Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Ryder Cup Post Mortem

This is going to be a little awkward because I revere Tom Watson as a player. His chip-in to beat Jack Nicklaus at the '82 U.S. Open is probably my oldest vivid memory of watching golf on TV and his heartbreaking loss to Stewart Cink at the 2009 British Open is probably my most vivid memory of watching golf on TV period. I can still put myself in that condo at the beach on a Sunday afternoon in July when he he was 59 years old and one slightly misguided club choice kept him from pulling-off the greatest single feat in golf history. When it didn't happen, I remember being as emotionally affected as I had ever been about the outcome of a sporting event.*

So I was already a big Tom Watson fan when he arrived at my home course later in 2009 for the Senior Players Championship. I had my whole family there on Friday when he shot 68 after shooting 66 on Thursday to take control of the tournament.** When my 8 year old son asked if we could get his autograph, I told him we could give it a shot but I wasn't sure if he would be signing after his round. So we stood outside the scoring booth and waited for him along with the usual bunch of adult autograph seeking yahoos who sacrifice their dignity to step-over kids so a famous person will sign their hat. When Watson emerged, he was immediately surrounded and he started declining requests so I thought that was that. Then he cleared the first wave, saw my son holding-out his hat, grabbed it, asked his name and signed it. He then signed for a couple other kids before moving on. To me, there is no better way for an athlete to show he gets "it" than to blow-off the autograph slobs and take care of the kids. In my eyes, Tom Watson the player is therefore above reproach.

That build-up makes it very hard for me to put a big chunk of the blame for the latest U.S. Ryder Cup fiasco on the captain but I'm going to do it anyway. And this is not all 20/20 hindsight as I've been bashing the Webb Simpson pick to anyone who would listen since I heard Watson announce it live on the Golf Channel in one of the weirdest made for TV events I've ever seen. I was sitting in a hotel room with the FGW at the time and blurted-out "you have to be fucking kidding me" when the words came out of his mouth. Apparently Simpson's two primary credentials were that he (a) won the 2012 U.S. Open and (b) he went 2-2 in the 2012 Ryder Cup. That's 2012 . . . as in two years ago. OK, but what have you done for us lately Webb? Check out this major run since that U.S. Open win - DNP, Cut, Cut, T32, T64, T25, Cut, T45, Cut and Cut. Note the three missed cuts in 2014 majors. That's lamer follow-up work than what Dexy's Midnight Runners gave us after Come on Eileen. If you have any doubt about how screwed-up Watson's process was for filling the final spot, check-out this article by the Golf Channel's Jason Sobel about how Webb Simpson's 11th hour lobbying effort probably landed him the final spot . . . and cringe.    

So who should Watson have picked instead? Well the obvious answer would have been Chris Kirk who had just won the Deutsche Bank Championship after being paired with Rory McIlroy on Saturday and Sunday. Kirk matched McIlroy's 64 on Saturday and then backed it up with a 66 to McIlroy's 70 on Sunday. One word comes to mind after that performance . . . "onions" which is what you need to compete at the Ryder Cup. But alas, Watson passed-on Kirk and it was probably because Kirk would have been a "Ryder Cup rookie" (don't get me started, or do).*** The other viable option would have been Ryan Palmer who had finished 5th at the PGA Championship and was 9th in 2014 birdie average with almost four per round. I advocated this approach in my 2012 Post Mortem about the last Ryder Cup disaster. When in doubt, apply the Moneyball approach but instead of runs = wins, it's birdies = wins.

What I don't want to hear is that Watson should have picked FedEx Cup winner Billy Horschel because the selection deadline occurred before Horschel's late season wins and the final pre-deadline image we had of him was hitting a fat 3-wood on the 72nd hole at the Deutsche into the shizzle to hand the tournament to Kirk. Prior to that, Horschel's season had been a train wreck so there was no way he was making the team. However, what it does indicate is that the selection deadline is too early. Watson had to announce his picks over three weeks before the Ryder Cup started and, in this case, that proved to be critical because it turned-out that Horschel was the best golfer in the world in September and he would have been a huge asset with the energy he brings. On the other hand, given more time to make his choice, I'm still not sure Watson would have picked him and they probably needed that three weeks to get the uniforms custom fit because, if you're going to wear ridiculous looking clothes, you at least want them to hang right (Patrick Reed's red pants notwithstanding).

