Don’t get me wrong, the 12 players on a team hit the shots and make the putts that ultimately determine a win or loss, but the job of the Ryder Cup captain involves more than just picking out uniforms, posing for photo ops, and making decisions from your “gut” — a term American Captain Tom Watson used starting at the glitzy press conference, where he made his somewhat controversial captain’s picks, particularly when it came down to Webb Simpson, who apparently texted his way onto the team.
Being the captain of a Ryder Cup team, which is truly the only event in golf that involves a team component (aside from the Presidents Cup, a contrived exhibition that pits the U.S. against the Internationals), takes intensive planning, knowledge of each individual player and strong communication skills — leading into and during the event. No, the captain isn’t the one hitting the shots or holing the momentum-carrying putts, but his job is much more complicated than the average person may think.
The captain also requires putting his own ego aside at times for the betterment of the entire team. It’s more than simply giving in-the-moment inspirational, pump-up speeches and handing in the pairings on time, which Watson described as the “most stressful” part of the job in his Saturday press conference.
The skipper of the Ryder Cup teams acts like a manager of a professional baseball team, deciding on his lineup of batters to setup his players for the best and most scoring opportunities. It’s like being a coach of an NBA squad, which requires intensive strategy, as well, on sending out the correct combination of five players under various circumstances. Many say there’s too much emphasis on giving accolades to the winning Ryder Cup captain and placing blame on the losing one, and to an extent, there probably is, but both deserve to receive to a certain amount of credit and accountability at the end of the day.
I have all the respect in the world for Watson as a player, so it was unfortunate to watch him fumble and bumble as Team America’s detached and taciturn leader. Oftentimes the all-time greats in the game don’t necessarily make the best leaders. (See: Faldo, Nick, 2008.) Known for staying true to his convictions, Watson certainly demonstrated that as captain, except when he didn’t, which led to confusion and chaos, not to mention a divisive team atmosphere.
Bringing back Tom Watson to lead the U.S. Ryder Cup team was always a risk. To be honest, a fair number of us in the media thought it would be a disaster from the start, for the reasons it presumably turned out to be — Watson was too out of touch with his players, too old (at 65, it was tough for him to keep up with Europe’s Paul McGinley, 47), too stubborn and too aloof when it came to communicating with the team and planning a strategy ahead of time.
When I look back to the Tour Championship and caught Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker playing in a nine-hole fourball practice match against Zach Johnson and Jordan Spieth on Wednesday of that week, I was intrigued and walked with them. It hadn’t been organized or suggested by Watson or any of his vice-captains, most of whom were just as out of touch with the modern day Tour player, Andy North, 64, and Raymond Floyd, 72. The wisest decision Watson made was adding Steve Stricker, 47, to that lineup, though he only plays on the PGA Tour part-time now.
Anyway, the match had been initiated by one of the caddies. Walker’s caddie suggested it to Fowler’s looper, and then the players decided to invite Spieth, who texted Zach asking him to partner with him. Or something like that. I was impressed with their self-motivation, but I did find it a little strange that it hadn’t been planned and that more players weren’t playing in practice matches together after the team had been set. Of course, there’s always Phil Mickelson’s regular Tuesday game, which often involves Fowler. But the point being, there was no initiative by Watson to even try and organize team-building activities prior to arriving in Scotland.
“Captain Watson hasn’t really told us to do certain things — that’s just us having fun,” said Fowler after the practice match in Atlanta. “A lot of times we play Tuesday matches throughout the year — I play with Phil a lot. So obviously if Phil and I have the chance to play together in best ball, we could do that because we’ve done that a lot.
“But playing today, it’s a great way to prepare for the tournament — just to put yourself in a competitive mode and to check a few things. Then also with the Ryder Cup coming up.”
In retrospect, Johnson seemed a bit perplexed that Watson hadn’t been in touch when I asked if the practice match foreshadowed a potential partnership with Spieth. “No, we don’t know anything,” said Johnson in Atlanta, less than two weeks from the biennial matches against the Europeans. “Even if — I mean, I think all of us are talking to Stricks about it.”
