What went wrong for Team USA at the Ryder Cup
For the third consecutive Ryder Cup, and eighth of the last ten, Europe was victorious over Team USA and it wasn’t really close. In the aftermath, people have been pointing their fingers in a variety of directions in order to find out who to blame for this mess, but in reality, there isn’t one single person or entity to pin this on. When Jack Nicklaus suggested that the Ryder Cup change to invite all of Europe in time for the 1979 competition, the wheels of change were set in motion and what used to be an easy win every two years has now evolved into a chance at competing.
It’s gotten to the point where players like Phil Mickelson are openly complaining about the process during the event, with other players like Billy Horschel and Jason Dufner chiming in on Twitter from their living rooms about what needs to change. What went wrong for Team USA at the Ryder Cup? Just about everything, and to pin this on one individual is not only a mistake, but part of the larger scope of what’s actually wrong when it comes to this event. News flash to all involved with the Ryder Cup this year: you’re all part of the problem and here’s why.
Let’s get one thing out of the way off the top: Tom Watson was dealt a lousy hand as captain of Team USA at the 2014 Ryder Cup.
When Watson took PGA of America president Ted Bishop’s phone call and accepted the job, he obviously couldn’t have predicted that Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Jason Dufner and Steve Stricker would all be unable to play and that the rest of the available bodies would be better suited as the fourth or fifth options instead of the leaders of a team that came in as severe underdogs to a loaded European side. With that said, even though Watson wasn’t expected to lead this team to victory at Gleneagles, the way in which we got to a 16.5-11.5 score at the end of the event on Sunday showed that he wasn’t the right guy for the job.
When it comes to events like the Ryder or Presidents Cup, people argue all the time about the value of the team captain. Golf isn’t like traditional team sports in that there’s no set gameplan that the players need to follow in order to have success. In golf, there is no attacking the defence in a certain way or making sure that your opponent is neutralized because of something that’s been designed. Sure, there are some things that the players can do while they’re out there to maximize success, but in reality, match play still comes down to the same basic premise as stroke play: get the ball in the hole in as few shots as possible. At Gleneagles, Europe ended the week at 110-under par compared to just 78-under for the U.S.
There’s nothing that a captain can do to help that once the players are on the course, but the one thing that the captains do have in common with a traditional coach or manager is that they need to put their players in the best possible position to allow them to succeed. This is where Watson failed last week, both on and off the course.
The bizarre decision to sit Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth on Friday afternoon coupled with the bungling of the Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley pairing as well as Bubba Watson have been discussed at length in other places, but the logic behind the decisions, or lack thereof, speaks to someone who either didn’t prepare enough, simply changed his mind on a whim or was completely lost with what was going on during the course of play.
Before the event started, Watson changed the number of captain’s picks from four to three and suggested that he would have removed them entirely if he was allowed to, preferring to go based solely on points. The captain shouldn’t want less control over his team. Whether it’s true or not, it showed in my mind that he had a lack of confidence to not only make his own decisions but to own them in the event that they didn’t work out, which I’ve talked about previously.
The American players have the utmost amount of respect for Watson without question, but this is the perfect recipe for losing the trust of the team that you’re leading. You can’t tell the players that form matters and then sit the guys that played the best. You can’t blame the players in your press conferences and also admit that you didn’t know who you sent out in place of another pair. It was like this all week with Watson, and when you compare that with McGinley who charmed everyone he talked to at Gleneagles, it certainly appears that Europe had a massive advantage even before the matches started.
All week, Watson looked like a guy who left the gate open but blamed the dog for running away. That same dog never left McGinley’s yard.
I’ll get to Mickelson in a second, but the plain and simple truth is that the twelve players that suited up last week for Team USA just weren’t good enough. When you get beaten by 32 shots, regardless of the pairings and who should have been out there in certain spots, you have to look in the mirror and take responsibility, which I think most of them would admit is the case. Sure, having the four players above and Billy Horschel would have helped, but they weren’t at Gleneagles and there was nothing anyone could do about that.
As for Mickelson, he knew exactly what he was doing when he made those comments. Obviously he has a right to be upset with losing the way they did and he’s probably justified in thinking that he and Keegan Bradley should have been out there more than twice in four matches, or at the very least, in both morning fourball sessions as opposed to playing all day Friday and sitting on Saturday, but outside of giving people like me some entertainment, what was the purpose in throwing Watson under at least one bus publicly in that press conference? Mickelson has more power than just about anyone in golf and his thoughts combined with the fact that Europe has been handing the Americans their lunch over the last twenty years would have been enough to provoke change behind closed doors. Maybe he was frustrated with some of the public comments from Watson, but this kind of sniping only really accomplishes one thing and that’s making the U.S. team look every bit as fractured as Europe is cohesive.
The Europeans had four of the top six players in the world and a roster of proven match play talent beneath them, and we shouldn’t forget that, but Ian Poulter also touched on the often repeated line about how they actually play together as a team of twelve instead of twelve individuals. I’m not in the team room, so I can’t say unequivocally that Europe enjoy each other’s company more and that it carries over onto the course, but from the outside looking in, that definitely appears to be the case.
The PGA of America
When the PGA of America appointed Watson as the captain of this team, the thought process was that the old-school, no nonsense mentality that Watson has would have set things straight and kept the players accountable in their pursuit of their first victory on European soil since Watson last manned the ship back in 1993, but what exactly does that even mean? As mentioned above, it certainly didn’t look good when Watson seemed to be inconsistent with his actions and his mentality obviously didn’t keep Mickelson in line. Watson’s resume is pretty much without peer, but when you hear someone like Patrick Reed say that his memory of Watson as a player comes from the 2009 Open Championship, that seems like a problem. Assistant captain Ray Floyd is a major winner and a Ryder Cup legend, but he won his first major before Mickelson and Jim Furyk were even born. Nothing against Floyd, but at a certain point, there’s a generational gap that needs to be recognized. Outside of being friends with Watson, why was he there?
Also, why did the qualification period for the Europeans end three weeks after the Americans? Qualifying for Team USA ended on August 10th at the conclusion of the PGA Championship, while Europe’s went through August 31st and allowed Graeme McDowell to sneak into the last spot ahead of Luke Donald. There was a lot of talk about the logistics of things surrounding the deadline when Horschel’s hot play at the end of the season didn’t get rewarded with a spot on the team, but surely that has to change. Colin Montgomerie mentioned that the guy who won the FedEx Cup shouldn’t be sitting at home counting his money and he’s absolutely correct. Believe me when I tell you that if everyone knows the deadlines, family arrangements can be adjusted and a few extra ugly sweaters can be stitched together. This shouldn’t be an excuse.
I’m not going to suggest who should be captaining this team going forward because to me, that’s a decision that needs to be made with the players in mind and I don’t know enough about them personally to make a suggestion that fits, but there seems to be a couple of things that could easily be done here to make a small impact.
- Extend the deadline for qualification and captain’s picks.
- Hire Mark Broadie and his team to help out with statistical analysis instead of relying on text message prompts and results from two years ago as a barometer.
After that, it’s on the captain and the players to perform. The Ryder Cup is always going to be around and have appeal without question, but things need to change for Team USA going forward. You know how everyone rips on the Presidents Cup and says that it’s an event that doesn’t carry a lot of weight for the Americans? Over the last eight events, the Americans have a plus 22 point differential over the International side in the Presidents Cup. How have they done in the Ryder Cup over the last eight?
If they do take the Ryder Cup as seriously as they say they do, it’s time to start acting like it, and that goes for everyone involved.