Watson's aim will be 'to kick butt'
After the United States lost the Ryder Cup in October at Medinah Country Club, for the seventh time in nine matches, I called Tom Watson.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought he should be leading the Americans at Gleneagles in 2014.
Watson, the last man to marshal a victorious US team on foreign soil — at The Belfry in 1993 — was unveiled by the PGA of America on Thursday as his nation’s oldest Ryder Cup captain.
Much will be said and written about the controversial appointment, which certainly reflects the “outside the box” thinking of incoming PGA of America president Ted Bishop.
Going with a man who will be 65 in two years — eight years older than Sam Snead was in 1969 — represents a roll of the dice.
But I don’t think Bishop has rolled snake eyes on this choice.
The PGA’s strategy of choosing a “buddy captain” — a major winner in his 40s who’s still a contemporary of the players on the team — has failed. As illustrated most recently by Davis Love III in Chicago, American leadership has devolved into captain-by-committee.
Keeping players loose with pingpong tournaments and letting them have a say in pairings works at the Presidents Cup — see: Freddie Couples — but not so well on the far more intense battlefield of the Ryder Cup.
And while proponents will point to the success of Paul Azinger in 2008, it must be noted that he benefited from three crucial factors at Valhalla.
The first was that he has a strong personality and did it his way. The second was a raucous home crowd. The third — and perhaps most crucial — was that Azinger got to face off against Nick Faldo.
Aloof and socially awkward — his opening ceremony speech ranks as the worst ever — Faldo alienated his players, polluting Europe’s elan vital in Ryder Cups: camaraderie.
Bishop, an old-school, grass-roots golf pro from Indiana, had come to a similar conclusion about American captains, at one point hinting that he was looking at a “Jack Nicklaus-type” leader.
"We've had a lot of captains in their 40s who are close to the players," he said in an interview last month. I think we've got to do something different than we've done in the past. I think we've got to look at who can motivate our team and put them in position to win over there."
There will be those who will say that Watson is too old and out of touch, but such thinking conveniently forgets he almost won the 2009 British Open at Turnberry and played one of the best rounds I’ve ever seen a year later in horrendous conditions at Royal St George’s.
If any American player — and that includes Tiger Woods, who isn’t a fan of Watson — can’t respect an eight-time major champion who still has that kind of game into his 60s, then the problem is not Watson’s.
What Watson will bring, undoubtedly, is leadership.
He has a general’s disposition and won’t conduct too many straw polls.
"I don't think he asked anybody, to tell you the truth," John Cook told Golf Digest about Watson’s leadership style in 1993. "He had his game plan with (childhood teacher) Stan Thirsk. He talked to Roy Williams, who was then at Kansas, about coaching.
“I know he had his practice pairings, but he just kind of observed, made his mental notes and made the pairings.
“We had such a complete trust in Tom and what he was doing. He was the captain. He ran the show. He took the bull and rode it all the way to the end."
And in that sense, he’ll be a radical departure from a long line of fortysomething American captains who have been preoccupied with making sure their players – and their wives and caddies — enjoy the Ryder Cup experience.
“He doesn’t go out there to have fun,” said Lanny Wadkins, who was also on the victorious ‘93 team. He goes out there to kick butt and get the job done.”
The other reason that Watson is an inspired choice is that he’s beloved in Scotland, which might at least soften the anti-American galleries.
No American has loved the old links like “Wee Tom,” who won four of his five claret jugs on Scottish soil. It seems every golf club in Scotland has a photograph of the day Watson came to play.
"There is a great Scottish word the Scots sometimes like to use to describe themselves and that word is 'thrawn,' Scottish author and golf writer Lawrence Donegan, told me in October.
“It means tight-lipped, determined and serious. If you are talking about the love affair Scots have with Tom Watson — and, believe me, he is revered over there — I think it comes down to this. They see him as one of their own. He's Scot in all but his nationality."
John Huggan, another Scottish golf writer, says Watson “owns a near godlike status in the land that gave golf to the world.”
“We Scots love the way Watson swings the club, the brisk pace of his game and, most of all, the sportsmanship with which he has always played,” he said. “To us, he embodies all that is good about golf, especially in the way — like (Bobby) Jones and (Jack) Nicklaus before him — he has reacted to adversity.
“Perversely perhaps, how a golfer loses rather than how he wins has always been our ultimate measure of a man.”
None of this is to say it will be easy for Watson.
The expectations will be high, and he’ll immediately be faced with questions about Woods, a fellow Stanford man with whom he has feuded for some time.
After Woods was embroiled in a tabloid scandal, Watson wrote to him, telling Woods what he’d been longing to say for years — that he needed to “clean up his act.”
"I feel that he has not carried the same stature as the other great players that have come along like Jack [Nicklaus], Byron Nelson, [Ben] Hogan in the sense that there was bad language and club throwing on the golf course," he said.
"You can grant that to somebody, a young person, that has not been out there for a while, but I think he needs to clean up his act and show the respect for the game that the people before him have shown."
Woods doesn’t take such criticism well.
On Wednesday morning, I asked Woods’ representatives if he had a reaction to Watson’s appointment. It came on Thursday morning, and it sounded hopeful.
“I'd like to congratulate Tom Watson on his selection as Ryder Cup captain. I think he's a really good choice," Woods said in a statement.
"Tom knows what it takes to win, and that's our ultimate goal. I hope I have the privilege of joining him on the 2014 United States team.”