I sensed confusion from Johnson that he hadn’t been in contact with Watson leading up to the event. I didn’t really understand his tone at the time, but looking back on it, that seems to have been the case.
Well, good news is at least Stricker was keeping tabs on the players and trying to gauge their thoughts. It was also Stricker who initially suggested to Watson partnering the successful pairing of Ryder rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed together. Surprisingly, Watson listened.
Last Sunday at Gleneagles was the eighth time in 10 attempts that the Europeans have kept the Cup on their side of the pond. It’s not like the Americans losing is anything new. It’s been nearly two decades of failures. The only two times the U.S. has come out on top was in 1999 when they came back from a massive deficit to win it on Sunday in the singles matches, and then, of course, in 2008 when Paul Azinger came up with his successful “pod system,” the one that Mickelson waxed lyrical about in an effort to blast this year’s captain.
Say what you will about Mickelson’s comments – he first voiced his opinion in an NBC interview, suggesting that the Americans revert to Paul Azinger’s brilliant pod system when the U.S. embarrassed Europe in a 16.5-11.5 routing against Faldo’s squad (though it definitely didn’t hurt the Americans that they were up against Faldo, who isn’t exactly beloved by his fellow Europeans players). In the post-loss American team press conference, Phil elaborated on his original comments by waxing lyrical on the pods and Azinger’s plan. His obvious jabs at Captain Watson, who was sitting just six seats down the row from Mickelson, were a mix of venting and attempting to initiate change in the way America selects its leaders.
“The other thing that Paul (Azinger) did really well (in 2008) was he had a great game plan for us, you know, how we were going to go about doing this,” said Mickelson, a ten-time participant of the Ryder Cup, in the most brilliantly awkward press conference (one for the history books!). “How we were going to go about playing together; golf ball, format, what we were going to do, if so-and-so is playing well, if so-and-so is not playing well, we had a real game plan. Those two things helped us bring out our best golf.”
His remarks were a blatant dig at Watson’s leadership — or lack thereof — and his shortage in preparation. Which was pretty obvious if you were listening to the American captain’s press conferences throughout the week. There was the sense that Watson, who provided nonsensical ramblings in his meetings with the press, offered little explanation to any type of game plan he had developed in advance, nor did he take the time to form close relationships with his players. Instead, it appeared like Watson was merely winging it and going with his gut.
Watson is widely-known for his stubbornness and no-nonsense attitude. As one member of the team texted SI’s Alan Shipnuck following Phil’s mutiny, “Although he’s rarely right, he’s never in doubt!”
Mickelson rarely — if ever — speaks out without an agenda. This time, his motive was a move towards change to revive the U.S. team and alter its losing ways over the past two decades. You can disagree with the forum in which Mickelson chose to throw his team leader under the bus.
But, to be fair, throughout the week, Watson tried to deflect the blame that might fall on him with some of his decisions — two in particular. He admitted to making several mistakes on Friday, especially when he chose to sit the hot duo of Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed in afternoon foursomes. It was especially strange since Watson had told the rookies that the remaining two afternoon pairings would largely come from the results of the morning matches. After Spieth and Reed beat home favorite Stephen Gallacher and Ryder Cup juggernaut Ian Poulter 5&3, Spieth was nearly certain he and Reed had proved themselves and earned to play alternate shot Friday afternoon. Instead, they were extremely disappointed (read: pissed off) when they were told that they were sitting that match out.
“I take the blame for that,” Watson said.
He didn’t take the responsibility for much more, though. On several occasions when some of his decisions were questioned throughout the week, it felt like he was hanging his players out to dry. He seemed to deflect the fault onto individuals quite often instead of admitting culpability.
