#AskLav: Future U.S. Ryder Cup captain a hot topic

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Ahhh, finally, a return to normalcy: Team Europe is taking a victory lap around St. Andrews, Phil Mickelson is reading and re-reading Paul Azinger’s book, and Tom Watson is back home, shooing those darn kids off his lawn again.

This question is seemingly asked every two years: Did Europe win the Ryder Cup, or did the Americans lose it?

The home team put on a remarkable display, from Paul McGinley’s near-flawless decisions to Justin Rose’s 3-0-2 record to Graeme McDowell and Victor Dubuisson’s new partnership to Rory McIlroy’s smash-mouth singles win. But it’s also clear that the U.S. team was dysfunctional, and for that there is plenty of blame to go around.  

Watson made virtually no effort to engage in any team-bonding exercises and believed his tough-dad act would fly with multimillionaires.

Ted Bishop wanted Watson to fill the role of Captain America, though not even the outgoing PGA president could have envisioned Watson keeping everyone – even his players – at a club’s length. 

Bubba Watson, the No. 1 player in qualifying, went 0-3 and was the only U.S. player who failed to earn a point. The beleaguered captain’s picks went 2-5-2. And Phil, after being benched for two of the four partner sessions, saved his best shots for after the matches were over.  

So, in the end, the week’s biggest winner – besides Callaway Golf, which quickly came up with these (and these!) genius P-Reed-inspired accessories – was Azinger, who, like all iconic leaders, spent Ryder Cup Sunday in a Harley Davidson bar. (FDR probably did the same.)    

The 2008 captain would seem the no-brainer choice for the PGA of America, but the question is whether he would jeopardize his legacy by agreeing to a second (or third) term. He looks smarter with each and every U.S. failure.


 

 

Donaldson hit the clinching shot for the Europeans, and he went 2-1 in his debut, and he was probably the most drunk on Monday morning … but he wasn’t the best player. That honor belongs to Justin Rose, who teamed with Henrik Stenson to produce arguably the greatest fourball performance of all time on Saturday, then won the 18th hole in the afternoon to deny the Americans a crucial full point and give Europe a (normally) insurmountable four-shot cushion. G-Mac was great, too, going 3-0, including a momentum-boosting singles victory over Jordan Spieth in the leadoff spot, but Rose was the man of the match. 


 

 

The hype last year was outrageous, and deservedly so. In not even a full year on Tour Spieth recorded nine top-10s (including a historic win) as he went from not having status on any major tour to a T-2 at the Tour Championship. In the months that followed there were some silly comparisons to Tiger Woods, though even a cursory glance at Spieth’s statistics revealed that he needed to show significant improvement in his ball-striking because he wouldn’t always be able to will the ball into the hole. In ’14, Spieth admittedly wore down at the end of a long season, mostly because of an erratic driver and the expectations that he put on himself after that breakout year. A winner at every level – junior, college, early in his pro career – this was one of the few times that the 21-year-old had faced adversity on the course, and his game suffered as he tried to claw his way out of a mini-slump. He may have had a quiet summer, but his Ryder Cup performance was encouraging (until the back-nine meltdown in singles) and I fully expect him to add to his win total in 2014-15. He’s incredibly motivated to fulfill that awesome potential. 


 

 

You’re right – it does seem obvious. But the PGA Tour and PGA of America are rivals in the search for captains, and Couples took the Presidents Cup gig first. A bummer, too, because he’s the rare U.S. captain who actually, you know, wins. Players say Freddie’s laid-back demeanor is a big reason for their success during his tenure as Presidents Cup captain (3-0), but the Ryder Cup is serious business with more appearances, more decisions, more public scrutiny. Typically, the PGA requires a two-year commitment from its captains, and Couples has already agreed to serve as an assistant for the 2015 Presidents Cup. Call it recon for Hazeltine. Couples should, and will, warrant serious consideration for the gig. 


 

 

Tiger’s health remains the biggest unknown, but we’ll likely know more on that front when he returns to competition in December. Once fully healthy (or as close as he can get), Woods can turn his attention to his swing, which was a mess last summer. Though he has always had an extra set of eyes on the range, Tiger said that he might go it alone after the failed Foley project. That process will take time. Sure, eventually, he could return to his “winning ways,” like winning 2-3 times per season, but it would seem his days of dominance are over. He’s 39 at the end of the year, with a brittle body and, now, a history-making world No. 1 to contend with. 


 

 

Justin Thomas. The 21-year-old would fit in seamlessly with the Patrick Reeds and Jordan Spieths of the U.S. squad, having grown up competing against them in amateur golf. He’s also a strong match-play performer – Thomas helped lead Alabama to the NCAA title in 2012 and represented the U.S. at the Walker Cup in ’13. Throw in Billy Horschel, and the Americans need more fearless birdie machines like those four players – guys who aren’t chronic losers in the cup, who don’t have years of scar tissue. Tiger, Phil and Furyk have combined for 56 losses. More than anything else, the influx of new blood will help make the Ryder Cup competitive once again.


 

 

This upcoming season might be his best chance, because the anchoring ban looms on Jan. 1, 2016. By his lofty standards it was a disappointing season for Scott, who won only once in the States, at the Colonial. Still, he finished in the top 15 in all four majors and was No. 1 in the Tour’s all-around statistic. He’s a rock-solid ball-striker – the most important attribute in getting into contention at majors – but it’s all about whether he can make enough putts. If he can shake in a few on major weekends, he’ll be a particularly strong bet to capture major No. 2 at Augusta, Chambers Bay or St. Andrews;


 

 

The first part of your question: With so much public support it’d be a surprise now if Azinger didn’t get the job, assuming he wants to risk his legacy and return for 2016. As for the second part, our Rex Hoggard reported that the PGA is already in the preliminary stages of changing its selection process, which is a positive step. On the European side, the last three captains, a player from the tournament committee and the circuit’s chief executive determine the next skipper. The PGA’s process is somewhat similar, but it needs to be a more collaborative effort with input from former captains and the players. That was Watson’s biggest mistake – the players on the team weren’t invested in the process. 

The second change would be to push back the deadline for the captain’s picks announcement. Yes, brochures have to be made, uniforms tailored and private-jet tickets booked, but this is 2014. Those last-minute details shouldn’t need three weeks of planning. If the PGA wants the hottest players on the team, and thus the best chance to win, then it needs to make the picks after the Tour Championship.


 

 

Good question. Ultimately, the players are the ones hitting the shots, although I’d argue that the captain has the responsibility to put the team in the best position to succeed. Watson clearly didn’t do that.

The benefits of the pod system are obvious, but let’s not also forget that Azinger’s 2008 squad also went up against European captain Nick Faldo, one of the worst captains in recent memory. That mismatch certainly helped. At this point, after three losses in a row and eight defeats in the last 10 cups, why not send out Azinger again? What’s there to lose? If he wins, great. Give him the job in ’18, too. If he fails, well, so has everyone else in the 2000s. If Phil said Azinger’s system helped bring out the best in the U.S. players, then that alone makes it worth another shot. 


 

 

That’s neither a question nor an option, but it’s worth remembering that these things are cyclical. Not too long ago the Europeans were considered a big underdog and the perceived slights helped fuel their success. That’s not the case anymore, with Team Europe boasting four of the top 5 players in the world. The U.S. will even the score and get its share of victories once the old wave is pushed out. That time is coming, soon. Mark it down: The Americans will win in 2016.