You know, it’s funny: When it comes to debate and conjecture about Ryder Cup captains, half the people spend way too much time discussing and dissecting the markings of a good one, while half the people constantly contend that the role is overstated and overrated in the first place. So what’s the funny part? They’re often the same people.
It’s no secret that there’s only so much a captain can do. There are pretty much just two hard and fast rules: 1. Don’t pair guys who shouldn’t play together (ahem, Hal Sutton); and 2. Don’t outfit the mighty red, white and blue in lilac and periwinkle (looking at you, Corey Pavin). Maybe it’s oversimplification to contend that everything else is decided by the dozen players on the team, but there’s no defense against the argument which reminds us that captains don’t hit any tee shots and don’t stroke any putts.
And yet, here we are. More than 21 months before the next edition of the biennial competition, we’re batting around the idea of whether Tom Watson is the right man for the job. We’re going to learn much more about the ramifications of this decision in due time, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some immediate reactions. Here are five of ‘em:
1. There is no ideal age for a Ryder Cup captain.
It was somewhere around the third chorus of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” during the 12/12/12 concert to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy that it dawned on me. If Mick Jagger can pout and strut and sing his lungs out on stage every night at age 69, then Watson shouldn’t have too much of an issue pairing up a few professional golfers when he’s 65.
In the weeks leading up to Thursday’s announcement, PGA president Ted Bishop promised that he would go “outside the box” with his selection. Well, this is more like he stepped on the box and crushed it. There has been a specific set of prerequisites for captains in recent years – each of the last five was between 46 and 50 years old and had played in at least eight PGA Tour events during the year of his captaincy – but Watson doesn’t fit any of 'em.
What this means is that no longer can veteran U.S. golfers wait their turn to pass through the turnstile. David Toms has already felt the effect of this decision, figuring to be the lone man who met those prerequisites this time around. If I’m a guy like Jim Furyk or Justin Leonard, right now I’m very nervous that my assumed place in the schedule has been usurped by the call to go in another direction.
Up until this week, you could have scheduled captains for the next dozen years. Toms. Leonard. Furyk. Steve Stricker. Phil Mickelson. Tiger Woods. Maybe not all of them, maybe not in that exact order, but based on what we knew about credentials, that list would be pretty close.
And there’s one man to credit – or blame, as the case may be. As someone close with Toms told me this week, if Justin Rose doesn’t make those two long putts on the last two holes at Medinah on Sunday, the U.S. wins and the PGA of America retains the status quo going forward. Those two putts changed the course of the captaincy.
2. Watson may steal some support.
I’ll be the first to admit when I lose an argument, and I went down in a first-round TKO in the Golf Channel office Wednesday morning. While discussing Watson’s impending captaincy with a producer, I made the flippant comment that I didn’t believe his presence would negate any sort of home-field advantage for the Europeans in Scotland. I said it without thinking of the consequences, without putting myself on the Gleneagles course two years from now.
The producer countered with the notion that having Watson in charge would keep the raucous crowd reaction to a minimum. Think about it, he told me: If Watson – a man revered in that country, a man who won four of his five Open Championship titles there – sits down in the interview room on Thursday and explains that what he loves about Scottish golf fans is that they cheer great golf and aren’t too partisan toward their side, the folks behind the ropes won’t want to disappoint him. If Watson is standing next to the green and an American player misses a crucial putt, it will take just one cursory glance toward the spectators to curb their enthusiasm.
That’s not to suggest that European fans won’t cheer for their side, because they will. But if it’s even 5 percent less boisterous on the course, that’s a built-in advantage for the American side – or at least less of a disadvantage.
3. There should be an interview process.
It’s pretty apparent that at some point following this year’s loss – whether it was a month later or a week or a day or even seconds after Martin Kaymer holed the clinching putt – PGA of America officials had decided that Watson would be the man to lead the team on foreign soil in two years.
Other candidates, though, should have been afforded the opportunity to at least make an impression.
When the Indianapolis Colts held the No. 1 overall draft pick this year, they were sold on Andrew Luck, but that didn’t prevent the team from also working out Robert Griffin III and other possible choices. Even if the PGA folks knew whom their selection would be, meetings with other candidates could have prevented some needless hang-wringing in recent days.
How? Well, there was the whole he said-he said as to whether Bishop had gone to the courtesy of contacting the likes of Toms and Larry Nelson, each of whom figured to be amongst the mix. As it turns out, Bishop finally spoke with Toms on Tuesday morning – after the Thursday announcement was already scheduled – and reached Nelson on Wednesday afternoon.
All of this could have been avoided if these men had been brought in for an interview process – either formal or informal – prior to this week. At the very least, it’s a common courtesy to a few PGA Championship winners who deserve it; at best, officials become smitten with one of these candidates, maybe even tabbing him for the job two years down the road.
4. It’s not all about Tiger.
When Steve Stricker was struggling mightily at Medinah, some critics were quick to pick on Davis Love III for naming a captain’s pick simply because Woods wanted his buddy and regular partner on the team. Forget the fact that Stricker was ranked 10th in the world at the time of the selection and is one of the game’s best putters. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, right?
It’s been a familiar refrain for the past decade and a half: Whatever Tiger wants, Tiger gets. In some respects, that’s been true, but not this time. Despite being a fellow T-Dub who attended Stanford University, Woods and Watson haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, with the latter often offering some vocal critical analysis about the former's on- and off-course behavior in recent years.
Heck, if Woods could have his way, a buddy like Mark O’Meara would be serving his fourth term as captain. If he’s received any preferential treatment from other skippers – and there’s no evidence that he has – Tiger certainly won’t get any from Watson, though we should expect their frosty relationship to warm up in the next two years.
In fact, it already has. Woods reacted to the announcement by saying, “I think he's a really good choice. Tom knows what it takes to win, and that's our ultimate goal. I hope I have the privilege of joining him on the 2014 United States team.” That may reek of prepared statement, but it also diffuses any lingering contempt. Don’t be surprised when Watson similarly offers an olive branch throughout his tenure.
5. Maybe it’s time for a long-term captain.
When he introduced Watson at Thursday’s news conference, Bishop didn’t mince words. He said the decision was made because he wants the U.S. to win again.
No problem with that. Makes sense. But it also calls into question the current process of having each captain serve a two-year term before packing up his belongings and heading off into the sunset. Now, if the PGA had deemed the Ryder Cup just an exhibition and wanted to give every great player a chance to lead, then it’s difficult to criticize this process. By naming Watson to a second term, though, officials have admitted that this is more travel ball than Little League; in other words, they only want the best of the best as opposed to letting everyone take a turn at bat.
Since that’s the case, why not appoint a man to the position and let him remain in that capacity until one or both parties decide to end that relationship? If that sounds like an unconventional idea, then clearly other national teams are unconventional, because this is the exact model for the country’s squads in basketball, soccer and other sports.
It’s an intriguing idea for the Ryder Cup. It would give the captain an ability to forge relationships for more than 21 months, to get a feel for which players mesh well with others and the experience of what it takes to win – or avoid losing, which is just as important – rather than always attempting it for the first time.
Hey, it could happen. If Watson leads his team to victory in Scotland at the age of 65, there’s no reason he couldn’t also do that at 67 and 69 and 71. The PGA of America could do a lot worse than keeping him in a long-term role. Maybe it’ll be like those old playground basketball games: Win and stay on.