NEWTON, Mass. – Once he’s hired a fleet of loyal assistants, finalized wardrobe details and signed off on the pillow mints, a Ryder Cup captain can bear down on his most crucial task: selecting the players who fill out his 12-man roster. No decisions made by either skipper will have a greater impact on the final outcome.
Compatible partnerships are obviously important, but there is no dictating how anyone will perform once balls are in the air. Months of preparation can become wholly insignificant. You spend hours in a golf cart watching, like everyone else.
“As a captain, you surrender control,” says Paul Azinger, who piloted the U.S. to victory in 2008. “The funny thing is, you control everything before it starts, then it all gets taken away.”
When Europe added a pair of captain’s picks to its team-composition process in 1979, it was partly out of desperation. The mighty Americans hadn’t lost a Ryder Cup in 20 years and would go on to win the next three, but as the series began to even out, then slide in Europe’s favor, the role of the skipper’s additions became a major cause for the turnabout.
Jose Maria Olazabal was 8-5-1 as a three-time pick, winning at least two matches in all three meetings. At the back-to-back Euro blowouts in 2004 and ’06, the four selections combined for an astounding 11-2-3 record. Then, of course, there is Ian Poulter, whose 8-1 mark as a captain’s choice tells us a couple of things.
He can look like dog meat from January through August, but put a flag on his back and he turns into a superhero.
If there’s a bright side to the American cause this year, it’s that Tom Watson’s picks as the 1993 skipper remain the most productive since the U.S. adopted the procedure in 1989. Raymond Floyd and Lanny Wadkins went 5-2-1 at The Belfry, which happens to be the last time the Yanks won overseas.
It also remains the best example of why experience is such a valued commodity at an event defined by intense pressure – Floyd was 51 at the time, Wadkins 43. When Lanny leaned hard on the same premise two years later, however, Curtis Strange lost all three of his matches and came apart down the stretch, losing a pivotal point to Nick Faldo.
Faldo, incidentally, had been added to the Euro squad by Bernard Gallacher. Wadkins was roasted for picking Strange well before that fateful Sunday at Oak Hill, but of all the memories I retain during my 20-plus years covering pro golf, Strange’s take-it-like-a-man confessional afterward ranks among the more poignant.
“Losing like this doesn’t hurt as much as winning feels good,” was the line that stood out.
AS A FEW cynical writers pondered what shapes up as the weakest U.S. team ever at TPC Boston this past weekend, the notion struck me: this year’s squad is so inferior, it might even beat the Euros at Gleneagles. Azinger’s group in ’08 was the first American side that wasn’t favored to win on U.S. soil, and then battered the bewildered visitors.
“Tiger not being there did a couple of things,” Azinger says. “It allowed us to play the role of underdog – Faldo [the opposing captain] said it unnerved him a bit. It also really helped us at a place [Valhalla] where you can hear things going on all throughout the back nine.
“Momentum is invisible. It’s like the wind. You can’t see it, but it’s really powerful.”
The problem with this U.S. team is that it has to play in Scotland, where love from the galleries will be very difficult to decipher. That would seem to make the value of Ryder Cup experience even more precious, although Rickie Fowler played pretty well as a rookie (and captain’s pick) in Ireland four years ago.
Regardless, it leaves Watson a bit cornered when he announces his three captain’s picks Tuesday evening. The practice of adding “hot golfers” is vastly overrated – the matches are still a month away. When you consider that Watson chose a couple of grizzled warhorses 21 years ago and emerged with a victory, there’s no reason to believe he’ll abandon the philosophy this time.
THE PGA TOUR’S on-site travel agent was as busy as I’ve ever seen him during the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship. Those still alive in the FedEx Cup derby (and not rich enough to own a private jet) were looking to hustle out to Denver for the third installment of the playoff series, and the Monday finish at TPC Boston obviously shortened the amount of time between the events.
We’re also talking about a site (Cherry Hills) a lot of players have never seen, making a practice round and acclimation in general more vital than usual. Add distance between the cities and the mile-high thin air, and you’re left with one big question: Why didn’t the Tour schedule an off-week – or move the Deutsche Bank up to a conventional Sunday finish?
Maybe that’s two questions. “Poor planning by our government,” griped one pro who rarely complains, although Camp Ponte Vedra was left in a tough spot this month. It basically comes down to this – do you take the bye week now and leave no gap between the Tour Championship and the Ryder Cup, or do you finish the season Sept. 14 and give America’s team some time to catch their breath?
The PGA of America isn’t going to move their shindig into October just so the Tour can hurl millions at everyone still standing in Atlanta. Move the Tour Championship to the week after the Ryder Cup? Now there’s an idea, but hey, we can’t do that. We’ve gotta get the second edition of the wraparound season off and running!
Just another reason to …
Oh, never mind.
TWENTY MINUTES AFTER I filed last week’s column, news broke that Tiger Woods had dismissed Sean Foley as his swing coach. Timing, anyone? Journalistically, I felt a bit deprived, kind of like the guy whose wife won’t let him attend his buddy’s bachelor party because it’s raining outside.
So the headline is eight days old. Which, in most cases, means I wouldn’t bother, but some people have been waiting three years for Woods to fire Foley. Which means eight days is more like eight minutes.
Red Shirt doesn’t need someone standing next to him on the practice range persuading him to overdose on mechanics. The Big Guy Upstairs (Earl) is his swing coach. At the age of 2, Woods was hitting golf balls on national television. He was blessed with an abundance of natural ability nobody else on earth can comprehend. Just go play, dude. Think shot, not swing.
That said, perhaps Woods’ increased reliance on a coach has become a crutch – or a convenient source of blame for shortcomings brought on by age, injury, a lack of practice, or all of the above. When Tiger was at his best, Butch Harmon wasn’t nearly as omnipresent as was Foley, who seemed to be constantly videotaping Eldrick’s move. Since when does a player-coach relationship have to be a 24/7 thing?
Woods’ search for perfection has gotten him nowhere. His visual memory, however, is ridiculously powerful, his instinct and sensory command almost otherworldly. Translation? He’s a feel player. Again, just go play.
As he approaches his 39th birthday, Tiger needs to come to terms with reality. His body keeps breaking down, his performance affected to whatever degree, and at this stage of the game, he needs to dance with whom he brung. Which is a pretty damn good-looking woman, regardless of how unsuccessful the Foley regime was.