At its core the 2014 Ryder Cup was a case study in contrasting styles.
For Europe, Paul McGinley’s detail-oriented leadership was familiar, a legacy passed from captain to captain, while U.S. front-man Tom Watson represented a break from tradition.
The 65-year-old, two-time captain was supposed to be the game-changer, the variable that would allow the Americans to end a slide of five losses in the last six matches, but the juxtaposition between the two team rooms was vivid from the outset.
For the Europeans, the decision to choose McGinley was political and public and very much player driven. But for the American side, the decision to name Watson captain was made behind closed doors by a frighteningly small group of PGA of America executives.
“I know I speak for a lot of people when I say, we are just really tired of losing the Ryder Cup, and the decision to name this gentleman as our next captain, a lot of that was just about our weariness of what's happened in the past few Ryder Cups and we certainly hope that trend can change,” said then PGA president Ted Bishop in December 2012.
In the run up to this year’s matches, McGinley played 28 times around the globe to endear and introduce himself to potential players. Watson, on the other hand, played just 10 times over the last two years in non-Champions Tour events and struggled to keep current with the changing face of American golf.
Although he would specifically reference Brooks Koepka, the young American who forged his way onto the PGA Tour via the European circuit, as a player he considered for one of his three captain’s picks, just a month earlier during a brief exchange at the PGA Championship Watson would ask Koepka what golf course he worked at, confusing him for one of the PGA club professionals at the event.
Watson appeared to waffle with his captain’s picks, going with Webb Simpson over Bill Haas in an 11th hour decision, while McGinley, who likely had a more difficult decision considering the depth of his potential picks, went with experience and consistency in Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood.
But it was when the teams arrived at Gleneagles that the contrasting styles became so glaring.
McGinley kept his team loose and on point.
“Complacency . . . concentration,” smiled Rory McIlroy when asked on Sunday night to relay McGinley’s message for the week.
“Wave after wave,” followed Graeme McDowell.
“When the storm comes, we’ll be the rock,” added Justin Rose.
“Have fun,” McGinley smiled.
Watson, meanwhile, seemed to send mixed messages with many players unsure of who they would be paired with until the night before the matches, and his no-nonsense style failed to resonate with modern players.
That disconnect seemed to come to a boil during a team-bonding meeting Saturday night in Scotland. According to various reports, Watson scoffed at a gift given to him by his players, criticized many of the team members and took no responsibility for the American's four-point deficit heading into Sunday singles following a particularly dismal performance in foursomes play.
“The obvious answer is that our team has to play better,” said Watson after the U.S. team’s 16 1/2 to 11 1/2 point loss. “That's the obvious answer. I think they recognize that fact, that somehow, collectively, 12 players have to play better.”
From there things continued to unravel.
Where McGinley’s players focused on their captain’s message and the passion he brought to his team, Watson’s 12 appeared disinterested and, at least in the case of Phil Mickelson, disenfranchised.
“Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best,” Mickelson said, adding, “No. No, nobody here was in any decision.”
There were rare bright spots for the U.S. side, including the solid play of rookies Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, an inspired pairing that went undefeated in team play.
From the failed Watson experiment also came a newfound willingness by the PGA to be inclusive in its search for answers. The Ryder Cup task force, an 11-member panel that consists mostly of former captains and current players, met for the first time this month and there seems to be no rush to name the next captain.
The consensus among some observers, including Watson, suggests there’s nothing wrong with the U.S. Ryder Cup system that better play, particularly better putting, can’t fix. But that analysis ignores the fact the Europeans were five points better at Gleneagles.
This wasn’t a near miss like the one-point losses at Medinah in 2012 and Celtic Manor in ’10; this was a boat race that began at the top for each team.
Never before in the modern history of the matches have each team’s contrasting styles been so stark, and never before has it been so clear that a captain can make a difference, for better or worse.