clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tom Watson was a terrible Ryder Cup captain

Phil Mickelson's attack may have come at the wrong time. But there is no debating that Tom Watson's 2014 Ryder Cup captaincy was a spectacular failure.

A captain shouldn't have a significant impact on the Ryder Cup, or its outcome, but Tom Watson enlightened us this past week on how to mess things up.

The formats are unchanged and pretty straightforward, and the preparation should be, too, at this point. You get to know your players, make a few captain's picks, spout a few motivational things, find some comfortable and natural pairings, set the order, and ride the hot hands. The outcome should be solely dependent on the play of the players, and there are relatively few Ryder Cup captaincies that could be called unmitigated failures that affect the final score.

Watson, a living legend, had a bad week in Scotland. His captaincy was a failure. He completely blew several strategy points in the first two days -- namely, who to keep on the bench and how to set the rotation. There was also backpedaling and changes in philosophy after just one session, setting the tone for a weekend of confusion and frustration. A Ryder Cup captain shouldn't have a major impact, but these lineup and format mistakes came at the most critical times --  the USA got crushed in two of five sessions, Friday and Saturday afternoon foursomes, and those sessions secured Europe its eighth Ryder Cup in the last 10 competitions.

How Watson became captain

The Ryder Cup is jointly hosted by the PGA of America and the European Tour. The PGA is the organization mostly made up of the pros who give lessons and sell sweaters at local courses, not the PGA Tour pros who make millions and fly around the country in private jets. The PGA of America controls everything on the American side, including the selection of a captain.

PGA President Ted Bishop has been enjoyably progressive trying to grow the game compared to the huffy traditionalists at the USGA, R&A, Augusta National and elsewhere. He's embraced and pushed FootGolf and was quick to experiment with the 15-inch cups and other parts of the "HackGolf" movement.

Picking Watson was another instance of Bishop thinking outside the box and departing from tradition. For 25 years, the captain has been a past major winner and a player in his mid-to-late 40s, older than almost every team member but still a contemporary of theirs out on the PGA Tour. And it was a one-time honorific role. With USA losers of seven of nine, Bishop decided to change things up and named the first repeat captain since Jack Nicklaus in 1987.

One perceived problem with captains prior to Watson was that they were too close in age to the players, and too easily persuaded by the individual pleas and requests of team members. An older, accomplished player like Watson, who was not their contemporary, would not be pushed and pulled in different directions as the players lobbed requests. That the 65-year-old also happened to be the captain the last time the USA won in Europe (1993), and won four of his five British Opens in Scotland, site of this year's Cup, were simply nice coincidental compliments that would fill up air time and a few more lines on a page.

We heard a lot about how he was the last captain to win and how much he was beloved in Scotland for all his Open titles, but that really has no impact on how successful a captain he would be this time around. The age difference would.

A captain's responsibilities

There's plenty of debate over how much a captain can actually impact the Ryder Cup. Their primary responsibilities are naming the roster's wild card picks, finding comfortable and successful pairings for the two-man games, setting an order blind to the other captain's order, and if you're the home captain, maybe cultivating course conditions and a setup more favorable to your team's strengths.

Only eight of 12 team members play each of the first four sessions, so there's some decision-making that goes into who stays on the bench. There are also different two-man game formats. The first is four-ball, where both players play their own ball from tee to green and the best of the two smashes against the best of the two opponent's scores.

Foursomes, which decided the cup this year, is the more difficult and unusual alternate-shot format. This requires more practice, and a fairly set and predetermined lineup so each player knows whose team member's ball they will be playing. Because there's just one ball for the two players, it requires the most sharp play -- balls in the fairway, crisp approach shots, steady putting. A bad shot or bombed drive off the fairway usually leads to a lost hole, so you want your most reliable or hottest players going.

There are other more intangible roles -- developing relationships with your players in the months before the Cup, selecting uniforms, motivating, hiring inspirational speakers, creating a positive team-room atmosphere -- but these should have far less direct impact on the outcome than the definitive tasks of who makes the roster, plays together, and in what order.

