Hawk's Nest: Ryder Cup fallout enters Week 2


Tom Watson’s open letter read like something crafted by Roger Goodell’s mental coach (how dare we call them shrinks nowadays). You wait five full days for the dust to clear, then take complete responsibility after the fact, which flies no better than the paper airplane people make of it after the confession goes public.

Numerous credible journalists have documented the turmoil surrounding the U.S. Ryder Cup team in the aftermath of the loss at Gleneagles. Watson’s response was predictable and shallow, a tapered explanation to a situation that had already run its course, but there are numerous lingering circumstances still worthy of further examination.

• How could a man so gracious in defeat after losing the 2009 British Open in somewhat tragic fashion (at age 59) be so hard on his team five years later?

• Why would a captain lambaste his squad for its performance in foursomes, a format indigenous only to the Ryder Cup, when a majority of his own strategic blunders occurred in that same portion of the competition?

• How does perhaps the greatest wind-and-rain golfer ever turn into such an accountability-dodging curmudgeon amid a foul-weather team atmosphere?

Of course, Watson grabs some blame now. That’s what people do once they’ve come to their senses.

Almost all of the captain-bashing over the past week was done by anonymous sources, some of which I also gathered over the same period. Just because someone talks off the record hardly means they’re lying, or even exaggerating, and it became particularly clear to me that Watson was especially tough on his younger players.

“Everybody knew he could be a hard-ass coming in,” says Jim Furyk, who has played in nine Ryder Cups. “If you didn’t, or you couldn’t take it, you probably weren’t [appropriately] prepared.”

A devout Pittsburgh Steelers fan, Furyk pointed out that Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll was no picnic to play for, either, and he only won four Super Bowls. One man’s motivational genius is another man’s insensitive tyrant, and pro golf is certainly a very different animal than the kill-or-be-killed NFL.

Even at the recreational level, finger-pointing is almost unheard of when you fall behind in a fourball match or throw away a hole. Watson’s inability to cope with his team’s shortcomings amounts to a much larger and less excusable failure, a catastrophic breach of conduct by a guy who obviously knows better.

Corey Pavin could be pretty blunt,” Furyk replied when I asked him if any of his eight previous skippers had any Watson in them. “Corey would sort of put his arm around you when he told you what he thought.”

A well-placed source told me that Jimmy Walker was among the U.S. Ryder Cuppers left baffled, perhaps even disillusioned, by the experience, and Walker played a ton of very good golf at Gleneagles. The mere notion that it could all go wrong in such a short period of time testifies to the lack of positive direction within the U.S. camp.

It doesn’t take long for a loaded wagon to lose control once it starts rolling downhill. If justice has its day, Walker and many of his teammates will continue playing well enough to participate in future Ryder Cups. And the trip home won’t be on a paper airplane.

IF A GOLF writer is going to produce some type of year-end piece, now is probably the appropriate time to do it, since the PGA Tour’s latest version of an offseason doesn’t last much longer than a flight across the Atlantic. Camp Ponte Vedra’s wraparound schedule gives a bunch of rank-and-file Tour pros a chance to make a bunch of money before the big boys show up, which is great if you’re married to Mr. Rank or Mr. File, but largely meaningless otherwise.

Almost one-third of the 2014-15 season will have been played before the next premium-field event. Sadly, the West Coast swing has never appeared weaker, but enough negative mojo. Here are five guys in the world ranking top 50 who made the biggest climbs in 2014 – what they did and how they did it.

5. Patrick Reed (73rd to 27th). No one got beat up more by serious golf fans, many of whom belittled Reed’s claim that he was one of the game’s top five players after winning at Doral in March. He would get to no higher than 20th in the ranking and go five months without a top-10 finish. At Gleneagles, however, he was America’s most productive player (3-0-1).

Some guys have excellent statistical profiles and fail to translate those numbers into results. Reed is the opposite – a player who doesn’t stand out in any category but still won twice. In fact, he hit fewer fairways at Doral than at any tournament all season, but to take the next step, he has to drive the ball better. Stars cannot live on mouth alone.

4. John Senden (108th to 50th). Known for years as one of the game’s better ball-strikers, Senden picked up his second career victory at Innisbrook after everyone else in the hunt wilted down the stretch. The perception that he is a poor putter is a myth; Senden ranked 13th on the Tour in strokes gained this past season.

The perception that he doesn’t make putts that matter, however, is very real. Senden was 125th in birdie-conversion percentage, a vital stat in this day and age. If you want to win, you need to step on the gas come Sunday, so to think the likeable Aussie will become an elite player is a reach. Nice guys don’t finish last, but they do wind up T-13 quite a bit.

3. Ryan Palmer (126th to 41st). He finished the year very well and worked his way into consideration for a Ryder Cup captain’s pick, so at this point, the biggest question is whether Palmer can sustain a high level of performance. He hasn’t won since early 2010. He tends to play his best golf at weak-field events, which is what made his late-summer run rather notable.

One thing about Palmer – the dude can really putt. He has finished in the top 25 in strokes gained in each of the last three seasons, and there aren’t many guys on the Tour who drive the ball longer. We’re talking about a player with a high ceiling; my hunch is that he’ll win again in 2015.

2. Brendon Todd (186th to 46th). No one on this list has a more obvious upside – Todd is a talented young player who hit his stride in 2014. A victory in Dallas highlighted a year that featured seven top-10s and just four missed cuts. And while many upstarts vanish for a while after claiming their first trophy, this guy continued playing well throughout the summer.

Looking for a modestly priced bargain in your 2015 fantasy league? Todd is a strong option. He drives it very straight and makes a ton of putts. He gets up and down, having ranked seventh in scrambling in 2014, and though his second-shot long game isn’t impressive, a player who doesn’t give away strokes is a player who eventually will succeed in premium-field tournaments.

1. Kevin Na (233rd to 35th). You were expecting someone else? You’re not alone. He owns one of the Tour’s shortest names and longest pre-shot routines, but just as Na has worked hard to improve his pace, he was able to grind out something of a career revival in 2014: a whopping 14 top-25 finishes in 27 starts after missing most of last season with back issues.

He remains stuck on one career victory in 272 Tour starts, and that was against a weak field in Vegas three years ago. But one of these weeks, Na’s streaky putter and penchant for playing well on tough courses is going to earn him a big-time W. Other than his relative lack of distance off the tee, he does everything well.

His standing atop this list is due primarily to an injury the year before. Twelve months from now? I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Na is hanging out in the top 20.