Watson explained in his presser at the end of the day by virtually reading the text message exchange he had with Mickelson over the lineups. He threw Mickelson under the bus when he revealed that Phil had convinced Watson to play him and Keegan twice on Friday, which was presumably why Spieth and Reed were benched. Since that decision backfired, Watson then chose to sit America’s dynamic duo of Mickelson and Bradley for both sessions on Saturday.
Mickelson only discovered via a text from Watson that he wasn’t playing after he had warmed up on the practice range. It was almost as if Watson was punishing Mickelson for the poor result after he had convinced the captain into playing him and Bradley twice on Friday. That decision backfired strongly against Watson and made him out to be a fool. But he was just as idiotic to leave Mickelson and Bradley entirely off the roster on Saturday. Bradley, who is perhaps America’s version of Poulter, and Phil could have ignited an impassioned run against Europe in afternoon foursomes — which the Americans desperately needed.
There was also the sentiment that Fowler and Walker were sent out four matches in a row — of which the first three all went to the 18th hole in tight, grueling battles — almost as sacrificial lambs. By the time Saturday foursomes came around, the pair appeared downright out of gas.
Thus, the U.S. lost that session in the foursome format for the second day in a row, resulting in a 10-6 deficit heading into Sunday’s singles matches.
While Mickelson and Watson reportedly argued vehemently behind closed doors over decisions, along with their difference in opinions over management philosophies, a frustrated Mickelson vented to the media on Sunday. (He probably thought about exactly what he was going to say on Saturday — after all, he had a lot of time to think about it.)
Mickelson’s very public rant and critique of Watson was his way of challenging the PGA of America to modify the selection process of captains and letting the world know what a disaster of a leader the Americans had. He wanted the world to know that the U.S. team needed a shake-up to end its losing ways and thats starts with its preparation to execute a strategy, along with a fundamental shift in its approach to selecting a leader.
The American captain is selected in a relatively dictatorial fashion, with the president making the call. In Watson’s case, it was the so-called visionary current PGA of America President Ted Bishop, who unilaterally chose to bring the eight-time major winner back for a second term. It’s become quite obvious that this process needs to be changed, along with the criteria for qualifying to serve as a captain, such as being a major winner — why would that make the captain a better leader? If he’s respected and intelligent, like McGinley, it shouldn’t matter.
Meanwhile, the Europeans select their captain in a more democratic manner. McGinley was chosen by a vote in the European Tour’s tournament committee, a group of current players, many of whom were Ryder Cup veterans. The process has since been amended and going forward, the captain will be picked by a group of five — the Tour’s executive director, George O’Grady, the chairman of the tournament committee, Thomas Bjorn, who competed in the matches, and the last three former captains.
When it came down to formulating a thorough, well-thought out master plan, building relationships with his players, and more important, understanding every one of them and what they needed as individuals to bring the best out each, Watson also couldn’t compete. European captain Paul McGinley successfully executed a strategy — which he referred to as his “template — that had been in the makings for years, including the visuals and smallest details of the messages and images displayed in the European team room, along with the key phrases that were implanted in the players’ minds and inspirational videos he showed them each evening. More important, he took the time and energy to find out what made his players tick. He kept a black book filled with notes and observations on the members of his team.
One of Mickelson’s biggest points was that the American team’s leadership strategy had departed from a winning formula, which included the players and vice-captains in the decision-making.
Well, I’m not really aware of the American template,” said McGinley in the European post-win presser. “As I said, I’m not privy to what goes on and where they are at with everything.
“Certainly our template is very much involved with player discussions, and the captain’s been — knowing the players very well but also knowing the caddies, as well, too. The caddies are a great source of information, and also their coaches and also their managers and the people they have around them. They are all important and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years gathering information.”
Did Watson put in any effort to get to know his players? No, because they should all be trying to get to know him. After all, he’s an eight-time major winning and one of the all-time legends in the game.
