WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – My fellow Americans: I know how you feel right now. Your red, white and blue is a little red, white and bruised.
In the wake of a crushing World Cup defeat for the United States, though, there is hope right around the corner in the form of another team pursuit at which the stars and stripes haven’t fared much better in recent years.
That’s right. We’re just 12 weeks away from the Ryder Cup.
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, Tom Watson.
“It's been a pretty dire road for the American team for the last nine Ryder Cups,” the captain said from The Greenbrier Classic on Wednesday. “We've only won two and it's time to turn that around.”
That type of coach-speak sounds foolproof, but it doesn’t underscore the fact that three months ahead of the biennial event, there are still so many questions left unanswered.
The biggest one might revolve around the player in 69th place on the current points standings, right in between a pair of guys named Justin Hicks and Luke Guthrie. That would be Tiger Woods, about whom the captain reiterated his own company line.
“If he's playing well and he's healthy,” Watson said, “he's on the team.”
That’s all well and good, but looking at it from a more logistical standpoint, he won’t be able to play well if he’s not playing at all.
Woods is currently ranked 208th on the FedEx Cup standings. Considering his usual schedule, he’ll have three tournaments – the Open Championship, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship – to crack the top-125. If not, that would possibly mean six weeks off prior to the Ryder Cup.
Watson addressed that potential scenario by concluding, “He'll be considered less of a pick then, if he didn't have a track record going into the Ryder Cup, of course.”
Joining Woods outside the current top nine – though only one spot outside – is fellow Ryder Cup stalwart Phil Mickelson. Again, the captain hardly overplayed his hand by admitting that the nine-time team member will receive a strong look as a captain’s pick, if need be.
“Well, Phil has had some struggles with his putting; I know that, as I watched,” he said. “Knowing Phil, he'll probably have some way to have it fixed and make enough points to be on the team. If not, certainly he'll be a serious consideration, obviously. He's played on Ryder Cup teams, and last time he played well at Medinah.”
Another yet-to-be-answered question is how the U.S. team will react to Gleneagles. As Watson understands – and mentioned multiple times during Wednesday’s news conference – none of the potential contenders to make his roster have ever played the course in a competitive environment.
He sees that as an obvious advantage to the European side.
“Some of these players, the European players, have played that golf course in competition, played it four, five, six times, maybe 12 times,” Watson surmised. “That's just the way the Europeans pick their Ryder Cup sites. It's usually a site where they've held the European Tour tournament, so their players are more familiar with the golf course for the Ryder Cup.”
Watson knows he can’t replicate playing the course in tournament conditions, but he’s put together a little fact-finding mission next weekend. He invited “about 20” potential team members to join him there next weekend in an effort to acclimate them to the site.
So far, “about four or five” have accepted the invitation.
“I thought that was a good thing to do, and it gives them a chance to get used to the time change going over to the Open Championship,” he explained. “You get to see the course at least once before they get there or potentially get there. Not all of these players are in the top six or top five right now.”
Not long after his news conference had ended, Watson was still ruminating on this very subject. He was still discussing the European advantage on home soil and how playing the host course and knowing the potential conditions there would benefit the opposing side.
Then he smiled. Right on the spot, the captain figured the perfect analogy to trying to win on enemy turf.
“It’s kind of like going into 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.”