For the American sideline, picking an assistant Ryder Cup captain has been akin to piecing together a seating chart for a wedding.
Your Uncle Sal may be a cherished member of the family, but do you really want to spend two hours trying to make small talk with the guy?
So while there’s never been a shortage of available players with the institutional moxie to make a real difference as an assistant, more times than not the coveted cart keys went to friends. The kind of guys you’d want to spend a few days with in a team room.
That’s not to say the recent crop of assistants weren’t deserving, accomplished players in their own right, but were they right for the job? Were they right for the team?
In 2012, for example, Davis Love III named Fred Couples, Jeff Sluman, Scott Verplank and Mike Hulbert his assistants.
Freddie is, well, Freddie, always the coolest guy in the room who just happens to be a three-time winning Presidents Cup captain; Verplank is one of the few Americans with at least two starts in the biennial matches with a winning record (4-1-0).
But consider Sluman: a former PGA champion, good guy, but he’s never played on a Ryder Cup team. Ditto for Hulbert.
In 2010, Corey Pavin went with Tom Lehman, Love and Paul Goydos – who, again, is one of the most interesting people who ever played the game at the highest level, but he’s also never played a match for Team USA.
This disconnect was atop the Ryder Cup task force’s “to do” list when they went to work in December. As part of America’s extreme makeover, teams will now feature four assistants: two former captains – like Lehman, who was named Love’s assistant for the 2016 matches on Tuesday – and two former Ryder Cup players who will be groomed for a future captaincy.
“I would expect Davis to be an assistant captain in 2018 because he is going to have invaluable information from this year’s cup that he has to pass on and share,” said task force member Phil Mickelson. “That’s going to be a requirement.”
In practical terms, the next logical move for the six-member Ryder Cup committee, a scaled-down version of the task force that will be calling the shots going forward, would be to name Paul Azinger Love’s second “past captain” assistant.
Azinger told GolfChannel.com last week that he withdrew his name from consideration to captain next year’s team “for many reasons, personal and business,” but he did not rule out a turn as an assistant in 2016. “I’m not going there at this point,” he said via text message.
The more interesting selections, at least with an eye toward the future, would be Love’s two “player” assistants, the captains-in-waiting.
Couples, who was an early front-runner for the ’16 job but faded quickly according to various sources, could be an interesting choice. Love and Couples are long-time friends and a spot on the sidelines at Hazeltine National next year could indicate Freddie’s chances of ever captaining a team are still alive.
The other options would likely depend on player performance. Stricker, Jim Furyk, Mickelson and David Toms would all fit the formula and would be popular choices as captains-in-waiting but are likely more interested in playing next year.
As a measure of the commitment the task force members have to the new system, Lefty was asked if he’d embrace a role as one of Love’s “plus ones” if he failed to make the team. “Undoubtedly, I would love to do that,” he said.
Of all the changes the PGA of America unveiled Tuesday in South Florida, this legacy program may be the most sweeping and have the most long-term impact. While the task force gave players the voice they’d been wanting, the captain’s apprenticeship program creates the continuity that has been missing from the matches for the last decade.
It’s worth noting, in light of Tuesday’s overhaul, that Tom Watson had his own version of a legacy formula.
Old Tom went old school with his assistants last year, tabbing Raymond Floyd, Andy North and Steve Stricker, a savvy past captain in Floyd and a likely future captain in Stricker.
It’s interesting that Watson will be remembered in some circles as the face of the new Ryder Cup system for all the wrong reasons after last year’s Contentious Cup. Without Watson the PGA of America likely never turns to a task force for answers.
It’s just as telling that a central part of the new deal will be a legacy for captains past, present and future. Maybe Watson wasn’t as bad as advertised.