Did it really matter what Paul McGinley, captain of the victorious European Team, and Tom Watson, captain of Team USA, did before and during the Ryder Cup? Or did their actions have little bearing upon the outcome?
If, at the time of their appointments, Watson had been allocated Team Europe and McGinley placed in charge of Team USA, would the result have been different?
Yes, a resounding yes, such is the influence of team captaincy in modern-day Ryder Cups. Whilst the score line may have changed, the 2014 winner on the cup would read USA, not Europe.
Woefully inept is how to describe Watson’s performance in the captain’s role. But USA supporters should look to the appointing authority when apportioning blame. Like the RFU’s appalling decision to appoint a playing great, but novice rookie manager (Martin Johnson), to manage the England rugby team, so too are the PGA of America guilty of appointing someone clearly not fit for purpose when asking Tom Watson to take the helm.
Before we look at why, let’s review the role of a team captain, and how it can make a difference. The obvious responsibilities are selections, where the captain picks three wildcards in a team of 12, pairings where he determines who plays with who in fourball and foursomes matches, and the order of play in singles.
The biggest challenge however, is to do all that is possible to have one’s players arrive at the first tee as fit for purpose as it is possible to have them, and that takes much planning and significant preparation. In this regard the difference between the two captains couldn’t have been more marked.
Preparation: McGinley got to know Gleneagles like the back of his hand. From the course to the locker rooms including staff, he knew the layout and how he wanted it to look come match day. Watson visited twice during the same period. His attempts to have his players gather there in July failed as only a few turned up. McGinley attended a number of tournaments to watch his charges at first hand.
He would influence starting sheets on the European Tour to ensure certain people played together, such as reclusive rookie Dubuisson and old hand McDowell. “I was able to get Victor and Graeme on the same page,” he said. “I controlled the draws on the European Tour during the summer, and every time Graeme came to play in Europe, he played with Victor. They didn’t know what I was planning, but I had planned that they would be partners.” Result; played three, won three.
McGinley dinned with all his possible charges over the months preceding the event. His transparency with his players, even those uncertain to make the team, was apparent and appreciated. Players got to know the extent of his planning and preparation. They would all be ready come game time. Watson’s charges hardly got to know him in the months leading up to the tournament. One-on-one meetings were rare. The player’s sense of involvement was minimal. The 8-time major winner would, as the press began to learn, rely mostly on his gut feel for the important decisions. Such an approach might have worked when the US provided most of the world’s best golfers, but not today, in fact not for the last 15+ years.
Vice-captains: McGinley chose five; one to take care of each playing group on day one and two, and one to stay with the four players who would be rested. Modern-day Ryder Cup experience, whether as player or manager, oozes out of the likes of Padraig Harrington, Miguel Ángel Jiménez, José María Olazábal, Des Smyth and Sam Torrance. More importantly, this team guarantees the successful template tailored by recent European Ryder Cup Teams will carry on; such selections ensure continuity.
Compare that to Watson’s choice of Andy North (last Ryder Cup experience as a player in 1985), 72-year old Raymond Floyd whose knowledge of current US players is minimal, and part-time Tour player Steve Stricker, who at least has some experience of recent Ryder Cups. When first announced, Watson’s choices for vice-captain were treated with disbelief from many in the media who have come to know the cauldron that is the modern-day Ryder Cup. No comparison really.
After the “Miracle at Medinah” Team Europe could have struggled to maintain such momentum. McGinley’s biggest fear – being in charge of a team that were expected to win – was complacency. How does one manage the favourites, especially given the team is playing at home. Thus he sought the advice of one who has done just that, for twenty-odd years. It was no coincidence that Sir Alex Ferguson was asked to address the European players. Even the specimens swimming around the fish-tank placed in a carefully decorated European team room were coloured blue and yellow. No stone or fish left unturned.
Against all this meticulous attention to detail, this foresight, was Tom Watson’s undoubted resume as a player, the fact that he won as Ryder Cup Captain back in 1993, and his oft self-stated “gut-feel”.