Questionable decisions and screw-ups

1. Webb Simpson as final captain's pick

The amount of wild card picks varies from year to year depending on the captain's preference. Watson trimmed his picks from four, which had been then number for the three previous cups, to three.

The nine automatic qualifiers were set in early August right after the PGA Championship, leaving Watson an additional three weeks to decide on his captain's picks right after Labor Day. There were no great or easy options. Keegan Bradley was always going to be on the team -- he was a natural partner for Phil Mickelson and was close enough to qualifying on points. Hunter Mahan came from behind and stood out from a lot of mediocrity with his strong month of August, locking up a spot with a win at The Barclays.

The third and final pick remained unsettled until the final day picks were due. Simpson was one of the better candidates from a list of underwhelming options. Simpson, Bill Haas and Chris Kirk, who had just won the tournament on Labor Day, were considered the top options for the third and final spot. According to a report from Jason Sobel last week, Simpson sent Watson some early-morning text messages that allegedly swayed the captain to choose him at the 11th hour. But this came after he had leaked to others that the third pick would be someone other than Simpson. In a gaudy announcement ceremony from Saturday Night Live's studio in New York, Watson said he was swayed into picking Simpson after shuffling through sheets of statistics set out by Bishop that morning. But the 4 a.m. text exchange apparently played a part in Watson's last-minute decision to go with Simpson as the final pick.

In the intervening weeks after the selection on Sep. 2, Simpson did nothing to inspire confidence or prove he would be a key contributor. He finished the FedEx Cup quietly. But there he was on the first tee Friday morning, hitting the first shot of the entire Ryder Cup. It was a pop-up that barely made the front edge of the fairway. That was just the start of an ugly round for Simpson, who struggled off the tee and couldn't make a putt.

Webb Simpson, Photo credit: Jamie Squire / Getty Images

We heard that a significant reason for his inclusion on the roster is because he partnered successfully in the past with Bubba Watson, one of the USA's more surly and unpredictable personalities. Bubba was the team's No. 1 qualifier on points, so he was going to play but needed a natural partner. Simpson was supposed to be it. The two would get blown out in that first match of the Cup, and Simpson would sit the rest of the weekend, not playing until the final session, when all 12 team members have to tee it up in singles.

Some blame has to go to the PGA as well for rules that require roster finalization three-and-half weeks before the Cup starts. If Watson was able to wait until the end of the FedEx Cup, Simpson would not have sniffed the roster. Billy Horschel finished September winning the final two playoff events and the overall FedEx Cup. If picks were made after the end of the PGA Tour season, Horschel, and perhaps Chris Kirk, would have made the roster. And given his status as the hottest player in the world, Horschel was a good bet to play all five sessions for the US.

Picking Simpson wasn't the worst mistake, but the manner in which he texted his way on to the team last minute wasn't the best look for the captain. And then once Simpson played awful in the first match, he was benched for good. The captain shuffled around to try and find a partner for his No. 1 points qualifier, Bubba, who had just spent the whole week practicing with the now-benched Simpson.

2. Benching Jordan Spieth/Patrick Reed

From this moment on, Watson's captaincy was going to be called into question at every turn, and if the USA lost, it was doomed to be characterized as nothing but a blundering failure. Watson was panned for the decision to bench his hottest team on the course for the second session of the Cup, Friday afternoon's foursomes.

Watson said all month, both to the press and his team, that he was going to ride the hot hands that were out on the course. None were more impressive than Reed/Spieth in the USA's successful Friday morning four-ball. The rookie duo demolished European Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter and home favorite, Scotsman Stephen Gallacher. The match ended early on the 14th hole, a 5&4 victory and point for the USA. It was assumed by everyone watching on TV and in Scotland that they'd be right back out there for the foursomes session, firing up the rest of the roster and steamrolling to another point. But Watson inexplicably put them on the bench. It was an instant trashing of his professed plan to play the hot hands.

Watson would relay to the press later that both Spieth and Reed were "very upset" at the decision. Everyone was upset. The US was crushed in the afternoon session, earning just a half-point of the four available.  Spieth and Reed never lost a match playing together, winning a blowout again on Saturday morning and halving their match in the afternoon thanks to a final putt from Justin Rose, Europe's best player, on the 18th green. They were the USA's best team.

