The PGA of America changed course on Tuesday, making headlines by selecting Tom Watson to be their next Ryder Cup captain. But can one of the most successful players on European soil have an impact on the outcome?
It's technically golf's offseason, and while the PGA Tour takes a break, the PGA of America made waves this week with their announcement that Tom Watson would captain the American team at the 2014 Ryder Cup in Scotland. Watson's name emerged publicly in December, but it appeared he was the frontrunner for the position for over a year -- well before the American collapse at Medinah. The process of choosing Watson, a seven-time major winner in Scotland, did not begin with the Chicago disappointment as the background, but rather, the one-point loss at Celtic Manor. Watson's credentials and bona fides playing on European tracks are unassailable, but does that matter when he's not the one swinging the club? Does a Ryder Cup captain matter at all?
Attempting to measure the impact of the captain is a dangerous exercise. It is, of course, not quantifiable -- we can't count Watson's strokes -- and it quickly derails into a nebulous discussion of things like "aura," "heart," and "spirit." While it's hard to measure their impact, the captains get much of the glory or the blame, depending on the outcome. Ben Crenshaw is hailed as the driving inspiration for the USA's Sunday comeback win at Brookline. Tom Watson cited the inspiration from Jose Maria Olazabal, and the influence of his close friend, the departed Seve Ballesteros, as a huge reason for Europe's comeback this year. Losing captains, such as Nick Faldo, take much of the heat and have to answer to the partisan press.
The Ryder Cup is won based on how the golfers golf, not how the captains captain. But the team leader can have an impact at the margins, and with both sides absolutely loaded right now and fairly even, the margins can matter. Captains get to round out the team with their own picks (two or four players, typically), set the pin placements, green speeds, rough heights, pairings, and order of play.
As captain of the visiting team, Watson will have even less latitude to affect the matches. The home captain has the right to set up the course in the most advantageous way for the home team. One of Davis Love III's biggest laments was the Sunday pin placement on No. 17 at Medinah, a difficult spot that did not fit most of the American players' shot shapes. That hole proved pivotal in the Euro comeback, and Watson talked about that pin placement this week. But he won't have that ability in 2014.
It does appear, however, that Watson is ready to alter the roster selection process. Paul Azinger, who's still milking the 2008 win for all it's worth, changed the protocols and asked for four captain's selections, as opposed to the traditional two. It worked perfectly at Valhalla, but with the two subsequent losses, Watson seems determined to put an emphasis back on the points qualifying process. He repeatedly cited Hunter Mahan's omission from the 2012 team this week:
I think four picks gives you a lot of latitude but maybe too much. This year's issue with Hunter Mahan not making the team -- I think that's an issue I will look closely at before I make a decision on how many picks we should have.
It's open to change. At this time, I haven't decided how many picks I am going have.
Later, in an interview with Golf Channel, he said, "I want the players who have fought all year to qualify to have the advantage of being on that team." So at a minimum, a captain has an impact on the composition of the roster.
Watson also stated that he'll do significant course reconnaissance. He'll play and scout Gleneagles several times between now and 2014. He'll subtly nudge and encourage prospective team members to do the same when they're over in Europe. These are the best players in the world, who rarely leave a stone unturned, but Watson reiterated he'll have the complete book on the course:
That beginning of understanding of what's out there -- What type of holes do you have to play? What type of shot values? Is it a left-to-right golf course? Is it a right-to-left golf course? Where do the prevailing winds come from? What's the temperature going to be? What are the conditions like? Are the greens hard, firm? What's the sand like? Things like that, that the players will want to know beforehand and I will have that information in hand to relay on to them.
Of course, it also helps that one of his closest friends, Jack Nicklaus, designed the layout.
Choosing Watson was a significant departure from the trend of picking a younger, contemporary captain. The selection is mostly a media event, and changing course to choose a golf legend, revered in Scotland, added to the notoriety and media dissection of the decision. The time spent analyzing Ryder Cup captains, however, is rarely commensurate with the impact they have on the outcome. Europe won this year because Ian Poulter got hot on Saturday, and his teammates continued rolling in birdies on Sunday. Watson said he'll try to provide a little extra inspiration, and also defuse the pressure, which he said is more intense than at any major. But, quoting Deane Beman, he also stated the best advice or motivation he can give to a struggling team is simple, "Play better."
The PGA of America chose Watson to be a repeat captain because of the success he's had in Europe. He won five British Opens, and seven majors in Scotland and has had more success there than any player in the modern game. He captained the American side to victory in 1993 at The Belfry, a resort in Scotland. Europe has captured seven of the past nine cups, and it's been particularly ugly overseas. The last American win came in that 1993 edition. On paper, this all adds up to Watson being the natural choice. That successful background may have marginal impact, but it's better than the alternative. And that matters.