GLENEAGLES, Scotland – It’s a tradition as old as the Ryder Cup itself, this business of analyzing and second guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking the captains’ decisions every two years. Much of it is hypothetical speculation. Specific strategies can’t be proven wrong since there’s no way of ever proving a different move correct.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for analysis. Rather than certain maneuvers, though, the analysis should grade the attitude as a whole. Did the captains play it cool under duress? Did they make rash decisions? Did they stick to the original plan?
We’re just two sessions into the 40th edition of the Ryder Cup, but already these questions can be posed toward European captain Paul McGinley, whose team owns a 5-3 advantage, and United States captain Tom Watson. Just after each announced their Saturday morning fourball pairings, it was easy to answer some of these questions, simply by listening.
McGinley: “I'm looking at the big picture, something I can't reveal at the moment, but you'll see on Sunday night. I'm working to a plan. I'll reveal a little bit more Sunday night.”
Watson: “The pairings that are made for tomorrow morning I think are strong pairings, as strong as we can put out there and we'll see what happens."
There it is. Confidence versus doubt. Calm versus anxious. Planning versus reassessing.
These personality traits have already trickled down to their players, as well.
One by one, the Europeans strutted off the course after Friday’s matches back slapping and needling. They appeared comfortable with one another, which only makes sense when you consider that McGinley looked comfortable in his own skin, too.
Meanwhile, the American players seemed tight, stressed, maybe even a little nervous. When their captain, Tom Watson, sat down to meet with the media, he immediately began backpedaling, insisting that his rationale behind benching the winning team of Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed during the afternoon session was classified information.
All this and, yet again, the score is only 5-3 – hardly insurmountable with 20 more matches remaining.
Matches aren’t won with good moods alone, but brooding certainly doesn’t help. It may take a few changes in attitude for the U.S. team to cover the board in red. Heading into Saturday, the captain is hardly taking a “What, me worry?” stance, instead choosing to go with some good-ol’-fashioned stern lecturing to turn things around.
“I told them, ‘I want more than even,’” Watson said. “And they are buying into that. Even though they are disappointed, there was the attitude, ‘Alright, let's go get this thing done.’”
That go-getter attitude might fire up the troops, but clearly part of the plot has already been lost.
Watson entered the first day with specific pairings, sort of pod system-lite in a nod toward the strategy enabled by Paul Azinger in 2008, the last time the American team came away victorious. When he announced his Saturday morning fourball pairings, however, the captain listed his first two teams as Bubba Watson-Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan-Jim Furyk – duos that just 24 hours earlier likely weren’t being considered.
It has all the appearance of throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.
A two-point differential is no time to abandon ship and reassess the original plan, but it’s difficult to see Saturday’s pairings – at least a few of them – as anything else.
Meanwhile, McGinley countered with three tandems which each won at least a half-point together on Friday, plus a fourth in Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter that enjoyed rousing success two years ago at Medinah.
It’s all part of a plan that he knows won’t be tossed aside with a few losses.
“It's something I've learned from José Maria [Olazabal] and learned from Monty [Colin Montgomerie] and learned from the guys I've been vice captain under and guys I've played under,” said McGinley. “You're not going to win every session. We've lost more sessions than we have won in recent times. But it's important not to panic and it's important, I believe, to look at the 24-hour period rather than just one session and then assess and then go again. I think you've got to do a mixture of both.
“It's not black or it's not white. I had an overall, as I call it, a skeleton plan, and you bob and weave.”
Just one day into the Ryder Cup, the European captain’s bobs and weaves have been countered with backpedaling and sidestepping from his American counterpart.
It doesn’t mean anything yet. It doesn’t mean the European team will definitely win or the American team will absolutely lose. But at a biennial event where analyzing and second guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking are as much traditions as the actual golf, so far McGinley is 1 up on Watson.