NEW YORK – Where players like Hunter Mahan, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson see redemption, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson can sense an edge, however slight and subtle.
If the U.S. side is going to end a road game victory drought that extends back more than two decades it will be this psychological distinction that will lift them over the paper lions in Scotland.
An often-repeated sentiment during Tuesday’s captain’s picks announcement from Studio 8H at 30 Rock, atonement, be it for the 2012 meltdown at Medinah or the mudslide in ’10 at Celtic Manor, seems to be a singular focus for players and captain.
“Redemption is going to be a strong word among the players,” said Mahan, who was announced as Watson’s second selection. “Europe has flat out kicked our butt in recent years.”
Simpson, who was a member of the ’12 team that booted a 10-6 advantage heading into Sunday’s singles play, echoed those comments, “It was a week I’ll never forget. It was a week we were playing so well we knew we were going to win,” he said.
And Bradley, whose pain from the last matches ran so deep he has yet to unpack his bag for the week, “We’re always trying to fight and keep it down, but that (loss) is always there,” he said.
Watson played along, fanning the competitive flames in search of an advantage, a spark, maybe even a ploy, to wrest the U.S. team out of a slide that has included seven loses in the last nine matches.
“Every player in this team will go in there thinking about Medinah. They will know, I don’t have to tell them,” the captain said. “I know how it hurt me. I watched it and for three days I had a big hole in my stomach.”
While Bradley, the American side’s answer to Ian Poulter, and Mahan, whose victory at last month’s Barclays likely pushed him over the top, seemed to be the proverbial low-hanging fruit for captain Tom, Simpson’s selection is sure to draw scrutiny in the weeks leading up to the matches.
Watson admitted that he came to the conclusion Simpson was the right man for the final pick over the likes of Chris Kirk, Bill Haas and Brandt Snedeker early Tuesday when he glanced down at the litany statistics from past matches.
“I looked down and saw 5 and 4, and just kept thinking 5 and 4, 5 and 4, 5 and 4,” said Watson, referring to Simpson and Bubba Watson’s Day 2 four-ball victory over Justin Rose and Francesco Molinari.
There were other factors involved, including Simpson’s PGA Tour record last fall and his vocal desire to make the team, but it was that match, which seemed to stem a European rally, that convinced Watson he needed to be on that team.
Armchair captains will question why Kirk didn’t get the pick. The would-be Ryder Cup rookie outplayed world No. 1, and European anchor, Rory McIlroy over the final 36 holes last week at TPC Boston to win the Deutsche Bank Championship and he has gained more World Ranking points over the last 12 months (163) than all of the other potential picks.
“Webb was the toughest of the decisions. He had some good play and some bad play lately,” Watson said. “There were other people in the mix. I even thought about Brooks Koepka. I did a lot of scouting. People have to realize that (Kirk’s play at the Deutsche Bank Championship) is a snapshot. You have to look at the total package and the total picture.”
When the PGA of America named Watson captain of this year’s matches it was clear they were eyeing a leader with an outside-the-box mentality, and one could argue his picks fall into that category considering that Bradley was 13th on the U.S. point list, Simpson was 15th and Mahan completed the automatic selection process ranked 25th.
By comparison, in 2012 then-captain Davis Love III selected Jim Furyk (No. 11 on the point list), Brandt Snedeker (No. 13) and Dustin Johnson (No. 15); while Corey Pavin went with Tiger Woods (No. 12), Stewart Cink (No. 14) and Rickie Fowler (No. 20).
Even Paul Azinger, the maverick who overhauled the selection system in 2008, didn’t color as far outside the lines as Watson when he selected Steve Stricker (No. 10), Hunter Mahan (No. 13), J.B. Holmes (No. 18) and Chad Campbell (No. 21).
But this is, after all, the same captain who made Raymond Floyd and Lanny Wadkins his picks in 1993 when the veterans were 22nd and 32nd, respectively, on the U.S. point list.
If these matches follow the same path as they did in ’93, the last time the U.S. won a Ryder Cup on European soil, Watson’s selections will be remembered as inspired. If not, the second-guessing will likely begin with his picks. They always do.
But on Tuesday in the heart of Manhattan as each player talked about redemption, Watson saw a reason to be optimistic.