Watson's image as captain wasn't recovering from this decision. It made little sense, and set the tone for a weekend with no real game plan, an on-the-fly strategy, and general confusion between team and captain.

3. Mishandling Mickelson

Mickelson is the team's most veteran member, and his pairing with Keegan Bradley was the USA's most successful partnership at the last Ryder Cup. After the two knocked off the power pairing of Rory McIroy and Sergio Garcia in Friday morning four-ball, Watson was convinced to send them out again.

Mickelson was coming off his worst season as a pro and was lost and exhausted in September, so much so that he just withdrew in the middle of his last tournament, and has an arthritis problem that was particularly challenging to control in the colder Scottish weather.

But the Keegan/Phil duo were right back out there for the Friday afternoon session, where they faced a fresh Graeme McDowell/Victor Dubuisson combo. The Euros wiped them out early, part of the first of two disastrous foursomes sessions.

The back-to-back sessions not only exhausted Mickelson/Bradley for the afternoon on Friday, but also took them out of play for Saturday morning's four-ball -- the format where they had excelled beating Sergio and Rory. After the 36-hole Friday march, Phil walked off the course and said he needed to rest Saturday morning.

So Phil now wasn't part of the plan for Saturday morning, but he and Keegan would undoubtedly enter the lineup for the afternoon session? Nope. For the first time in his 20-year career in these team cup events, Mickelson sat out an entire day, back-to-back sessions. Mickelson and Bradley pleaded with the captain to put them in, with Phil even sending a second last-minute text message (À la Simpson) to try and get off the bench. Even though they struggled in the foursomes session the day before, they were fresh this time around and were supposed to be the USA's heart and soul pairing. Watson said no, and this had to be one of the precipitating factors that led to Phil's eagerness to air his critiques publicly.

For the second straight day, the afternoon foursomes were a washout for the USA. This time it was an exhausted Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler getting crushed by McDowell/Dubuisson in the anchor match. Despite not winning a single match, that American pair had been steady through the first three sessions. But a fourth straight was pushing it, especially after their first three went the full distance to the 18th green, and things were ugly early. Walker could barely hit the golf ball, shanking two that led to automatic losses in foursomes format. A fresh McDowell/Dubuisson ended it mercifully on the 14th green.


What should have happened:

Reed and Spieth should have stayed on the course after their easy Friday win.

Phil and Keegan should have been the ones with Friday afternoon off, keeping them fresh for Saturday morning's four-ball, a format they had just won over Sergio/Rory.

But once Phil and Keegan went 36 on Friday, making Saturday morning not an option for an aging Phil, they needed to come off the bench for Walker/Fowler on Saturday afternoon and not sit the entire day.

Of course hindsight critiques are easy, but benching Spieth/Reed made no sense at the time and the effects trickled into further mismanagement all weekend.

The rookie benching was a deviation from everything we understood about how Watson would captain. The mistake begot more mistakes and a 7-1 blowout in two foursomes sessions that were the difference.


4. No communication

This could fall under the intangible aspect of a captaincy, but from most accounts, the players didn't always know who they would go out with or when they were going out. In contrast, Euro captain Paul McGinley listened to Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy plead for a partnership, and agreed to it after evaluation and consideration over the second half of the summer. McGinley also spent months trying to get to know the intensely private and mercurial Dubuisson, settling on a partnership with the veteran McDowell months in advance. McGinley also revealed he planned to send McDowell out in the leadoff singles match almost two years ago, before he was even named captain.

Watson, on the other hand, changed the philosophy in the first session and it was just persistent cloudiness and confusion thereafter. He looked tired and sounded resigned and confused at his press conference at the end of Friday and this was just Day 1. He cited a random and ambiguous "personal things" as a reason for the lineup decisions on Friday.

Q. Colin Montgomerie and Butch Harmon both questioned putting Mickelson and Bradley out in the afternoon, feeling that Phil was too tired and they wondered why Spieth and obviously Reed weren't out. I don't know if you're willing to --
TOM WATSON: I answered that one.

