing with not being as fluid as I was the last two days.”

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The world’s No. 3 ranked player opened with a 62 at La Quinta Country Club on Thursday and followed it up with a 67 on Friday at PGA West. He made six birdies and four bogeys on the Stadium Course on Saturday.

“The first day, everything was outstanding,” Rahm said. “Yesterday, my driver was a little shaky but my irons shots were perfect. Today, my driver was shaky and my irons shots were shaky. On a course like this, it’s punishing, but luckily on the holes where I found the fairway I was able to make birdies.”

Rahm is projected to move to No. 2 in the world rankings with a finish of sixth or better on Sunday.

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Cook leads by one entering final round at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:51 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Austin Cook hit a hybrid into the fairway bunker on the par-4 18th on a breezy Saturday afternoon at La Quinta Country Club, then chunked a wedge and raced a chip 20 feet past the hole.

Kip Henley, the longtime PGA Tour caddie who guided Cook to a breakthrough victory at Sea Island in November, stepped in to give the 26-year-old former Arkansas star a quick pep talk.

''Kip said, 'Let's finish this like we did on the first day at the Nicklaus Course.' We made a big par putt on 18 there and he said, 'Let's just do the same thing. Let's get this line right and if you get the line right it's going in.'''

It did, giving Cook an 8-under 64 and a one-stroke lead in the CareerBuilder Challenge going into the final round on the Stadium Course at PGA West. Fellow former Razorback Andrew Landry and Martin Piller were tied for second, and Jon Rahm and Scott Piercy were a another stroke back after a tricky day in wind that didn't get close to the predicted gusts of 40 mph.

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''I know that I wouldn't have wanted to play the Stadium today,'' Cook said. ''I think we got a great draw with the courses that we got to play on the days that we got to play them.''

Cook played the final six holes on the front nine in 6 under with an eagle and four birdies.

''Starting on my fourth hole, I was able to make a birdie and kind of get the ball rolling and it never really stopped rolling,'' Cook said. ''Kip and I were doing really good at seeing the line on the greens.''

After a bogey on 10, he birdied 11, 12 and 15 and parred the final three to get to 19-under 197.

''I think that tonight the nerves, the butterflies, all that will kind of be a little less,'' Cook said. ''I've been in the situation before and I was able to finish the job on Sunday. I think it would be a little different if I didn't play like I did on Sunday at Sea Island.''

He's making his first start in the event.

''I came in from Hawaii on Monday, so I only had two days to prepare for three courses,'' Cook said.

Landry, the second-round leader, had a 70 at the Stadium. Piller, the husband of LPGA tour player Gerina Piller, shot a 67 at La Quinta. Winless on the PGA Tour, they will join Cook in the final threesome.

''Piller's a good guy and we have played a lot together and same with Cookie,'' said Landry, the only player without a bogey after 54 holes. ''Hope the Hogs are going to come out on top.''

Rahm had a 70 at the Stadium to reach 17 under. The third-ranked Rahm beat up the par 5s again, but had four bogeys – three on par 3s. He has played the 12 par 5s in 13 under with an eagle and 11 birdies.

''A little bit of a survival day,'' Rahm said.

The wind was more of a factor on the more exposed and tighter Stadium Course.

''The course is firming up,'' Rahm said. ''I know if we have similar wind to today, if we shoot something under par, you'll be way up there contesting it over the last few holes.''

Piercy had a 66 at the Stadium.

''I controlled my ball really well today,'' he said.

Adam Hadwin had a 67 at La Quinta a year after shooting a third-round 59 on the course. The Canadian was 16 under along with Grayson Murray and Brandon Harkins. Murray had a 67 on the Nicklaus Course, and Harkins shot 68 at the Stadium.

Phil Mickelson missed the cut in his first tournament of the year for the second time in his career, shooting a 74 on the Stadium to finish at 4 under – four strokes from a Sunday tee time. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer was playing for the first time since late October. He also missed the cut in the Phoenix Open in his 2009 opener.

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on the first sponsor exemption the event has given to an amateur, also missed the cut. He had three early straight double bogeys in a 77 on the Stadium that left him 1 over.

John Daly had an 80 at La Quinta. He opened with a triple bogey and had six bogeys – four in a row to start his second nine - and only one birdie. The 51-year-old Daly opened with a 69 on the Nicklaus layout and had a 71 on Friday at the Stadium.

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Phil misses CareerBuilder cut for first time in 24 years

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 am

Phil Mickelson missed the cut Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge. It’s a rare occurrence in his Hall of Fame career.

He has played the event 15 times, going back to when it was known as the Bob Hope Classic. He has won it twice.

How rare is his missing the cut there?

The last time he did so, there was no such thing as a DVD, Wi-Fi, iPods, Xbox, DVR capability or YouTube.

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The PGA Tour’s Jon Rahm didn’t exist, either.

The last time Mickelson missed a cut in this event was 1994, nine months before Rahm was born.

Mickelson struggled to a 2-over-par 74 in the heavy winds Saturday on the PGA West Stadium Course, missing the 54-hole cut by four shots. He hit just four of 14 fairways, just nine of 18 greens. He took a double bogey at the 15th after requiring two shots to escape the steep-walled bunker on the left side of the green.

Mickelson won’t have to wait long to try to get back in the hunt. He’s scheduled to play the Farmers Insurance Open next week at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif.