Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods as Ryder Cup captains

During last week’s Presidents Cup, Tiger Woods placed a call to Fred Couples who was in South Korea to help Jay Haas with Team USA. The point of the call? To talk with 2016 Ryder Cup captain Davis Love and offer his services to him as an assistant captain should the 14-time major winner not qualify for the team as a player at Hazeltine next September. Whether it’s a desire to be involved in a team event for the first time since 2013 or a sign that he realizes that he might not have much time left at golf’s highest level, it’s certainly a departure from everything we’ve believed to know about Tiger Woods.

Enter Brandel Chamblee.

On the Sunday, October 11th episode of ‘Golf Central’, Chamblee discussed the merits of both Tiger and Phil Mickelson being vice captains for the Americans next year, and in the future.

” You know, I get it. Athletes when they’re sort of past their prime so to speak look back with a little more respect and reverence at events that they were more the source of the fire of, but I don’t really think it’s appropriate to give players a leadership role in an event that they didn’t show interest or passion for when they were competitors. If they had, Tiger Woods would have had a record more commensurate with what he did in match play. He was 13-17-3 in the Ryder Cup and you go look at his match play record and it was almost a 90% win rate. Of course, then there’s Phil Mickelson and I think he did corrupt this team from the inside out. You can point to 2004, not coming together with Tiger Woods, not practicing even on the same golf course, changing equipment that week. In 2012, asking to be sat in the afternoon on Saturday with Keegan Bradley and of course then there’s the last Ryder Cup where he didn’t even arrive with the team and then of course his disparaging remarks of Tom Watson. These are not leadership type qualities; I get it, everybody looks up to him and respects his record. I understand that, and now that he wants to be a part of it, he wants to be in it, he wants to control it, but really, you should give it to players that showed the passion for it like Steve Stricker, maybe even like a Jim Furyk who was put in an odd spot. Golf misses Payne Stewart every single day, but no more so than when it comes to a leadership role as a captain of the Ryder Cup. He got levity, he got intellect, he got intensity. Much like Lee Westwood, golf misses Payne Stewart, he would have been a great captain. But Phil and Tiger, in my opinion, they don’t deserve it. “

There’s a lot to digest there, so let’s take a look at this on a point by point basis:

  • Phil and Tiger haven’t cared enough as players about the Ryder Cup, and their records show that.

I don’t think anyone would argue against the idea that both men, Tiger in particular, have cared more about their individual pursuits than that of the team events that come along once a year. By nature, golfers are going to care more about how they do personally just because golf is an individual sport, but to suggest that they haven’t shown passion in the event seems like a stretch, and if the basis for that argument is their records haven’t been good enough, that doesn’t hold up.

In Tiger’s case, you can find his full match play record here but as I’ve talked about on a number of occasions, the problem with match play and match play records is that they really don’t tell the whole story. Tiger could shoot 63 and lose (which actually happened when he teamed with Paul Azinger in 2002 against Thomas Bjorn and Darren Clarke) or fire a 75 and win, but the record won’t show that and when we start talking about team match play, obviously a lot depends on how your partner does as well.

Sometimes, you just get beat by someone who played better than you, and the players at both the Ryder and Presidents Cup are all very good, to the point where the gap in talent between themselves and Tiger Woods over 18 holes, even at his peak, is negligible. Look at any player who has put together a decent match play sample size, and you’ll likely find that their record is around 50% in both singles and team competition. Why? It’s not because the players lack passion, but more likely because all of this stuff tends to even out when the best players in the world go head to head. A player’s overall record in match play has nothing to do with their ability to identify the best players, pair them up and build a winning atmosphere.

Lastly, the 90% mark? This post here runs the numbers on it, and it doesn’t really match up.

  • Phil’s team corruption

The moments that Chamblee mentions definitely happened, and I can’t comment on how much they factored into the eventual losses for the U.S. team, but what I would point to is the idea that the players on the recent Presidents Cup team desperately wanted Phil on the roster, despite the fact that there were probably at least five or six players who deserved it more based on current ability. It’s easy to forget the FIGJAM past that Phil has because of how beloved he’s become over the last few years, and I think a big part of that is likely that he grew up a little bit. Think about the stories you hear about Phil now. How many of them talk about arrogance or how much he’s hated in locker rooms? Not many, but they were present all throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s.  Asking to be sat in 2012? Davis Love could have said no to that request, but he probably trusted the fact that Phil knew his body and how tired he might be if he went out there.

