GLENEAGLES, Scotland – Tom Watson was the wrong guy for the job.
Old Tom was out of touch, outcoached and now out of excuses, but it isn’t Watson who should suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. As bad as Sunday’s 16 ½ to 11 ½ loss was – and it was – he was offered a job he was not qualified for.
While there is plenty of blame to go around, including the 12 Americans who failed to win a single full point in eight foursomes matches, the criticism for another U.S. collapse begins and ends with PGA of America president Ted Bishop.
It was Bishop who concocted the plan to give the 65-year-old a second turn as captain some two decades after leading the U.S. team to victory for the last time on foreign soil. It was a blueprint that was born on a flight home in 2011 as Bishop read Four Days in July, the tale of Watson’s near miss at the 2009 Open Championship.
“Our journey actually started on this Ryder Cup back in November of 2011,” said Bishop earlier this month.
According to various sources, the normal captain’s selection process, which is decided by the three-member PGA executive committee, was circumvented by a fast-track approach led by Bishop.
While hindsight can be a dangerous ally, and it’s easy now to see the flaws in Bishop’s thinking, the seeds of discontent were planted well before Sunday’s fait accompli at Gleneagles. A quiet chorus of concern began weeks ago as Watson’s captain’s picks approached.
Following his final round at the Deutsche Bank Championship Phil Mickelson was asked if Watson had reached out to him for any advice for the impending picks.
Morning Drive: Who should lead the U.S. in 2016?
“I haven’t, no. Maybe … I’ll check,” smiled Mickelson as he made a show of scrolling through the messages on his phone. “No.”
At best, Watson was tightlipped throughout the decision-making process. At worst, he was insular.
Consider that Brendon Todd, the hottest American player for much of the summer with a victory (Byron Nelson Championship) and four other top-10 finishes, acknowledged at the PGA Championship that he had had no communication with Watson regarding his status as a potential pick.
Lefty will suffer a disproportionate share of criticism for speaking out following the U.S. team’s eighth loss in its last 10 Ryder Cup outings when he was asked what has gone wrong for the American effort since those glory days at Valhalla in 2008.
“There were two things that allowed us to play our best I think that Paul Azinger (the 2008 captain) did,” Mickelson said. “One was he got everybody invested in the process. … The other thing that Paul did really well was he had a great game plan for us.
“We use that same process in the Presidents Cup and we do really well. 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.”
Moments later Watson went on the defensive in an awkward exchange saying, “You know, it takes 12 players to win. It's not pods. It's 12 players.”
Perhaps Mickelson should have kept the team room laundry locked behind closed doors, but as an agent of change it’s hard to imagine a more powerful pulpit from which to make a difference.
The American Ryder Cup system is broken; the alternative is to believe that this European squad is five points better than the U.S. side. Five points.
Captains can make a difference, just ask any player who has been a part of a winning team.
“Few captains, if any, have had as big an impact on the team and on the result as (Azinger) did,” Mahan said at the PGA Championship. “I think he was worth a point, point and a half that week.”
In Watson’s defense, John Wooden is perhaps the best coach of any team in the history of sports, but even his greatness would be ill equipped to lead a group of current NBA players.
That doesn’t tarnish his legacy; it just places him on the wrong side of the generational divide.
If Bishop’s failed experiment has produced anything worth salvaging it is a willingness to think outside of the box when it comes to future captains. No more should the powers calling the shots in South Florida be bound by the unwritten criteria that captains must be former major champions or that repeat performances are strictly verboten.
Early last year the European Tour brass gathered in a tony hotel in Abu Dhabi to decide the Continent’s 2014 captain. It was uncomfortable, political and feelings were hurt, but in the end that committee – which consists of former captains, current players and various administrators – delivered the captain the players wanted – Paul McGinley.
That was clear as Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington gathered in the back of the room to cheer as McGinley was named captain.
“The committee is 100 percent behind this captain and that was obvious early in the meeting,” said Thomas Bjorn, the tournament committee chairman who would play his way onto this year’s team, at the time. “We listen to our players.”
If the U.S. team wants to know what the European’s mysterious “template” is they should start with the captain’s selection process. Decisions made behind closed doors by a frighteningly few number of executives is not the answer.
If the PGA is serious about change they should copy the European system and create a committee. Include the current PGA president, a few former captains and, most importantly, players who are likely to qualify for the team.
McGinley’s Europe rolled to victory because they bought into his detailed plan of no complacency, no give. They did that because they bought into McGinley.
Watson was the wrong guy for the job. Finding the right guy is the only way to stop America’s slide into Ryder Cup irrelevancy.