Rory McIlroy on McGinley; “He has just been the most wonderful captain. I can’t speak highly enough of him. From the first day we got here, the speeches that he gave, the videos he showed us, the people that he got in to talk to us, the imagery in the team room, it all tied in together; all part of the plan for the cause of trying to win this Ryder Cup, and he was meticulous in his planning. He was amazing.”
Sergio Garcia, a seven-time Ryder Cupper, concurred. “I was talking to Thomas [Bjorn] yesterday, on the way back to the hotel and he said he strongly feels that Paul is the new wave of captains: a lot more modern, every detail, it was right there. Paul thought of everything this week. He has been so methodical. Every single aspect he needed to touch on, he did. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great captains. Paul did things a little bit differently, but with great style. The job he’s done has just been amazing, and you know, I couldn’t be prouder of being a part of this team and part of him as a captain. It was just unbelievable.”
Selections and pairings: Following the morning fourballs on day one, the US led 2.5 – 1.5. Watson then inexplicably dropped rookies Reed and Spieth who had won their fourball match 5&4, whilst asking 44-year old veteran Mickelson to tee it up again in the afternoon foursomes – a format not suited to Mickelson’s game. Mickelson and Bradley had won in the morning, but suffered a loss in the afternoon (Dubuisson and McDowell) as the Europeans won the foursomes 3.5 – .5.
The following day Watson left Mickelson and partner Bradley, whose team record is an impressive 4-0-1, out of both sessions. Such a slight on his team leader was inexplicable. As Mickelson noted, “Saturday morning we were both ready to go. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that chance.” It was his first full day on the bench in his ten-year Ryder Cup run. Apparently, his captain informed of this decision by text!
McGinley, along with previous European Team Captains, invariably pairs rookies with players capable of easing the red-hot pressure of Ryder Cup match play. Thus Dubuisson was paired with McDowell, Donaldson with Westwood and Gallacher with Poulter. But it’s also critical to know when to play each pairing. Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler had completed their third match in the space of 30 hours, when Watson put them out last on Saturday afternoon. It was obvious to any thinking bystander that McGinley would save that spot for his successful and now rested foursome of Dubuisson and McDowell. The result; a 5 & 4 thrashing.
By the time Saturday evening arrived, with the Europeans 10 – 6 up, an uninspired-looking Watson spent 20 minutes in the press room trying to rationalise his decisions while downplaying his own accountability. After admitting that a fourth straight match for Fowler and Walker may have been too much, he shifted the focus back on the players; “They got a little tired. And that is certainly something I thought they could handle, and maybe I regret not understanding that they couldn’t handle it.” Watson’s distance from his team was there for all to see.
By the time day three arrived, what little chance the US had of picking up sufficient points in the singles was blown away by Watson’s choice of playing order. The US had to win four of the top five matches to have any chance of winning. Everyone knew McGinley would send his top players out high in the order. Watson chose not to play Mickelson and Bubba Watson until games five and six. His highest ranked player, Jim Furyk, played at eight. Game, set and match; 16.5 – 11.5, the biggest winning margin in eight years.
In Europe the idea of nation against nation is what sport is all about. Indeed, the Ryder Cup now ranks third behind the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. In America the emphasis is on internal competition such as NFL’s Super Bowl, Baseball’s World Series, and Stanley Cup Hockey. Against this the Ryder Cup struggles to compete. True international sport does not feature prominently in the American sporting make-up. Therein lies one problem the PGA of America needs to address. It’s method of how it chooses its captain and defines his job description is another.
It is difficult to recall a more incompetent display of Ryder Cup captaincy in recent times than that exhibited by Tom Watson. Some may give such a label to Hal Sutton, others to Sir Nick Faldo, but at least none of their players publicly lambasted the lack of leadership and game plan at the post match press conference. Phil Mickelson’s unprecedented outpouring of what was wrong and why was in part a reaction to being part of a losing team, yet again, but also a reaction to Watson’s repeated put-down of his players.
More will come of this.
Perhaps now the PGA of America will finally undertake a full review of their Ryder Cup management practises. The event, to my mind the best in world golf, needs to be a genuine contest. Currently it is not.