As much as I agreed that Tom Watson did a pretty poor job as captain of the 2014 Ryder Cup team, Phil probably could have had the same discussion in private and accomplished the same goal without having to drag Watson through the mud, but you can’t say that his comments were without passion. If anything, they showed that he wanted to be part of changing for the better.

  • Furyk and Stricker

I think both guys would do just fine as captain, but if part of the reason why Tiger and Phil can’t be captain is their record, we can’t just ignore the records of Furyk and Stricker.

After those comments caused a bit of a stir, Chamblee joined Matt Adams on Fairways of Life to elaborate. The interview is nearly 22 minutes long, so I won’t grab every single full quote from it especially since a lot is very similar to the quotes above, but I encourage you to give it a listen to form your own opinion.

After Chamblee mentioned that he thought Phil showed poor leadership skills on Sunday at Gleneagles, Adams plays devil’s advocate and asks if instead of showing poor leadership skills, maybe Phil was showing leadership skills to actually step up and say something when most people wouldn’t. Chamblee’s response:

” Well, then, why would you say that he chose to practice on a different golf course in 2004, fly to the Ryder Cup on a different jet in 2014, change equipment and then why would someone of his stature, playing for 20 years in the Ryder Cup, have a record that he has in the Ryder Cup? Phil and Tiger should have been part of an era of dominance in the Ryder Cup for the United States. They should have, together, led this team to an almost unprecedented amount of victories and wide margins. You say what Phil said on Sunday night was an example of leadership. Leadership to me would have done that, if it needed to be done at all, would have done it behind closed doors. Would have done it in a more respectful manner to Tom Watson, and beyond that, to Paul McGinley and the European side. His comments that night, I thought, took away from the victory celebration of Paul McGinley and the European side, to say nothing of what it meant to Tom Watson. Tom Watson let, I thought, Phil off the hook quite a bit by not returning like for like. I thought Tom Watson was above it and I think he’s been above it since, when he could very well have said some things that night that were pretty disparaging to Phil if he chose to. “

I agree that Phil and Tiger should have been part of an era of dominance for the United States, if we were really just talking about Phil and Tiger. They were part of an era of dominance for American golf on their own, but when they suited up for their country and had to bring Chris Riley, Fred Funk, Vaughan Taylor, J.J. Henry and Brett Wetterich along for the ride, everything kinda went sideways. Everyone always talks about how the Europeans play like a group of twelve when they go to the Ryder Cup and everyone gets their fair share of the credit for the win, so by that logic, we should spreading an even amount of the blame for the loss, right?

Adams mentions Payne Stewart and how the Americans lost their Seve with Stewart’s passing, which Chamblee agrees with:

” I think that the Ryder Cup got off the rails when they didn’t fulfill their obligation to Larry Nelson, who I would argue is our version, although a quieter version of Seve Ballesteros. His record in the Ryder Cup was unprecedented, at least for the first nine matches he played, most of them against Seve and was promised the captaincy, which was rescinded and Lanny Wadkins took over and he was promised the next one and then Tom Kite got the next one and so forth, so he’s been overlooked. To whatever extent you believe in karma, I think that’s what’s going on with the PGA and that ship’s sailed. Larry Nelson’s clearly not going to be the captain, but beyond that, I think the captaincy is very important.”

It’s true that Nelson was screwed over and he definitely should have gotten a chance to captain a team at some point, but as Chamblee mentions, that ship has sailed despite Chamblee mentioning him at every chance he gets when talking about what the Americans need to do to win the Ryder Cup again, aside from playing better golf. Also, Nelson as an ‘American Seve’?

