GLENEAGLES, Scotland – Second-guessing Ryder Cup captains is as much a part of the gig as pimped out golf carts and awkward speeches, but the scrutiny that is sure to descend on Tom Watson after Day 1 at Gleneagles comes with a healthy dollop of cosmic irony.
Consider that two years ago Davis Love III, the man who shouldered a disproportionate amount of the blame at Medinah, was blasted for sitting the juggernaut of Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley for Saturday’s fourball session.
On Friday, Watson came under fire for letting the high-profile duo play in the afternoon matches.
Sure, Mickelson and Bradley beat Europe’s first line, Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia, in the morning fourball session, but it wasn’t pretty. In that match Lefty was wayward with his driver, missing crucial fairways at Nos. 5, 7 and 8, and Bradley was nervous. Which is to say Bradley was Bradley.
You don’t have to hold the captain’s title to know that is not a recipe for alternate-shot success.
The move was compounded by Watson’s decision to bench rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, who had boat-raced match play magician Ian Poulter and Scotland's own Stephen Gallacher in the morning.
The hyper-analysis that will follow in the wake of the U.S. team’s foursomes faux pas on a blustery day, a 3 ½ to ½ point rout that turned the tide for Europe, is sure to fixate on that theme, however premature and unfounded it may be.
It’s part of the job description and certainly relevant considering America’s three rookies went undefeated on Day 1.
The third rookie, Jimmy Walker, holed a crucial 6-foot putt at the 18th hole in his morning match alongside Rickie Fowler to eke out a half point after the duo had trailed Thomas Bjorn and Martin Kaymer for 17 holes.
“I take the blame for that,” Watson said of the decision to bench Spieth and Reed, who cruised to a 5-and-4 victory in the morning. “I assessed that even though they won in the morning, that there maybe was a better fourball (pairing) for the afternoon. That decision not to play them was a hard decision to make. I had some doubt in making that decision, but my gut feeling said that was the right decision to make.”
It’s not in Old Tom’s nature to lean on rookies, which is peculiar considering it was his three rookies at the 1993 matches that were instrumental in delivering America’s last overseas victory.
These matches are not over despite Europe’s 5-3 lead. If Medinah taught the U.S. side anything it was that. But if America is going to make a game of this (and future matches) it may be time to eschew the long-held belief that experience is king at the biennial slugfest.
In 2008 it was rookie Anthony Kim who inspired Mickelson and helped deliver America’s last Ryder Cup victory. Two years ago it was then-first timer Bradley who filled that roll, and the two went undefeated in team play.
This is not an indictment of America’s veterans. Mickelson’s resume was Hall-of-Fame ready regardless of his 15-19-6 record in the Ryder Cup; and Jim Furyk’s legendary longevity is beyond reproach despite an inexplicable 9-18-4 mark in the matches.
But if seven losses in the last nine matches have taught the PGA of America anything, it is that there is only painful association with some memories.
But the PGA went with Watson – who at 65 was a dramatic break from the traditional captain’s mold – when they probably should have gone the other way on the generational scale.
One could imagine on Friday afternoon Billy Horschel stewing because Watson sat him for the afternoon session. But Watson didn’t pick Horschel, who would have been another energetic rookie. He also didn't pick Chris Kirk. Instead he opted for the “experience” of Webb Simpson, Hunter Mahan and Bradley, who combined to go 1-3-0 on Friday.
Experience didn’t deliver on Day 1, it was the rookies who produced two of America’s three points. It was the energetic indifference of youth that kept things from getting out of hand.
It took a haymaker from Europe’s best to deny Fowler and Walker America’s only full point in the afternoon. McIlroy and Garcia – who are ranked first and third in the world, respectively – birdied the last three holes to secure the half point and ignite the partisan crowd.
The rookies would never second-guess their captain. That’s not what rookies do.
“It's not our call. The captain is Tom and Tom is going to do what he needs to do,” Walker said. “I'm not second-guessing anything he's doing. I don't think Rickie is going to do that or anybody is going to do that. We are going to go play when we're told and that's what we told him.”
To be fair it’s best to let the matches play out before the arm-chair captains take the stage, but Watson’s reluctance to rely on youth is becoming a troublesome trend.
Last month at the PGA Championship, 2008 captain Paul Azinger was perusing the list of potential captain’s picks when he was asked if he had any problem selecting a first-timer.
“I want rookies, dude,” Azinger laughed at the time. “I want rookies who are unscarred and playing well. That’s how I would be thinking. I want to take a bunch of rookies in there, put a chip on their shoulder and go William Wallace on their ass.”
After a tough Friday at Gleneagles the chip is firmly planted on the entire U.S. team’s shoulder. If only Watson would let the rookies loose.