The problem was they did not really want Tom Watson. Sure, they said they wanted Tom Watson, and then they gave him the job, and then they gave all sorts of lip service to how great it would be to have a hard-nosed legend like Tom Watson captaining the U.S. Ryder Cup team again.
But, in truth, they didn’t want Tom Watson at all. Maybe they wanted the idea of Tom Watson. But they didn’t want the flesh and blood version.
I’ve known Watson for 20 or so years, I’m writing a book about his amazing rivalry and relationship with Jack Nicklaus, and so I know a few things about him. First, he’s a perfectionist. Second, he’s tough as nails. Third, he’s opinionated. And fourth, he’s going to do what he believes is the right thing no matter what anybody else thinks.
This is a man who quit Kansas City Country Club when he felt like the club had blackballed H&R Block founder Henry Bloch because he’s Jewish. People will never know just how hard it was for Watson to do that, just what it cost him within his own family, but he did it because he believed it was right.
Then, this is also man who wrote a letter to Augusta National essentially asking them to ban announcer Gary McCord from the broadcasts because, in Watson’s view, he wasn’t respectful enough (he’d referred to the greens looking “bikini-waxed” for instance). When that became public, Watson looked like a joyless old dinosaur without a sense of humor, but he stuck with it because he believed it was right.
This is a man who charged Gary Player with cheating at a Skins Game. This led to a prolonged feud between the two golfing greats (in his autobiography, Player wrote Watson wasn’t “half a man”), but again, Watson said what he believed, even though he knew it was going to create a lot of tension.
It should be noted that Watson rejoined Kansas City Country Club a while after Bloch was let in, and McCord and Player and Watson have all made amends – McCord and Player have both worked with Watson on charity events in Tom’s Kansas City hometown.
But the point remains: With Tom Watson, you get a deeply principled, overwhelmingly stubborn and entirely certain force of nature. When you ask Watson to captain the Ryder Cup team, like when you hire Bob Knight to coach your basketball team or Buck Showalter to manage your baseball team, you are getting the whole package, the principles, the certainty, the toughness, the quirks. You only hire Watson when you want to blow things up, when you are willing to admit that “We are in trouble here and need someone who will shake up everybody."
That was probably the thought when it was announced Watson was captain. But then the Ryder Cup came around, and it turns out nobody really wanted to be shaken up. By nobody I mean U.S. golfers, particularly Phil Mickelson. Professional golf is the most individual sport in the world – PGA Tour players are their own bosses in a way that no other athlete is. They hire caddies to carry their bags and give them the direction of the wind. They hire coaches who study their swings and make suggestions. They tell equipment companies exactly how to design their clubs, and they tell clothes companies what they want to wear, and they hire agents and public relations people who are charged with making them look as good as possible.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but it means that the best PGA Tour players are very rarely told hard truths. They do not play for teams, are never told to sacrifice a runner over or to set a pick for a better shooter or to give up the puck to someone in a better position to score. They are their own universes.
You could see that so clearly in the Ryder Cup scoring this year. In singles, the United States held relatively tough and lost just 6 1/2 to 5 1/2. In the fourball competitions, where all four players play their own balls, the U.S. outscored Europe, 5 to 3. So in the two competitions where the players were playing their own balls – essentially playing the individual golf they are good at – the United States actually outscored Europe, 10 1/2 to 9 1/2.
So what happened? Well, there’s that third competition, the foursomes competition, where players play alternate shot. And that’s a true team competition, one where you are constantly trying to set up your playing partner, where you have to think about his strengths and weakness, and in that Europe annihilated the United States, 7-1. The U.S. was absolutely helpless – none of the six matches they lost outright even made it to the 18th hole. Mickelson, who we will get to in a minute, teamed up with Keegan Bradley in the first day foursomes and they were 3 down to Graeme McDowell and Victor Dubuisson after just five holes.
The reason you hire Watson – the only reason – is if you want him to be blunt with the players, you want him to try and instill some of his competitive fury into them. Watson was 10-4-1 as a Ryder Cup player – he and Jack Nicklaus never lost as a team. You don’t hire Watson to pamper the players or to make them a part of the process or to be warm and fuzzy. If you want that, hire nice guys like Fred Couples or Jay Haas.
I’m saying that without sarcasm – it seems probable to me that American players will only respond to a nice guy captain. That’s fine, but then you don’t hire Watson. He’s not a nice guy, not in that way. And that’s what I mean when I say that they really didn’t want him as captain. Mickelson’s record coming into this the Ryder Cup was 11-17-6. That’s spectacularly bad for a player of Mickelson’s skills. Look at the Ryder Cup records of other players with at least five major championships (winning percentage in parentheses):
• Arnold Palmer: 22-8-3 (71.2%)
• Tom Watson: 10-4-1 (70%)
• Lee Trevino: 17-7-6 (66.6%)
• Jack Nicklaus: 17-8-3 (66.0%)
• Seve Ballesteros: 20-12-5 (60.8%)
• Nick Faldo: 23-19-4 (54.3%)
• Tiger Woods: 13-17-3 (43.9%)
• Phil Mickelson: 13-18-6 (43.2%)
From this, you might determine that Mickelson is the problem and not the solution (ditto for Tiger). You would think the PGA of America brought in Watson to deal with the issues of the recent generation of great American golfers, not cater to their whims. Watson likes Mickelson (or did before the Ryder Cup, don’t know about now) but his job was to try and pull a major upset and win a Ryder Cup in Europe. Mickelson has never been on a team that has done that. The thought had to be that Watson would change things.
But the team wasn’t ready for Watson. They didn’t respond to Watson. They didn’t want a captain like Watson. Mickelson’s passive-aggressive rant after the United States' overwhelming loss about Paul Azinger’s magical pod system was a perfect summary of events. The U.S. just got its butts kicked all over Scotland, and this guy’s talking nonsense about pods.
Look, I don’t think Watson did a very good job as captain. It doesn’t matter – Captain America could not have led this team to victory – but I tend to agree that Watson was inconsistent. His decision to not send out Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed for the foursomes on Friday made little sense. Playing the Mickelson-Bradley team twice on Friday and not at all on Saturday was very strange. I don’t think he connected with the players like he wanted.
But I also think that it was inevitable. There was a generational gap. The players are too young to have seen him play – even Mickelson and Jim Furyk were only 7 when Watson and Nicklaus had their famous Duel in the Sun. The players do not know him from playing the Tour or from seeing him on television. Watson is also not an easy man to know. And the players are used to being empowered.
Mickelson griped how the players weren’t involved in the decisions. Other golfers seemed to agree. And that cuts to do the point. Maybe the only way these guys will perform at the Ryder Cup is if they have a captain who will coddle them and pair them up with their friends and respond to their text messages and include them in all the decisions. That’s fine. But then you don’t hire Tom Watson.