GLENEAGLES, Scotland – In case of emergency, break glass.
Behind those shards of glass the PGA of America found Tom Watson, the 65-year-old legend that is two decades removed from his last turn as a U.S. Ryder Cup captain.
By reaching back into the archives the PGA, specifically the association’s president Ted Bishop, tacitly acknowledged that the U.S. Ryder Cup process was broken.
With just two victories in the last nine matches the United States had squarely established itself as the perennial underdog and Bishop’s gambit with captain Tom was Outside of the Box 101.
As these things tend to flow, the media quickly latched on to the notion that the competitive relevancy of the event hangs in the balance this week at Gleneagles. It’s a dance most Ryder Cup veterans are accustomed to.
“Even if we win this week, we're still a long way behind what the U.S. have done over the years. We've still got a long way to go,” said Rory McIlroy, defaulting back to the U.S. side’s 25-12-2 historic advantage in the matches.
“The U.S. team are very strong and I don't want to get into ‘if we win’ this week and what will happen. The Ryder Cup will go on whether Europe wins or loses, and it will be just as big and just as great an event either way.”
Although there is no danger of the matches lapsing into the depths of irrelevancy – the crowds that ringed Medinah’s fairways two years ago proved that it’s just not Chicago Cubs fans that are willing to embrace a habitual also-ran – but that doesn’t change the level of concern among those on the red, white and blue side of the transatlantic divide. Why else circle back around to Watson?
And this time around the U.S. team has come by its underdog status honestly. First Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson withdrew from these matches for a combination of physical and mental injuries, respectively; and then Watson’s captain’s picks were undermined by what can only be described as unfortunate timing when Billy Horschel, who wasn’t a pick, blazed his way to the FedEx Cup title.
That an American team hasn’t won an away game since 1993 – which, not coincidentally, was the last time Watson captained a Ryder Cup squad – and the dominant play of Europe’s stars this season have conspired to make the U.S. side a distinct long shot.
When Phil Mickelson was reminded of the U.S. team’s slim chances and his fading Ryder Cup opportunities, however, the veteran seemed to speak for the entire team.
“Are you always this half-empty?” Mickelson asked the scribe. “Is that how you look at things? Because we're more optimistic here.”
Perhaps it’s false bravado, maybe Lefty – who seemed to fire the first shot of these matches with a tongue-in-cheek reference to McIlroy and Graeme McDowell’s ongoing legal troubles on Wednesday – figures it’s best to avoid the negative association that comes with past failures.
Either way, there is a palpable feeling among the U.S. team – and even a few Europeans – that the Continent’s perceived advantage is as thin as the betting slips that have the home team a 4-to-6 favorite.
Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the U.S. team has a better average Official World Golf Ranking (16.4) than the European squad (19.9) and Euro captain Paul McGinley’s squad is not without its share of blind spots.
Consider that Ian Poulter, who admitted on Thursday that he scares his own children when he lapses into his Ryder Cup trance, may have been the magician of Medinah when he went undefeated in four matches, but the Englishman posted a single top-10 finish this year on the PGA Tour and broke par in just three of his last 20 rounds in the United States.
Lee Westwood and McDowell have also underperformed this season and rookie Victor Dubuisson has become a paradox of pedestrian play.
Which leaves McGinley – who has a total of four European Tour victories; the same number as, say, Chad Campbell on the PGA Tour – to piece it all together using the mystical winning “template” that has been passed down from captain to captain.
“The template is huge,” McGinley said on Tuesday. “This is not a time for me or Europe to have a maverick captain. It's a time for me to go in, identify the template, enhance it and try to make it better, roll it out again and then hopefully you hand it over to the next captain when he comes into position.”
The U.S. team doesn’t have that luxury and without a spare Paul Azinger layout around – the 2008 captain’s dance card must have been full this week – the PGA opted for Watson to play the role of maverick captain.
It is interesting that if the U.S. team is going to get off the schneid it will likely be the three players who hadn’t attended their first kindergarten class when Watson last won an overseas Ryder Cup that will turn the tide.
Jordan Spieth, who was born two months before the ’93 matches in England, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed will be the U.S. team’s true wild cards. No? Just look at the team’s record in these matches to prove the point.
Mickelson, playing his 10th Ryder Cup, is 14-18-6 in his career; while Jim Furyk is an inexplicable 9-17-4. Whether he likes the idea or not Old Tom has been shoehorned into a lineup that will have to rely on new talent if things are going to go America’s way, which would explain his decision to send Spieth and fellow rookie Reed out in the morning’s third fourball match on Friday.
“I'm a big believer that in the Ryder Cup, world rankings, majors, wins, they are all gone. Everybody starts from scratch,” said Bradley, who will join Mickelson in Friday morning’s anchor match against McIlroy and Sergio Garcia. “I say we are underdogs. But come that first tee, everybody's even from right there.”
Considering the growing sense of urgency among the American contingent the hope is that the paper lion’s advantage ends at that first tee.