Q. Kind of.
TOM WATSON: There are certain personal things, you look at teams -- you don't go into details and talk to the press about, bottom line. Keegan and Phil, I had to give them a shot there. They have done well in alternate-shot, and I had to give them a go.

Personal things? What personal things could there possibly be to keep your hottest team on the bench? Keegan/Phil had to get "a go" for Friday foursomes, but not Saturday's foursomes after resting for the morning?

Maybe the communication was clearer in the team room, although several leaks (and Phil's public pronouncement) have said there was almost none. In public-facing forums, the press came away confused most times Watson talked.

While McGinley's pairings and plan were months in the making, some American pairs appeared out of nowhere and with both guys not practicing together. The foursomes alternate-shot format is the one that's most difficult for these pros to adjust to in this event. What is likely the smallest detail to weekend hackers, like playing your usual make and model golf ball, is a huge adjustment for world-class pros. You're playing just one ball -- it's the most difficult with the least margin for error. For a recent Walker Cup (the amateur equivalent of the Ryder Cup), coach Jim Holtgrieve had his team practice nothing but foursomes alternate-shot for three days in advance of the competition. This format was a disaster for the USA this week and delivered Europe their eighth Cup in 10 tries.

Nothing said at these press conferences wins or loses the Ryder Cup, but it was not a good week for Watson in the media center. And that's before Phil laid waste up on the dais on Sunday night.

5. Deflecting blame

The discord in the team room could have only been amped up when Watson discussed the team's shortcomings. There were clearly captaincy mistakes made on the first day, but we repeatedly heard that the players weren't holding up their end.

When asked if he had been out-coached on Friday, Watson replied, "We were out-played, I know that." In Sunday's post-Cup presser, he also seemed to call out the players for being unable to go 36 holes and stay at their most competitive -- rather than his mismanagement of the rotation and who would get rest on the bench. He also kept his remarks player-focused when talking about the other side.

Captain's mistakes were made. There was just very little accountability, with answers only focused on the play of his players. As the weekend wore on, this couldn't have helped the mood of the team or cultivated a supportive stance of their captain.

Mickelson has told reporters that he's not the only one who is unhappy, and that feeling seemed to set in well before the cup was lost. It's likely more critiques come out in the next few months.


Watson was not a good captain this year. He played and previously captained in a time when there was much less media scrutiny, and he didn't appear prepared for that this time around. It also seems like the decision to go older and more authoritative backfired, the bridge between the players widening to the point of little communication and seething hostility in some cases.

That, of course doesn't fully excuse the players' performance -- e.g. Bubba Watson, the team's No. 1 points qualifier, went 0-3. There were player failures in every match lost, and the USA's record over the final few holes closing matches is abominable since 1999. The PGA of America put a schedule in place where Watson was hamstrung when making his captain's picks, which would have certainly been different a couple weeks later. Mickelson could have played better in the afternoon on Friday, or told Watson he couldn't do the 36-hole march.

Watson played and previously captained in a time when there was much less media scrutiny, and he didn't appear prepared for that this time around.

The timing of Mickelson's comments was not ideal, but entertaining for everyone on the outside watching. The press conference, in which the team came undone in public view on the same stage, may also be the undoing or lead to the overhaul of the entire current system.

FormAzinger's "pod" format, which Mickelson held up as the ideal against Watson's approach, splits the team up into three groups of four.  Each group knows they'll be playing together, and in Azinger's case, the three auto-qualifiers were invested in picking a fourth member as a captain's pick to round out their pod. Everyone knows where they stand weeks in advance. It succeeded in 2008, the USA's only win since 1999. Azinger is thus hailed as a Ryder Cup savant. Azinger has criticized the constant remodeling of how the USA players have to approach each Ryder Cup so differently every two years because of the "lone wolf" captain system.

That pod system may be the approach to reconsider, and it will certainly get a strong push after the fallout from this week. There will be many prescriptions for 2016 in Minnesota. The one question we know that has been answered after a week of Watson's bumbling captaincy is that the position can have a major impact on the Ryder Cup.