If U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson had an idea of how his pairings for this week’s matches were going to shape up he wasn’t letting on.
To a man, those who were bound for Gleneagles and this week’s Ryder Cup remained very much out of the loop just a week ago at the Tour Championship.
“I haven't spoken yet with Tom. I'm sure he wasn't going to bother me (at the Tour Championship),” Jim Furyk said following his final round at East Lake. “But I'm guessing we'll talk about that this week. When we land and arrive over there in Scotland, we'll be ready to go.”
It doesn’t seem likely Captain Tom will utilize a “pods” system like the one 2008 captain Paul Azinger created, at least not officially. That’s not his style.
Instead, Watson appears to be leaning toward a more informal approach with heavy input from assistant captain Steve Stricker.
As of Sunday at the Tour Championship there had been little if any contact between the team and their captain, but many players had spoken to the captain’s lieutenants.
“I’ll tell you the assistants have. Stricker called me. I don’t know if he’s called everybody, but he did want to get my thoughts,” said Zach Johnson, who will be playing his fourth Ryder Cup.
At 65, Watson will rely heavily on Stricker’s insight as well as any individual player preferences. Johnson, for example, has plenty of history in both Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup play and, depending on the format, would be a relatively easy choice for America’s top matchmaker.
In 2010 at Celtic Manor he went 1-1 in foursomes play with Hunter Mahan and the duo also won a fourball match at the 2009 Presidents Cup.
“I’ve got my preferences. There are certainly guys I’d like to pair with depending on the format and there are certain guys I’m not so sure they should even look at for me depending on the format,” Johnson said.
“Fourball? It really doesn’t matter. Foursomes? Maybe a little bit of strategy. The (brand of) golf ball is a little bit of an issue. Likeness of games and chemistry of certain individuals should be a part of that as well.”
Furyk, who after Phil Mickelson will be the United States’ most experienced player this week, would also be an inspired pairing for Johnson. “I’d think we’d be great,” Johnson said.
Rickie Fowler should also be low-hanging fruit for the U.S. captain. He paired with Furyk at the ’10 matches and is a regular partner of Mickelson’s during practice round matches on Tour.
Fowler & Co. even gave Watson some early scouting two weeks ago at the Tour Championship when he paired with Jimmy Walker, one of three rookies on this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, in a nine-hole, fourball match on Wednesday at East Lake.
“I played with Jimmy (Walker) this week and I’ve played with Furyk and Phil quite a bit (in) best-ball games,” said Fowler, who birdied the ninth hole at East Lake to beat Johnson and Jordan Spieth in their impromptu match. “I thought those were the guys who stood out.”
Watson may have also given a glimpse at his lineup card with his three captain’s picks. Keegan Bradley, who went undefeated in team play paired with Mickelson two years ago at Medinah, was his first pick; and Webb Simpson has played a combined seven team matches (2012 Ryder Cup and 2011 Presidents Cup) paired with Bubba Watson. The duo is 5-2-0 over that stretch, including a 2-1-0 record at Medinah.
Matt Kuchar has proven himself the ultimate swingman in international play, having paired with six different partners in four international matches with varying degrees of success; and Spieth seems to be on everyone’s “wish” list considering his play at last year’s Presidents Cup when he went 2-1-0 in team play.
Watson’s wildcard may be Patrick Reed, a rookie playing his first international team match of any kind. Reed rubbed some of his peers the wrong way when he announced earlier this year at Doral that he considered himself a “top-5 player” and according to various sources Fowler has been the only player on the team who has shown a willingness to pair with him at Gleneagles.
Based on Watson’s first turn as captain in 1993 it seems likely he would lean heavily on his veterans on Day 1. This is, after all, the same man who made 51-year-old Raymond Floyd and Lanny Wadkins his captain’s picks his last time around.
But just as the PGA of America broke the mold when it named Watson this year’s captain, the 2014 team was prepared for a Ryder Cup that was not exactly by the book.
“We’ll see once we get over there and see where Tom’s at,” Fowler said.