Old Tom Watson, Scotland’s beloved adopted son and the most recent addition to the two-time Ryder Cup captains club, was not a plan "B." Nor was the 63-year-old an emergency selection by a panicky group of PGA of America executives.
As PGA president Ted Bishop figured, “We have broken the mold,” not to mention Larry Nelson’s ginormous heart, but that’s another story.
Thursday was about Watson, the ageless American who won a British Open at Turnberry, lost a British Open at Turnberry and became the oldest captain in Ryder Cup history when Bishop & Co. dumpstered said mold and made a pick that was 13 months in the making.
It was, by any measure, an outside-the-box pick by an organization that is quickly becoming boxed in by mediocrity at its marquee event. It was, with a monsoon of respect to Nelson, David Toms and any number of potential captains, the only choice.
Whether it be meltdown or miracle, depending on one’s perspective, Medinah will be remembered as a crossroads for the American Ryder Cup cause, a handy victory that turned in a blur of roars and a relentless European rally on a September Sunday.
In Watson the PGA plucked the calm in a storm from a sea of uncertainty. Remember, this is the same man who after losing a playoff to Stewart Cink at the 2009 Open Championship entered the press room and grinned, “This ain't a funeral, you know.”
The U.S. side needed Watson like this year’s captain Davis Love III needed one more 5-footer to drop on Sunday in Chicagoland. The red, white and blue has lost seven of the last nine matches and the last time the U.S. won an “away game” was in 1993, the last time Watson led a team onto Kingdom soil.
“I was waiting almost 20 years to get the call,” Watson smiled Thursday from New York.
The only real surprise may have been the revelation from Bishop that he began coloring outside the lines some 13 months ago on a plane ride from Bermuda to Indiana. It’s a time line that suggests the PGA was primed for something new regardless of what happened at Medinah.
But this seemed less about wins, which there have been far too few of for the U.S. side, and losses than a shrinking demographic. The status quo, major champions who had played in multiple Ryder Cups and were in their late 40s and still relatively active on the PGA Tour, simply wouldn’t work anymore as an increasingly large number of majors started going to Europeans, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
As Bishop pointed out there was indeed a “short list of potential Ryder Cup captains based on the current criteria.” The answer, at least in the short term, was a dramatic paradigm shift in the form of a second Watson captaincy.
To make his case Bishop created an 85-page document that outlined why Watson would work in 2014, but the truth is he could have saved some paper and gone with a 140-character tweet: “It is time for a change. #Watson2014”
Conventional wisdom was against Bishop. At 63 the rub was Watson was too old to know today’s players, but – with apologies to Love, Corey Pavin, Tom Lehman, et al – familiarity has only bred an all-too-familiar result.
Besides, few players in their 60s have remained as active on Tour as Watson.
“We’ve played a ton together and I don’t think there will be any disconnect,” said Brandt Snedeker, who has played a practice round with Watson every year at The Masters and British Open since 2008. “We see him at the Masters every year and he still has the passion and that fire. It’s not like he’s rode off into the sunset.”
Nor does a perceived frosty relationship between Watson and Woods, a dustup that dates back to early 2010 when Watson said of Woods, “He messed up,” seem to be much of a concern.
Woods almost immediately released a statement praising the new captain early Thursday and Watson countered with a familiar take from recent U.S. skippers. “I hope Tiger is first of all on my team. He is the best player in the history of the game and if he’s not on the team for any reason you can bet he will be No. 1 on my pick list,” he said.
To be brutally honest, there is precious little upside for Watson in this deal. He has participated in five Ryder Cups, either as a player or captain, has a 10-4-1 record and has never been on a losing team. But then Old Tom has never been interested in the easy way.
Way back in the early 1990s when he was pursuing his first turn as a U.S. captain Watson specifically requested an overseas assignment, “because of my record I’d had over there.” At least at the ’93 Ryder Cup, those five Open titles helped produce an 18 ½ to 9 ½ U.S. rout.
It was telling that moments after Bishop referred to the “Watson luck,” the man himself gave a nod to the vague forces that often decide these biennial bashes.
“The most important thing for me as a captain is to get lucky. To get lucky and have all 12 players playing well when we get there,” Watson said.
The cynic would suggest given recent history – or, to be more precise, America’s 0-for-the-millenium slide in the transatlantic member-member – Watson’s only real challenge for Gleneagles would be quality raingear and a respectful consolation speech.
But that kind of defeatism, even when viewed through the prism of America’s pedestrian record, isn’t Watson’s style or the reason behind the PGA’s dramatic break from the norm. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, which would make Watson’s selection to lead the ’14 team, as crazy as it may seem, the most sane possible choice.
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