Adams asks Chamblee who he would select as captain:

” Well, if it were my job to pick a captain, I would have probably chosen Paul Azinger again. He has all of those qualities. I thought they overlooked Hale Irwin. Hale Irwin is one of the brightest men in the game of golf, they’ve certainly overlooked him. And again, if it were my job, right now to pick the captain, I would pick Larry Nelson. I would pick him because he was told he was going to be the captain and then it was rescinded on the promise that he’d be the captain on the next go ’round. And Larry, by the way, if people don’t know who he is, well, when they make the argument that you need to choose a peer, I would say “how is that working out for you? Did it work with Davis Love? Did it work with Curtis Strange? Did it work with Tom Kite? Did it work with Corey Pavin? No. Did it work with Tom Lehman? No. The peer idea, the major championship idea, is obviously not working, so what would be wrong with choosing a captain who perhaps is 20-30 years down the road? “

These things go in cycles. If you look at the group of up and coming young American golfers, there’s no reason to believe that a group led by Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Tony Finau combined with established names like Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson can’t turn the tide on a European squad that if we’re being honest, is more about the veteran players than those that are on the rise. This is the same reason why the Internationals in the Presidents Cup are doing better: because the players are improving at a rapid rate. It’s more about the players than the captain and those players are going to make the next few American captains look awfully good.

” But if they don’t know Larry Nelson’s story, they need to know it; that he fought for his country, that he came back and handled himself with great respect and he did win major championships and he is passionate, and he is smart and he can do all those things. Beyond that, if you’re looking for somebody else and there is a lot to asking the players who they want to captain them. That’s how Paul McGinley ended up being the captain. They went to the players and said “Who do you want?” Well, once they said Paul McGinley, Paul McGinley became the captain, but then they didn’t say “We want Paul to be the captain and then we all want a say.” Paul had the say, it was Paul’s voice, that was Paul’s team. He courted every player on that team to some extent and figured out how to best manage them, whether it was Rory or Victor Dubuisson, all the way down the line and he figured out how to get the most out of those players. You’re not a figurehead, the captain is not a figurehead. The captain needs to take that role as the CEO of a company, and this idea that it’s a democracy and everyone gets a say in it is not how you lead, it’s not how you captain and Paul McGinley proved that. “

Not sure what Nelson having fought for his country has to do with winning a golf tournament, but I do agree with the rest of this, and from the outside looking in, this was the biggest issue with Watson’s captaincy at Gleneagles.

Adams suggests he’d like to see someone like Jerry Kelly get a shot and Chamblee agrees:

” Exactly, exactly. Those are exactly the types of players, Bernard Gallacher, Sam Torrance, Mark James, Paul McGinley, these are passionate, in your face type of player that can have empathy for everybody on the team. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to understand the superstars, but again, McGinley got around that by going to the coach of Manchester United, there’s ways around it, there’s ways to connect with the superstars, but it is that player that’s going to consider every factor, personality and nuance in a team that’s going to get the best out of the players from the United States. Jerry Kelly’s a fine name. Jim Furyk, I think, would take on this role and people would say “well, Jim Furyk’s record is not very good in the Ryder Cup” and certainly I’ve brought that up, but I think Jim was put in a very awkward spot in that the two players on that team who were supposed to lead, weren’t leading, and he was, by omission, he was the leader. But it’s a very awkward spot to be trying to lead from behind. I think Jim Furyk has all the right tools to be captain. The record, the respect, the intellect, everything. Everything to the nth degree, I think Jim Furyk would be marvellous. “

Yes, that’s 48 year old, three time PGA Tour winner Jerry Kelly, who played on one Presidents Cup team in 2003 that’s being suggested as an option for the captaincy. I don’t have anything against the guy, and he could probably do a fine job, but at that point, it feels like we’re reaching a little too far. Like, reaching too far and needing rotator cuff surgery too far.

Also, the four European names he mentioned above? It’s definitely true that they’re known to be very smart, but again, if we’re going to be bringing up their records in Ryder Cup play, none of them are at a better than 50% win rate.

Brandel Chamblee is good for golf and he’s definitely well within his right to state and hold these opinions. He’s smart, articulate and has an encyclopedic level of knowledge on golf history. On top of that, he’s always willing to let you know what he thinks, even if he doesn’t fall on the side of popular opinion, but in this case, it just feels like he’s reaching to justify the idea that Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods wouldn’t be good captains. Do I think they’ll be good captains? I honestly don’t know, but the idea that they wouldn’t be good because they didn’t show enough passion, which led to poor records just doesn’t make much sense.

The main reason why the Americans haven’t won the Ryder Cup all that often in the past two decades has more to do with their lack of overall talent and the volatility of match play than anything else. Regardless of system, task force or captain, if you don’t have the bodies to get the job done, no amount of preparation will be enough and sometimes even the right bodies get beaten by someone having a better day.

That’s golf.

3 Comments on “Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods as Ryder Cup captains”

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