If past performance is any indication, the dozen U.S. Ryder Cup players who board the chartered flight for Scotland on Sunday should not expect an impassioned speech from their captain.
No pleas for unselfish play or jingoistic fervor.
This captain, based on his last turn at the American helm 21 years ago, is far too subtle for that.
If the ’93 Ryder Cup is the ultimate litmus test, and the benchmark for an American side trying to win an away game for the first time since those 30th matches, 65-year-old Tom Watson doesn’t give speeches or hold pep rallies.
Instead, the Hall of Famer communicates a powerful message with an economy of words.
“To me he was so inspiring because he was Tom Watson and he was a legend and he would say cool stuff," recalled Davis Love III, who was a rookie on the ’93 team. "I remember being in the lounge of the Concorde and him saying, ‘Guys, we’re going on a big adventure. This is going to be one of the greatest trips of your life.' It was great.”
In the two decades that have passed since Watson led an American team into the Ryder Cup fray, much has changed. Leaderboards, purses, golf swings have all evolved, to say nothing of the motivations of the modern PGA Tour player.
But the key connection to that ’93 team will be Watson, and much like his ageless swing, Captain Tom’s message will remain unchanged.
“He told us early in the week, ‘We know we’re doing well when we silence the crowd,’” said John Cook, who was also a rookie on that U.S. team.
It was a common theme throughout the week and, many contend, the impetus behind America’s Sunday rally at The Belfry in England.
After falling behind on Day 1, 4 1/2 to 3 1/2, the U.S. lost Saturday’s foursome session (3-1) and was in danger of splitting the afternoon fourball frame until Cook and Chip Beck stunned the crowd with a 2-up victory over European anchors Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie to cut the American deficit to one point.
To put it in modern context, it was the U.S. side’s Ian Poulter moment. And it was during that crucial afternoon when Watson may have been at his understated and obvious best when he approached Cook before his match.
“Tom in his way came up to each of us and said, ‘We want this point. We need this point. We’re not just sending you out,’” Cook said of the fateful fourball swing match. “I looked at him and was like, ‘Really?’ Monty and Faldo had walked through everyone to that point.”
Sensing the momentum had turned, Watson didn’t offer any pearls of wisdom during the team dinner Saturday night. Instead he let a few players talk to the team, including the idiosyncratic Beck.
“Chip gets up and says, ‘The will to win will overcome any mechanical breakdown.’ That’s Chip Beck. It’s just Chip,” Cook laughed. “We all bounded. We became a unit and we were so proud. At that moment I knew we were a solid unit.”
The veteran captain backloaded his lineup for Sunday singles, and slowly the gambit paid off as American flags began to dominate the scoreboard and the partisan crowd grew quieter with each passing point.
The late Payne Stewart started the rally with his 3-and-2 victory over Mark James, but it was Jim Gallagher Jr.’s stunning defeat of European icon Seve Ballesteros, 3 and 2, that likely sealed the victory for the United States.
“I beat Seve; that would be like someone beating Rory [McIlroy] now,” Gallagher said. “I remember making the turn and everything changed and everyone was so much quieter. I guess my match started the ball rolling in our favor. Once you see the American flags up, it gets you fired up.”
Love would also add a late point for the U.S. side on Sunday, solidifying the importance of the rookies on the ’93 team.
While Watson may have been understated in the team room, he was very much a hands-on captain. During the team’s last practice round at The Belfry, he gathered his squad and talked about the importance of winning the 18th hole and told them not to leave the tee on that Thursday until they knew exactly how they were going to play the par 5.
He also stressed the importance of conserving energy and limiting distractions, a common theme among the current crop of Ryder Cup players.
“Paul Azinger had brought a Jenga game and we’d be in there late at night, like midnight, and someone would pull the thing and it would crash down and Tom would walk in and be like, ‘What are you doing? You got to go to bed. You have to practice. You have to fix your backswing,’” Love laughed. “It was like having your dad on your trip. It was great.”
Whether Watson can rekindle that spirit for an American team that has won just two of the last nine matches and lost by an average of 3 1/2 points in the last four Ryder Cups played overseas remains to be seen.
There are some who doubt Watson, 65, has the ability to connect with the next generation of American stars, particularly without the presence of Tiger Woods, who will miss his second Ryder Cup in seven years because of injury.
But for those who last played for Watson, and who hold the distinction of being the last American team to win a Ryder Cup on foreign soil, the captain’s cachet transcends generations.
“The coolest thing is we were in the front of the plane and Tom stood there and said, ‘They may have invented the game but we perfected it.’ That stayed with me the entire week,” Gallagher said. “He knew when to say the right things. Those words, some 20-something years later, still ring in my head.”
The dozen players who board this year’s charter on Sunday in Atlanta may be surprised to find out that their captain has little to say, but when he does talk, the message will be powerful and on point.