Three consecutive losses, each distinct in its own demoralizing fashion. A comeback without completion at Celtic Manor, then a Sunday meltdown at Medinah, then another epic blowout that ended with the team’s most decorated player taking a swipe at his captain.
Not that Phil Mickelson and Tom Watson were BFF’s to begin with, but when you’ve played in 10 Ryder Cups and won two of them, you eventually look for a head on which to hang the goat horns. The pointed truth? Despite Watson’s supposedly inspirational presence as U.S. skipper, this group of Yanks proved to be as inferior as many cynics suspected.
He lost Dustin Johnson. He lost Jason Dufner. He never really had Tiger Woods. It was a squad doomed by timing and consequence, which isn’t to say a full fleet of Americans would have beaten the Europeans at Gleneagles. The home team was stacked, focused and appropriately motivated. Certainly not Europe’s strongest roster ever, but deeper and more talented than the opponent.
So throw this at the wall and see if it sticks: Mickelson’s post-rout callout of Watson might not be such a terrible thing. Lefty’s willingness to compare this latest ill-fated captaincy with that of victorious U.S. skipper Paul Azinger (2008) came with an underlying message: Let’s get serious, let’s get organized. May we all get sick and tired of getting beaten.
“He’s just frustrated by not winning,” Azinger told me Sunday evening. “It came to a head.”
A diplomatic, high-road response, for sure, but eight losses in the last 10 Ryder Cups? Inexcusable. A 1-7 record in foursomes matches this time around? Impossible to overcome, even tougher to explain. Playing another guy’s ball for several hours requires optimal preparation and strategic prudence. This U.S. squad clearly possessed neither quality.
Nothing does a finer job of measuring a team’s compatibility level than the game better known as alternate shot. The other two formats are basically normal golf – you hit it, find it, hit it again. Azinger’s bunch was hardly perfect in alternate shot at Valhalla, claiming four of eight points. After the Euro-thrashings in 2004 and ’06, however, breaking even felt like ground gained.
Too much credit, too much blame. Every Ryder Cup captain must cope with the notion that his legacy is rooted solely in the result, and maybe that’s not such a terrible thing, either. Dufner and Billy Horschel were among those who immediately began campaigning for Azinger’s return (via Twitter) in 2016.
Is Zinger interested?
“Can’t rule it out,” he replied Sunday night.
REALISTICALLY, THERE SHOULD be just two candidates for the United States captaincy in ’16: Azinger and Fred Couples. Anyone who thinks Couples’ laid-back nature might backfire against the Europeans probably has a point, but at this juncture, it’s all about W’s and L’s. Not only did Freddie go 3-0 as Presidents Cup skipper, his squads outscored the Internationals by a whopping 57-45.
If the PGA of America is serious about reversing its Ryder Cup identity, it needs to swallow its collective pride and approach Couples, who doesn’t fit the so-called mold any more or less than did Watson. It’s worth noting that Couples has already accepted a position as one of Jay Haas’ 2015 Presidents Cup assistants, which leads nicely into an idea hatched by GolfChannel.com editorial director Jay Coffin.
Hire one guy to captain the U.S. in both events for two years, perhaps even four. Mimic the template of USA Basketball, which has installed coach Mike Krzyzewski as a fixture and generated a sense of continuity within the program. If we’re going to have two team-match gatherings, there is no good reason why they can’t draw on their common characteristics and make both operations better in the long run.
Forget the politics. Never mind the tangle of egos and other governing-body B.S. Couples would be perfect in the inaugural role of dual skipper, which Coffin describes as such: “go out there and hang with the guys, work on partnerships, have drinks, play Tuesday money games with them, get to know their families, etc.”
Honestly? It probably makes way too much sense for either the PGA of America or the PGA Tour to seriously consider.
