Tom Watson will be scrutinized anew when the final score is posted at Gleneagles in Scotland this week.
He won’t leave the Ryder Cup the same, with his legacy certain to be altered in some way.
That’s how it is now with captains in these pressurized matches. They either become more of what they already were, their greatness swollen with another triumph, or they become something less, their fame nicked or gashed by a grand failure, because that’s what losing a Ryder Cup has become, a failure more epic than losing ever was as a player.
In other words, it’s all become terribly overblown.
A captain passes through scrutiny to the extreme in a Ryder Cup week.
He is a genius. He is an inspiration. He is a winner.
Or he’s a dolt, a disappointment, a loser.
The blame came down so hard on Hal Sutton after the Americans lost at Oakland Hills in ’04, he went into virtual golf exile for four years.
“It drove me right out of the game,” Sutton said.
Nick Faldo was blamed for being too aloof to inspire the Europeans in their loss at Valhalla in ’08.
“It left a scar,” Faldo said of the defeat.
Tom Kite was criticized for being too soft and ultimately outmaneuvered by Seve Ballesteros in an American loss at Valderrama in ’97.
“You prepare as best you can and hope your guys play well,” Kite said years later. “If they do, you look like a genius, and if they don’t, you look like an idiot.”
The captains live with post-mortem analyses that range from mythic to overblown.
Ballesteros was magnetic and infectious, willing the Europeans to victory with his charismatic presence in ’97 at Valderrama. He seemed omnipresent, zipping between matches in a souped-up golf cart. Faldo was the anti-Seve, too passionless to inspire his team in ’08 at Valhalla.
Ben Crenshaw was a wizard, a prophet predicting something historic was imminent on the eve of the American comeback at the ’99 Ryder Cup. Sutton was blindly autocratic, unable to see what a disaster it would be forcing the pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to open the matches in ’04 at Oakland Hills.
Paul Azinger was a master of the psychology of dynamic relationships, devising a “pod” system that put American players in position to succeed at Valhalla in ‘08. Mark James was the architect of collapse, dooming his team with the risky decision to bench three of his European players until Sunday singles in ’99 at Brookline.
Sam Torrance won the cup in ’02 at The Belfry, frontloading his Sunday singles lineup. Curtis Strange lost it, backloading his lineup there.
Conquering hero or blundering failure? For Ryder Cup captains, it seems as if there is nothing in between anymore.
This is the hornet’s nest Watson is stepping into at Gleneagles this week.
“I’m prepared for that,” Watson said. “I don’t have a problem with it. I have some thick skin.”
Watson said all he can do is try to make the best decisions possible at the time he has to make them.
“If the decisions turn out to be where the players lose rather than win, heck, I’m taking the blame,” he said. “I don’t care. I don’t care at all. I just want the players to win that one extra hole, one more hole than the other team in every match, and make me look good.
“Doesn’t matter if they make me look good. If and when we win the Ryder Cup, I’ll stand aside and give all the credit, all the credit to the players, their caddies, and that’s where the credit is due.”
Even more might be expected of Watson than most captains because his name is so iconic in the game, and because the PGA of America was so bold breaking tradition in bringing him back.
He was the last captain to lead the Americans to victory on foreign soil. Twenty-one years after leading that triumph at The Belfry, Watson was brought aboard to work his magic again, to restore American pride and keep the Euros from winning for the sixth time in seven tries.
He’s going to Scotland to do it, where he is so revered for winning four of his five British Open titles.
Savior and demigod, that’s a full plate of expectations.
“The U.S. is so desperate to win a Ryder Cup, that’s why they gave Watson a shot,” NBC’s Johnny Miller said.
At 65, Watson is old school, a throw-back whose leadership style could not be perceived more differently from the captain he succeeded, the democratic, management-by-committee style of Davis Love III. An eight-time major championship winner, Watson takes a tough-as-nails reputation to Scotland.
“The U.S. under Watson is definitely a win mentality,” Miller said. “Nothing else matters to Tom Watson. He's not going to be holding their hands saying, `It's OK, maybe you'll get ‘em next time.’ It's going to be, `You'd better win the danged thing.’ That’s all there is to it, no complaining, just win, like Al Davis says of the Raiders. I think that's the kind of captain that Watson is.”
Watson understands how the stakes have escalated in the Ryder Cup, but he doesn’t see his role being any different than it was 21 years ago. He isn’t making more of his ability to affect the outcome than is really there.
“From the start, I've said I'm a stage manager,” Watson said. “I set the stage for the players. I tell them where to go. I make the final decisions on who is paired with whom, the order in which they play, and they go out on stage and they perform.”
Ultimately, a captain tries to put players in position to succeed, but the truth is players have more ability to make or break a captain.
“If a man is down and has a curling putt on the 14th hole and misses it, how is it the captain’s fault?” Faldo told the Daily Mail in answer to criticism of his captaincy.
A captain’s IQ soars 50 points when his players have hot putters. His IQ plummets when they don’t.
“I don’t know where a captain has actually made that big a difference, with the exception of putting the right people in the right positions,” Watson said. “Sometimes, that’s just blind luck. Other times, that’s well thought out. It’s a rational decision.”
Watson won’t hole a putt this week, won’t hit a shot out of bounds, but he’ll end up with credit or blame for both.
“I can’t do a darned thing about it once those players are on the golf course,” Watson said. “They are in charge of their own destiny. That is the toughest thing about being a captain. I have no skin in the game.”
A captain can create an atmosphere, set a tone that puts a player more comfortably in position to succeed. Or, for some players, uncomfortably. That’s the thing. There are 12 players, and they’re all different personalities. Some players are better on edge, others aren’t.
“Keeping your players happy may be the most important thing a captain does,” Torrance one said.
Or keeping them dry. Corey Pavin got all kinds of grief at Wales in ’10 when the rain suits his wife helped design leaked so much the Americans had to abandon them in the middle of their matches.
Nobody may have been better at creating atmosphere suited to a player’s strength than Azinger, who grouped players in small pods according to personality types at Valhalla.
Watson sees the appeal in that.
“I’ll be using it in some modified form,” Watson said.
When he led the Americans to victory as captain at The Belfry, Watson created a ruggedly competitive atmosphere. He created controversy there when Torrance – then a player – asked Watson to sign his dinner menu at an official function and Watson refused.
The backstory is that Watson told his players not to sign autographs at the dinner, so as to spare them a long evening when rest was required. He was adhering to his own orders.
Still, his refusal almost mushroomed into an international incident in media accounts. Watson ruffled European sensibilities again before Sunday singles when Torrance complained he couldn’t play because of a toe injury, forcing the Americans to accept a halved singles match, as is Ryder Cup rule. Watson marched into the European team room insisting on seeing Torrance’s ingrown toe-nail.
Bernard Gallacher captained the Europeans that year.
“Tom Watson is a fair man, a nice man, but he’s also a hard man and a competitive man,” Gallacher told the Telegraph this past week.
When it’s all over, we won’t know how the captain’s decisions truly affected the final outcome.
“They could not even have a captain, and it wouldn't matter that much,” Miller said. “I just don't really believe the captain is that big of a deal, personally. You've got these players, 12 really terrific players, and they want to win so badly, and there's no magic formula.”
Magic or not, you can be sure the captain’s winning and losing formulas will be evaluated in the end for assignment of credit and blame.