Watson doesn't gamble with opening fourball pairings

Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson will face Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy on Friday morning. (Getty)

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GLENEAGLES, Scotland – It was nearly three full months ago – just before Independence Day, coincidentally enough – and Tom Watson was talking about the Ryder Cup. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since being named to the role of captain two decades after he last held the position, very few of his conversations haven’t veered into this territory.

As the last United States captain to win on foreign soil, Watson owns a unique perspective into the strategy of trying to triumph when the crowds and the weather and the bounces and maybe even the golf gods are all engineered to keep you from doing just that. He’s had time to think about it. He’s had time to consider every fitting analogy for this exact scenario.

So when he’s asked about it, he doesn’t flinch. Instead, Watson props himself up on the edge of his chair and leans forward as if he’s issuing top secret information. Then he offers an explanation that sounds at once elementary in nature and yet also completely appropriate and justified.

“It’s kind of like going to the casino,” he said. “They’ve got the advantage. You just have to play better or get lucky, but you can beat them. You can win at the casino; you can win at the Ryder Cup.”

With his opening fourball pairings, Watson essentially played the game by the book. He didn’t take a major gamble at this threatening casino, didn’t split kings or bet on snake eyes or move his entire stack of chips all-in.


Video: Breaking down Day 1 fourball matches


Instead, the captain named three teams that should have come as little surprise to those who have been paying attention during the interminable lead-up to Friday’s festivities and a fourth which only comes as slightly unforeseen.

Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley were always going to be a team since their first pairing at Medinah two years ago; Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson were embedded together the moment the latter was announced as a captain’s pick; Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker have meshed in recent weeks and formed a cohesive duo; and while the all-rookie team of Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed could be considered a bit unexpected, he found two players who enjoy each other’s company and are each supremely confident in their own ways.

“They weren't exactly the way I thought about it,” Watson admitted of his four opening twosomes, “but I wasn't really too concerned about the pairings when I first came in. It was too early. Why go through all that exercise when you didn't have enough information to make the pairings? Obviously you look at Phil and Keegan, and Webb and Bubba, and it turns out, yeah, they are going to make good pairings together. I believe that.

“The other pairings, I really didn't know. I wanted to get a feel for the players and how they wanted to play with each other, and who I thought would be best to be out there playing with each other. It became a lot more concrete once we got here.”

All of which makes sense, because Watson is a concrete kind of guy. There’s not a lot of hemming and hawing when he speaks. He’s opinionated – and he isn’t afraid to share those opinions.

But he also believes strongly in facts, and what they can teach him. He plays percentages. He won’t take a risk if it outweighs the potential reward.

Each of these values can be found in his initial pairings. Watson falls somewhere in the middle of the captain’s spectrum, between Hal Sutton forcing Tiger Woods and Mickelson to play together, and Fred Couples essentially letting his players make their own pairings at the Presidents Cup.

On foreign soil, he understands the importance of playing the house odds.

“I have talked to them about the crowds,” he divulged. “I said, ‘Don't expect the cheers to be as loud for you when you have a winning hole versus the Europeans.’ I told them a couple things that I told the last Ryder Cup team. ‘If you can make the crowd go silent, and at the end of the matches on Sunday, if you can watch those stands empty, you've done your job.’”

These are the types of things Watson knows, because he speaks from experience. None of his dozen team members were around when he captained the U.S. to victory in 1993; hell, a few of ‘em had just been born.

He might be criticized for sitting Jim Furyk, the top-ranked player on his roster. Or Matt Kuchar, the smiley assassin. There will be second-guessing for as long as the Ryder Cup exists, but for this format, on this day, Watson stayed true to himself and his words. He played the best odds.

“This is what golf is all about,” he said after announcing his lineup. “Right here, match play, us against them. This is what it's all about.”

For a man who compared trying to win in enemy territory to walking into a casino, Watson didn’t take a major gamble with his first pairings. Now he knows, just like at those gaming halls, his team has to play better or get lucky.