IT IS SECOND nature for golf fans to question a Ryder Cup skipper’s personnel decisions. Lanny Wadkins’ risky selection of Curtis Strange as a captain’s pick in 1995, Hal Sutton’s all-or-nothing decision to pair Tiger Woods with Phil Mickelson in 2004 (he got double nothing), Davis Love III’s rally-killer benching of Mickelson/Keegan Bradley in 2012 …
There was plenty to choose from at Gleneagles. Why sit a pair of young bucks (Jordan Spieth/Patrick Reed) immediately after they’d trampled Europe’s most dangerous player (Ian Poulter) Friday morning? Don’t you ride the two rookies for as long as you can, squeezing every drop from them while knowing youth is often impervious to fatigue?
Watson’s biggest and most obvious mistake, however, came the following day. Having proven themselves untouchable at Medinah two years earlier, Mickelson and Bradley teamed up to beat Rory McIlroy/Sergio Garcia in Friday fourballs at Gleneagles. They lost that afternoon, however, and Watson benched both for both sessions Saturday.
It was a move with far-reaching implications, given Philly Mick’s aforementioned post-mortem. “I expected what Phil said to me,” Watson recalled. “He said, ‘We can get it done, Captain. We want the chance.’ I told him the way this golf course sets up, the four teams I put out there gives us the best chance.
“He lobbied again. He texted me, ‘Give us a chance.’ I had to tell him no.”
Regardless of how you feel about Mickelson, he deserved a valid explanation – and he deserved to be told well before he’d warmed up and prepared himself for an afternoon battle. Pragmatically, the move made no sense. Mickelson took a respectable 4-5-4 foursomes record into Gleneagles. His successful partnership with Bradley had emerged as one of America’s most formidable weapons. And with the U.S. trailing by just a point through three sessions, Watson should have leaned on his most proven commodities Saturday afternoon.
Furthermore, a partnership that produces four consecutive big-time victories, then loses once, is not left to rot in a golf cart for an entire day. Not only was Watson’s decision an error, it was a mistake that suggests a personal vendetta – a lousy message issued to a young team on the brink.
As a footnote, there were 27 interview transcripts published Saturday from Gleneagles, not one of which quoted Mickelson or Bradley on the benching. No question in my mind, Lefty knew exactly what he was doing when he took out Watson in full public view the next day. And no wonder the Yanks got thumped.
TOO MUCH CREDIT, too much blame. Not only does this apply to Watson, whose shortcomings as both a captain and communicator turned PGA of America president Ted Bishop’s outside-the-box experiment into a bust, but Mickelson himself. In offering such a candid and visible assessment of the 2014 captain, Philly Mick was roasted by several prominent voices for violating the very essence of appropriate team conduct.
What happens in the team room stays in the team room, or so we’re led to believe. The funny thing about media – some of us chastise guys like Mickelson for talking out of school, then lick up every last crumb, no matter how dirty.
Some of my favorite golf journalists, including Golf Channel teammates Rex Hoggard and Tim Rosaforte, have referred to the U.S. news conference as one of the most awkward moments in Ryder Cup history, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree. It was hard to watch and impossible not to, if you know what I mean.
Perhaps it was also necessary, or at the very least, a much-needed attempt to shake up a system that has produced lousy results for far too long. Bishop chose Watson himself. Why is there no committee for such an important appointment? As I wondered here a couple of weeks ago, why are the U.S. captains’ picks made almost a month before the actual matches – before the final two FedEx Cup playoff events?
In 1999, four U.S. players (Mickelson, Woods, David Duval and Mark O’Meara) became villains for criticizing the PGA of America’s pocketing the immense revenue generated by the Ryder Cup. Their message was poorly represented – and thus, widely misinterpreted – but from that fracas, a reasonable solution was soon reached.
In the 15 years since, the PGA has donated portions of the income to charities as designated by the U.S. team members themselves – $100,000 per player in 2012. So what began as a case of potential squad-rotting dissension turned out to have a productive and happy ending.
Maybe that will happen again. Maybe it won’t, but as anyone can plainly see, the U.S. Ryder Cup program has a whole lot of work ahead of it.