October 5, 2014

Look, I love Phil Mickelon as a golfer. If Phil’s playing and in contention I’m watching him because he’s a human highlight film in and of itself. And is there a better interview than Phil after a round? Whatever he’s thinking he says, no Tiger Woods blather about his game being really close after vomiting up a +3 for the day. Unlike so many of the soft and pampered prodigies-from-their-diapers players that increasingly dominate the PGA Tour’s leaderboards week in, week out, Phil is no David Simms-esque souless robot – he’s passionate about everything he does, opinionated, and not afraid of “Phil being Phil”.

So while it might have been better for Phil to hold his powder about Tom Watson’s captaincy until a day or to after the American’s Ryder Cup defeat was in the books, I completely understood where he was coming from and respected him for not being afraid to speak his mind. Unfortunately, what Phil did was lead to an open season on Tom Watson and his captaincy at the the Ryder Cup where now you hear all kinds of whispers from unnamed sources about how Watson screwed this up and that up, and, most recently, how mean and harsh to the team he was at their Saturday night meeting. To the point where Watson now has to go public and apologize for the way he captained?

Puh-leeze. Last time I checked the Ryder Cup’s format no points were given to the captains for anything they did. In fact, the last time I checked, I thought the Ryder Cup was all about players competing against one another and let the best man and best team win. No points for good behavior, bad behavior, good captaincy or bad captaincy. It’s simply about the golf that is played. Then you total up all the points and determine who wins bragging rights for the next two years.

So it was with great satisfaction I read Quin Hillyer’s excellent column at National Review Online defending Watson’s performance, of which he places the blame where it rightly belongs: on the players who were simply outclassed by the Europeans in each and every facet of the game, on and off the course.

And maybe — well definitely — some of [Watson’s] decisions were just downright poor, in terms of who to pair with whom and who to play when. Others have catalogued those criticisms, again and again, so I won’t belabor them. But two points should be made in Watson’s favor. First, why is nobody giving him credit for what turned out to be a stroke of genius, completely as unusual as it was, of putting rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed out as partners in the opening Four-balls, especially considering that neither had been playing well in recent weeks? Watson, using the tough-guy approach, even told them that he was throwing them into the water in order to force them to sink or swim. Well, it worked: They swam. Actually, better: They surfed. They were the stars of the show. They were terrific. …Also superb was the new pairing of Ricky Fowler and Jimmy Walker. Meanwhile, the conventional pairings, the ones where players supposedly felt oh-so-comfortable with each other, failed spectacularly. Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson had a record as a great pairing. They bombed. Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley were supposed to be unbeatable, but they won their first match only because their opponents played even worse, and they were terrible in the second match. Matt Kuchar was supposed to be able to pair well with anybody. His teams bombed.

And, like I was saying earlier…

Finally, here’s the real rub of the green: It shouldn’t matter much who one’s partner is. A player’s job is to hit the ball from where it lies. In match play, his job is to get it in the hole better than the opponent does. The Euros consistently hit the shots when they need them. For 15 years, Americans haven’t. All of this Sturm und Drang about pairings and the like is overblown. The role of the captain is overblown. Either a golfer gets the ball into each hole in fewer strokes than his opponent, or he doesn’t. Ray Floyd wouldn’t be whining about pairings. Lanny Wadkins wouldn’t. Nicklaus wouldn’t. Trevino wouldn’t. Johnny Miller wouldn’t. Lord knows that Hogan wouldn’t. And of course Watson himself, in his heyday, never would have dreamed of such a thing. They would just go out and beat you. The current crop of Americans hasn’t done that. Tom Watson was right: They just got outplayed. Instead of pointing fingers, they should knuckle under and learn darn well how to win.

Might having a Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, or Jason Dufner helped the American cause? Perhaps, but I doubt it it. The fact is, the Europeans enthusiastically embrace the kind of team play the various formats in the Ryder Cup require, whereas the individualist Americans reflect the way golfers have been created in the post-Tiger era where you can make a boatload of cash simply by getting there. Were the golfers back in the Arnie/Jack/Gary/Lee/Tom era better than today’s players? That’s, of course, an open debate, but what cannot be denied is that those players had a comraderie and toughness forged out of an era where courses weren’t all green and lush, golf bags traveled in the trunk of a car as much as by plane, and if you weren’t making cuts or Monday qualifiers you had a world of pressure coming down on you from your wife and family to start bringing home the bacon (literally!).

You want to know what really happened at this year’s Ryder Cup? The Europeans outplayed and out-hustled the Americans. They also had the better mix of players – think about about it: outside of Spieth, Reed, Walker, and Fowler (who can’t be faulted for the way he was surgically dismantled by Rory McIlroy in their Sunday match) can you think of any American players you’d want in your foxhole who can grind it out like Graeme McDowell, Jamie Donaldson, Ian Poulter or Lee Westwood?

There’s nothing magical about it: if the Americans want to end the domination of the Europeans at the Ryder Cup they simply have to play better as individuals. Do that, and the entire team will benefit. So let’s stop blaming Davis Love for what happened at Medinah and Tom Watson for what happened at Gleneagles. The fault here lies purely at the American golfer’s feet, and it’s time for them to man up.

Filed in: Golf & Sports by The Great White Shank at 11:20 | Comments Off on Defending The Captain
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