GLENEAGLES, Scotland – There are two ways to interpret what happened in the aftermath of the latest United States thrashing at the hands of Europe, the team’s third loss in a row and eighth in the last 10 editions of the event.
One way is that it was a cathartic clearing of the air, a constructive meeting of the minds during which captain Tom Watson publicly defended his management skills and veteran team member Phil Mickelson aired his grievances.
And then there’s the right way.
The reality is, it was an uncomfortable train wreck spilling into an awkward dumpster fire.
It took three full days, but the 40th edition of this event finally turned into a contentious, combative competition by Sunday evening.
Except that it wasn’t the Americans against the Europeans. It was the Americans against themselves.
During a post-round news conference following another uninspired thrashing, everything unraveled. The years of frustration. The disappointing week. The memories of the only time this team has triumphed since the turn of the century and the resentment over how it’s all gone downhill ever since.
At the eye of this storm was Mickelson, clearly still upset about being benched by Watson for both Saturday team sessions. Asked to explain what worked during Paul Azinger’s reign in 2008 that hasn’t happened since, the 10-time competitor unleashed a lengthy diatribe of support which could only be viewed as discouragement toward the latest system.
“There were two things that allow us to play our best I think that Paul Azinger did,” Mickelson said. “One was he got everybody invested in the process. He got everybody invested in who they were going to play with, who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their pod, when they would play. ... The other thing that Paul did really well was he had a great game plan for us, you know, how we were going to go about doing this.
“Those two things helped us bring out our best golf.”
When questioned about whether Watson employed a similar strategy, he didn’t hide his disapproval.
“Uh, no,” he said matter-of-factly.
In the demure world of golf, this was the verbal equivalent to Reggie Jackson brawling with Billy Martin in a dugout or Latrell Sprewell going for the throat of P.J. Carlesimo.
In prior years, the team news conference has featured a few tears, plenty of regrets and a whole barrelful of promises to turn things around for the next time. Never before has there been such blatant finger-pointing. Never before has a captain been summarily thrown under the proverbial bus.
Maybe it wasn’t the right time or place to air dirty laundry, but those objections certainly weren’t unfounded.
Watson is an old-school curmudgeon who wanted to win his way – namely, bark at his players to play better and expect it to happen.
He never consulted Azinger on that winning strategy. He never consulted his players, either.
Instead, the captain entered the week without a fully formed plan, then scrapped any remnants of it halfway through the opening day.
The man who repeatedly wanted hot hands left his hottest ones on the bench. The man who had players in specific groups during practice rounds quickly paired twosomes who hadn’t prepped together. The man who insisted he would take none of the credit and all of the blame at one point explained that he wasn’t being outcoached, but his players were being outplayed.
Watson watched from six seats away as Mickelson pulled a passive-aggressive coup on his captaincy. Asked whether his most veteran team member was being disloyal, he simply stated, “He has a difference of opinion. That's OK. My management philosophy is different than his.”
Even in attempting to defend himself, Watson displayed casual ignorance.
“My two jobs are to make the captain's picks and then put the team together. Those are my two most important jobs,” he explained. “Whether I did the best possible job of putting the teams together, that's up to you people to debate.”
The quarrel between Watson and Mickelson was a war of words in the most indirect way possible, polite smiles masking a growing undercurrent of dislike and disapproval and distrust.
Through it all, Jim Furyk sat silently on the opposite side of the dais from Mickelson, dutifully listening to each side. When the nine-time Ryder Cup player was finally asked for his take, he offered some thoughtful words on the subject that were less malicious than constructive.
“I think that I have a lot of respect for both gentlemen,” he said. “I've known Phil my entire life. Since I was 16, I've competed against him. He's one of my dearest friends on the PGA Tour. And I have a lot of respect for our captain. I know he put his heart and soul in it for two years. He worked his ass off to try to provide what he thought would be the best opportunity for us.
“What's the winning formula? What's the difference year-in, year-out? If I could put my finger on it, I would have changed this s--- a long time ago. But we haven't and we are going to keep searching.”
In the minutes just after the United States’ latest Ryder Cup beatdown, that searching was done in a public forum, awkwardly and uncomfortably.
It was more contentious and combative than anything the team produced on the course for three days. As the European team celebrated by spraying champagne at one another, the Americans left the premises with a cascade of untimely fireworks.