Captain Watson, Part II



It was one of those knee-knocker par putts that can unmask all the nerves. Davis Love III’s birdie putt had snarled to a halt, six feet shy, and the atmosphere around the 18th green at The Belfry in England was almost unbearably tense.

When his singles opponent, Costantino Rocca of Italy, fumbled around the 18th hole and made bogey, Love stepped to the ball for a putt that would win a lot more than his own match. It would practically assure the Americans of retaining the Ryder Cup.

Tom Watson playing for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Teammate Corey Pavin could hardly watch. But next to Pavin, captain Tom Watson watched calmly on the greenside hill where his team had gathered. Love struck his putt.

“And he hit it dead center,” Watson tells 435 at Kansas City Country Club. “It was as pure a putt as you can hit under extreme pressure. It was a great testament to him.”

As he ambled down the hill to congratulate Love, Watson’s reaction wasn’t one of unbridled jubilation. He let his players and the cheers of “U-S-A” take care of that. He just smiled a satisfied smile as if to say, “Gentlemen, we’ve got it.”

 

A Proven Winner

The Americans had wrestled the Ryder Cup away from the Europeans two years before in acrimonious matches at Kiawah Island, S.C., that have been dubbed the “War by the Shore.” With Watson as captain, they had kept the cup by a score of 15-13 on European soil.

That was on Sept. 26, 1993. The Americans haven’t won a Ryder Cup in Europe since.

They’ve lost seven of the last nine Ryder Cups overall and have been throttled 18½-9½ twice: in 2004 at Oakland Hills in Michigan and 2006 at the K Club in Ireland.

The Americans also threw away a 10-6 lead in 2012 at Medinah in Chicago. Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America, needed somebody to reverse that trend for the 2014 Ryder Cup matches. Somebody who knows how to win across the Atlantic.

Watson won four of his five British Opens in Scotland and could’ve won again in 2009 at Turnberry. All three of his Senior British Open titles were in Scotland. He is adored by the Scots as if he’s from Edinburgh and gleams when the weather turns sour on those golf courses as one of the game’s greats in nasty conditions.

As a Ryder Cupper, Watson went 10-4-1 as a player and the Americans went 4-0-1 with him on the team, including the year he was captain. With the matches at Gleneagles in Scotland, and upon reading a book about the 2009 British Open, Bishop knew he should select Watson as captain for 2014.

In November 2011, Bishop contacted Watson while he was pheasant hunting with Wounded Warriors in South Dakota. In the middle of a field, Watson debated whether he should take the phone call. But as he said at the press conferences at New York’s Empire State Building and Kansas City Country Club, it’s one that he had hoped to answer for two decades.

 

A Shift In Paradigm

The 21 years between Ryder Cup appointments will be the most for any skipper, exceeding Ben Hogan when he went 18 years before repeating as captain in 1967.

Although Watson is the seventh repeat captain for the American side, with Jack Nicklaus as the most recent, he’ll be the oldest Ryder Cup captain in history at age 65 when his players tee it up at Gleneagles.

Naming Watson represents a shift in the paradigm, where normally a player in his 40s who has at least one major championship to his credit is next in line for the captaincy. Watson was one of them in 1993. But dating from Watson’s win through 2012, with the exception of Ben Crenshaw in 1999 and Paul Azinger in 2008, that methodology hasn’t been producing any wins for the stars and stripes.

Watson redirects any age criticism by emphasizing that he plays the same game as “the kids” who will play for him. He plays practice rounds with the younger guys, he’s paired with them in tournaments, and he beats them quite often at the British Open. Watson loves how the new breed plays, current Ryder Cup performers like

Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson.

“One of the things you look at as a player, when you’re watching any pro tournament, is how many shots do they actually waste?” Watson says. “What I’m impressed about, especially the players on the Ryder Cup team, is how good they are, how far they hit the ball, how they don’t waste shots.”

It’s more than mutual with the players. Watson has seen most of their tweets, which reinforce the level of respect they have for him. From Bradley: “Congrats to Tom Watson on being named USA Ryder Cup captain!!! I hope to have the privilege to play for him.” And from Johnson: “It’s Official — Tom Watson is the 2014 Ryder Cup Capt! How cool would it be to play in golf’s birthplace for a guy that’s a legend there!?”

 

Moments To Recapture

Watson describes himself as a stage manager who supervises his actors in a way that brings the best opportunity to put on a winning show at one of golf’s most daunting stages. American golf fans know the image of Love raising his arms touchdown-style when he made his putt on 18, but Watson points to another match in 1993 that was crucial to that Ryder Cup. Watson sent out John Cook and Chip Beck in the Saturday afternoon four-ball when they hadn’t played a single match in the other three sessions. With the Americans trailing 7½-4½ to start the afternoon, Cook and Beck beat Colin Montgomerie and Nick Faldo, at that time the best players in European golf, 2-up. It helped narrow Europe’s lead to one point, 8½-7½, before Sunday’s singles.

“That was the turnaround of momentum,” Watson says. “We were behind, behind, behind, and oh, we’re going to lose that match. And when they won that match, that changed the spirit of our team.”

Tom Watson addresses the media during the U.S. Ryder Cup captain announcement press conference at the Empire State Building on Dec. 13, 2012, in New York.

Love’s putt, and that Beck/Cook match, are the kinds of Ryder Cup theater that Watson would like to recapture. You can hear it in his voice. He doesn’t like losing, especially when playing for our country. In fact, he detests it. He wants to proudly hold that Ryder Cup in Europe at the 40th edition of these matches in 2014 just as he did at the 30th.

“I love the feeling of being a winning captain in 1993,” says Watson. “That feeling was one of the greatest of my life. I want to have that feeling again.”

photos: The PGA of America