What went wrong for Team USA at the Ryder Cup

watson bishop

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson and PGA of America president Ted Bishop.

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.

Tom Watson

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.

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Patrick Reed is pretty pumped.

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.

The Players

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.

Premature, Rory.

Premature, Rory.

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.

Suggestions

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.

  1. Extend the deadline for qualification and captain’s picks.
  2. 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?

Minus 22.

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.

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24 Comments on “What went wrong for Team USA at the Ryder Cup

  1. USA needs to assign a top “team sport” manager/coach for the 2016 Ryder Cup. Someone like Phil Jackson would be ideal. Or Tony LaRussa. Tom Watson has never managed or motivated anyone (other than himself) in his life. How can we expect him to do better here? And, bringing back Azinger solves nothing.

  2. This analysis is spot-on. As an American golf-loving spectator, I actually prefer watching and rooting for the European team, Ryder after Ryder. 2014 was the most entertaining Euro team ever, and you can see it on their faces: they look loose and like they’re having fun. The Americans never look like they are enjoying themselves, or that they even like one another. The looks on their faces is TIGHT – like they’re just waiting for the wheels to fall off of their games.

  3. Whenever I think of Team USA I think of Apollo Creed training in some swanky 5 star hotel while the Europeans (Rocky) are sharpening their games in a cold meat locker. While a number of Euros spend time on the PGA tour and many have residences in America, they never seem to forget their roots. They learned to play the game on courses cared for by Mother Nature, not the master pieces of natural art and beauty so many of the courses in the US seem to be. I once spoke to a high ranking PGA official, he lamented the fact of how “soft and pampered” American golfers on the tour had become, everything from the courtesy cars provided to the golf balls supplied at the range… From the spread of food in many of the locker rooms to the quality of sand used in the bunkers… “Soft and pampered” indeed. He suggested almost 10 years ago, that unless/until the Americans toughened up and learned today the game again as it was intended to be played, the Ryder Cup would become a distant dream. I’m beginning to think the man knew exactly what he was talking about.

  4. I agree on Boom Boom for coach…however, please do not tell me talent wins the day. The Europeans won 8 of the last 10 and at least 7 of those the US had more talent…including Tiger Woods…Interesting to note, the last win was without Tiger Woods. Talent does not always win and team is a part of the success for the Europeans, there is no i in Team and until the US (Tom Watson and Phil Mickleson) figures that out, the Europeans will keep winning…

  5. As a player, coach, and manager in 2 major sports – golf not being one – some obvious elements (to me anyway) have shown themselves. One – the US players, for whatever reason, do not handle pressure well. Perhaps it is the expectation on the player and the sheer weight of carrying the good name of the USA. Hard to fathom that the meltdown seems to be team wide regardless of the skills and achievements of the individuals involved. Seems to me the personalities of the majority of the players do not handle pressure well. The USA team will need stiffer backbones to play. Two – these guys cannot putt to save their souls. It is pitiful to watch. Pitiful. And I don’t care what the event is, these guys are supposed to be the best and they are bricking layups for goodness sake. Pitiful. Here is where the captain’s picks can choose the absolute best US putters not already on the team. Three – the Ryder Cup has “devolved” into this “horseshit” of chest pounding, fist pumping, and faux exhortation. It is bullshit and nothing but mustard and relish looking. I don’t know who started it, but it is now a joke. Further to that, the US needs an enforcer. Someone who has enough mud in him that he will confront the main wanker – Ian Poulter – square up to him and tell him in no uncertain terms that is he pulls that shite on the course that said player will beat him to a freaking pulp. AND MEAN IT. When someone chips in from 40 yards it is such a long odds shot that real athlete would recognize the luck of the shot and not act like it is a layup. Some humility is in order here. The Ryder Cup golfers over the last 10-15 years of so feel compelled to act like they can make 1000-1 shots all the time. And some humility needs to be pounded into wankers like Poulter. ANY athlete who acts like this if full of shit and if an opponent does not straighten them out, a teammate should. This is when I wish Jack Lambert were on the US team. Put some fear into these morons and their exhibitions and let’s see what happens. If that means a dust-up with some skin thrown, so be it. The EU team THINKS they are tougher men than the US men. I think the US men should let those wankers know what type of men they are. That should end all of that bullshit and show the US players will not be pushovers. It will quiet clowns like Poulter and will take some of the starch out of the little weenies on the EU team that act like tough guys in this event and play to the crowd when they otherwise would not.
    Adjust your jockstrap boys, vastly improve your putting, and create as many pressure situations for yourselves as possible so that you are ready for them in the Ryder Cup. Those EU boys need their wings clipped and their egos watered down somewhat. And furthermore golf fans at PGA events should unmercifully chastise wankers like Poulter and weenies like McIlroy to remind them of the sport adage – humble in victory, gracious in defeat.