When it became clear Victor Dubuisson, who is notorious for his quiet, enigmatic nature, was going to be part of the team, McGinley made a massive effort to take the time to get to know him and figure out how to make the Frenchman tick. He even went out of his way to attend the Eurasia Cup just to spend time with Dubuisson.
In the end, he identified that Graeme McDowell would be best suited to look after Victor as a partner at the Ryder Cup. That would be McDowell’s role for the week — and also to go out in the first match on Sunday and put Europe on the board (McGinley had that position in mind for G-Mac for two years, but never revealed it until last week.) McDowell, a natural-born leader with a charming and calming influence, turned out to bring the best out of Dubuisson, and while the pair only played in two foursome matches prior to Sunday singles, they were victorious in both. The partnership and comfort of McGinley’s leadership even helped Victor come out of his shell a little bit as he bonded with the team and acted the most comfortable he ever had in front of a camera.
McGinley was strategic in singling out the best vice-captains to support him, as well. He had current players, like Padraig Harrington and Miguel Angel Jimenez — both of whom will likely assume the role of captain someday. He also included past captains Sam Torrance and Jose Maria Olazabal, the winning captain at the Miracle at Medinah in 2012. All four of McGinley’s assistants were in-tune with the team members.
McGinley’s players spoke extremely highly about their captain and his leadership capabilities.
“The fact that he commanded the team room and the intelligence he spoke with, his message was so clear,” said McDowell after the press conference on Sunday. “I actually found myself listening to him, thinking, ‘This guy is impressive, this guy is educated and this guy has put a lot into what he’s saying.’
“I was so impressed with how much respect he had in the team room from all the players. 12 players that will probably have better careers than him — no disrespect to Paul McGinley, great player. He commanded massive respect in the team room. I said, if I’m ever captain, he’d be one of the first phone calls I’d ever make because he impressed the hell out of me. The mental preparation, the visual preparation, the affinity he had with the whole team. Take for example Victor and I sitting Saturday morning, we thought we were playing, but it was part of the master plan — to be fresh out in the afternoon, to be fresh Sunday. He was a great captain, best one I’ve played under.”
Added world no. 1 Rory McIlroy: “He has just been the most wonderful captain, and 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 us, the imagery in the team room, it all tied in together; all part of the plan all for the cause of trying to win this Ryder Cup, and he was meticulous in his planning. He left no stone unturned. He was just — he was amazing. I think I speak on behalf of all the 12 players up here and just say that, you know, he couldn’t have done anything else. He was absolutely fantastic.”
What made McGinley such a successful and phenomenal captain?
“I think (McGinley) kind of rocks the system from the point of view that he probably didn’t have the credentials deserving of a Ryder Cup captain and he was picked on the fact that he could bring more to the table than some of the more deserving captains,” said McDowell. “He was up for it and intelligent and schooled and really had served — really kind of, I don’t know, sharpened his blade with Seve Trophies and Vice Captaincies and such, so he kind of breaks the mold from the point of view that he’s not a nine-time Order of Merit Champion, he’s not a major champion, but that’s really not what’s necessary to be a great captain.
“You just have to get it. You have to get the man management of 12 egos and 12 players in the system and understand what everyone needs. To me, Europe should follow this template in that it doesn’t have to be a great player to be a great captain and I think he has personified that this week.”
Tom Watson didn’t get “it.” He thought he could just show up and go with his gut, and instead, he ended up sounding like a (losing) American presidential candidate from the 1980s.
Perhaps the Americans should take a page out of the European’s playbook.
After all, it seems like McGinley may have taken one from Paul Azinger, the victorious U.S. captain in 2008, the only time the Americans have won the Ryder Cup in this millennium.
“Zinger did something similar to kind of what Paul did this week,” said McDowell. “He had roles for everybody, he talked about the pods — we had pods this week.”
Which was exactly Mickelson’s point. Ultimately, one thing’s for sure: Change needs to come and it wouldn’t hurt if that started with a departure from the current system in selecting a captain and actually choosing one that can lead and inspire, like the way McGinley did.