    • Charles P Smith,

      What a ridiculous post, you say The Ryder Cup has devolved into chest beating and fist pumping and then go on to say a dust up and some skin thrown should be the order of the day

      Your just very bitter and twisted bloke due to being on the end of another loss

      You are most definitely a wander mates xx

  6. As Phil Mickelson’s competitive playing career wanes (we may have seen the last of him in a RC) he is looking and planning aggressively to become a power broker among golf’s leading organizations. I believe his dream role would be to run the Tour but would embrace the PGA depending on how it emerges from the crisis it is presently in. This crisis is not simply about how they select their Ryder Cup team and who should captain them . Those are big issues but the failures are symptoms of an organization dedicated to a weak status quo across a rapidly changing golf landscape. The PGA of America controls two main properties that underwrite its budget. It owns a Major and it owns its share of the Ryder Cup. The fate of one affects the fate of the other. The PGA’s existence is vulnerable to the decline in interest and financial success of both.
    Phil dealt the PGA a vicious strike by publicly shaming them immediately after a big loss. It wasn’t innocent or “just answering a question” as so many suggest. He knows weakness when he sees it and in weakness there is opportunity. Golf’s powers tend to lumber along working hard to keep things the same. The Tour is one of the few to consistently move forward and be innovative in service to their members. Expanding to other countries and the FedEx playoffs are two good examples. Growing during poor economic times is emblematic of its skill in recognizing and exploiting opportunities. Its flagship Players Championship has enjoyed an increase in popularity and prestige to match the Tour’s success.
    What is going on now with the PGA is an opportunity for the Tour to wedge its way into supplanting the PGA wth its own Championship. That is the endgame. It wont happen this year or next but the PGA is an a position of weakness. Suppose Tiger was asked about it, and he will be, and made a devastating comment about the PGA/RC and agreed that yes, the Player’s would be the next logical tournament to become a Major. This would violently alter the status quo. Majors have changed in the past to reflect the modern game at the time. The PGA appears and acts out of the past. The Tour is an agent of the future. And, it provides something no other body provides – over $300 million dollars per year to their membership.
    In Europe a similar thing happened. The EuroPGA had to make a deal with the EuroTour to protect its share of the Ryder Cup. The EuroTour now manages the Ryder Cup in Europe. I think that will happen here or be the main point of negotiation.
    If the US loses the next RC on our soil its over as a financial meal ticket for the PGA. That they allow themselves to be vulnerable to the public force of one man (Phil) is unconscionable. Phil knows his place in the game and will leverage it to his benefit, likely on the backs of those at the PGA.

  7. Adam – this is one of the more thoughtful and balanced recaps I’ve seen. However, when you and others discuss “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” it seems that one key factor is being overlooked – that Phil talked Watson into playing Keegan & him on Friday afternoon (something acknowledged even in the Phil mouthpiece articles on golf.com and golfdigest.com).
    – When asked about the decision to sit Spieth/Reed on Friday Watson said “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.”
    – He was obviously going to play the 4 guys that didn’t play in the AM and clear he was going to stick with Fowler/Walker. So it was either Spieth/Reed or Phil/Keegan and it’s pretty clear Phil convinced him to let Keegan & him play. In his press conferences, it doesn’t seem to be a matter he “couldn’t” explain the decisions or who replaced whom, rather that he “didn’t want to” get into the details, presumably in order to protect the player (Mickelson) who convinced him to go that route
    – Once he did that– and they play badly and Phil is obviously tired – it forced his hand to sit them for Sat AM. (I think it’s very safe to say he would have played them Sat AM (in a better format for their games) if they hadn’t played Friday afternoon.
    – At that point, it’s pretty clear that he intended to play them (maybe not together) in Foursomes on Sat afternoon, except that Furyk/Mahan played great and won in a rout in the AM, Kuchar in particular played great vs. the Rose/Stenson buzzsaw, and Spieth/Reed and Fowler/Walker continued their strong play. So he stuck with his hot guys for the afternoon (what he was criticized for not doing on Friday) as opposed to playing Phil & Keegan, who were awful in foursomes on Friday (they were 4 over thru 16, the 3 other US teams in those matches were at least -1). And it’s not shocking that he refused Phil’s pleas to reconsider on Saturday, after he had acceded to them on Friday and it backfired badly.
    Short answer: maybe Watson listened to Phil TOO much. If he doesn’t listen to him on Friday, 1) Spieth & Reed presumably play 2nd round on Friday and 2) Phil & Keegan play at least the AM round on Saturday (and maybe the afternoon if they played well). Does that make a difference? I seriously doubt it, but at least there (may) have been less grousing about those choices.
    Seem pretty clear to me, but maybe there’s something I’m missing?
    And I acknowledge that ultimately it falls to Watson to make that choice or push back on Phil in the first place. Moreover, I’m not saying Watson was a good captain (though I seriously doubt he was a bad as the Mickelson PR machine is trying to make him look). At minimum, he definitely didn’t do a good job in the press conferences, particularly in explaining his decisions. I don’t think that was a strong suit to begin with and I’d guess it was magnified by tiredness at the end of a long and tense day (particularly for a 65 year old man). That’s something the PGA staff and Watson himself should have thought more about. And maybe it means a 65 year old shouldn’t be in the role to begin with.
    But the lack of clarity also seems reflect an effort to take ownership of the decisions. Perhaps on Friday he should have said something like: “I was going to play Jordan and Patrick in the afternoon, but Phil kept pressing me to play him and Keegan instead. Given his stature and their record together, I gave them the chance. Unfortunately it backfired on me and the team. And it fouls up our plan for tomorrow. So I wish I hadn’t but we’ll make the best of it and come out fighting tomorrow and try to make up ground”.
    Of course, he never would have said that .. but given how Phil reacted at the press conference (and off the record with the Rosafortes, Shipnucks et al) he probably wishes he had.

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