"Pairings?!? Pairings?!? I've been
too busy over at Polo picking out
fabrics to worry about pairings."
Now let's get to the matches and how the U.S. team was captained/coached and I'm going to start with the post-game press conference because it was very telling if you watch the whole thing and not just the sound bites. I highly recommend it as one of the most entertaining half hours on TV this year and easily one of the top five sports press conferences of all-time along with Allen Iverson's "we talkin' about practice" performance of 2002 and Jim Mora's "playoffs?!?" mini-rant of 2001. Let's just say that Phil sitting at the far end of the podium as far away from Watson as possible couldn't have been better directed by Martin Scorsee for dramatic effect.

If you just read Phil's quotes, you'd be apt to think that he spontaneously threw Watson under the bus in the heat of the moment. That is not, however, the way it went down. Early in the press conference Watson puts the entire responsibility for the loss on the players responding to a question about what the U.S. team has to do to break Europe's hold on the Cup thusly, "the obvious answer is that our team has to play better, that's the obvious answer and they do . . . I think they recognize that fact . . . somehow, collectively, twelve players have to play better." If only we could have had a split-screen at that point to see Mickelson's expression as he and his teammates were being torched. Clearly it would have been too much for Watson to acknowledge his gaff of putting Simpson on the team and how the Friday morning round screwed-up his plan when he realized that he had to bury Simpson until the singles but come on Tom, to some extent, the captain has to go down with the ship especially when he didn't give his crew the best chance to win.

Which leads us to Watson's strategy. He actually opened strong and you could find very little fault with the Friday four ball line-up (other than Simpson) but then it started to slide. If Watson was only going to play his "A" team of Mickelson and Keegan Bradley twice, then why not play them in the four ball matches where they can both be as aggressive as they want to be? It was clear from the opening shots that Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed were going to be a match play force. They were also the youngest players on the team so run them out there for 36 on Friday and then gauge their energy levels that night based on how many holes they played and the intensity of their matches (they won 5 & 4 in the morning so they probably would have been fine regardless of the afternoon result). Instead Watson put wild driving Mickelson and Bradley back-out together on a course with eight inch rough and, as un-luck would have it, they ran into the alternate shot buzz saw of Victor Dubuisson and Graeme McDowell (to no one's surprise, that pair of assassins won its foursome matches 3 & 2 and 5 & 4).

Then on Saturday, Watson had his Captain Queeg missing strawberries moment when he inexplicably benched Mickelson and Bradley for the morning four ball round which was the same mistake that pretty much cost the U.S. the Cup back in 2012 when Captain Davis Love, III made the exact same mistake. Mickelson and Bradley have now played two Ryder Cup four ball matches and two President's Cup four ball matches over the last three years and they are 4-0 with wins over McIlroy/McDowell, Els/De Jonge, Schwartzel/Oosthuizen and McIlroy/Garcia. Talk about overthinking a decision. And that doesn't even take into account the benefit of giving Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker, who had played 36 high pressure holes on Friday, Saturday morning off or sitting Bubba Watson who's body language indicated that he enjoyed the Ryder Cup about as much as he would have enjoyed sitting through Madam Butterfly at the Royal Opera House. Tom Watson responded to a question at the press conference about his tactics by saying, "overall my vice captains and I made the right decisions." Um no Tom, you didn't. And again, that's not hindsight talking because any captain in his right mind (other than Davis Love, III) would have started planning his line-up by plugging the Mickelson/Bradley team into the four ball slots and then built off of that.

"I'm smiling because I'm French, I'm
sexy and I'm about to kick your ass."
The Cup was essentially over after the Saturday afternoon Waterloo for the Americans in the foursome matches which they lost three and a half to a half. I believe that would have turned-out differently had a fresher version of Fowler/Walker been sent out to play (they were +4 when their match ended on the 14th hole) or if Matt Kuchar had been given the morning off but that's highly speculative so I'll leave it at that. Just know that playing an alternate shot match after having played 54 holes of full grind golf in the last 36 hours was a lot to ask of those guys. Especially considering they had to play Dubuisson and McDowell who got both mornings off (hmmm, I smell a European game plan . . . let's revisit that in a bit).

Back to the press conference and the comments made by Mickelson that sent everyone into a tizzy. Now that we've established the backdrop of him being benched on Saturday and then sitting there for the first ten minutes listening to Watson say "hey, don't look at me, I didn't miss any putts," let's review what happened. Here is the question that Phil was asked verbatim, "Phil, can you put your finger on what worked in '08 and what hasn't worked since?" Fair question under the circumstances and certainly posed to the right guy because Phil, unlike Jim Furyk who spent the press conference whispering, "please don't call on me . . . please don't call on me," was not going to waffle or dodge with his answer. And that answer boiled down to two points: (1) "he (Captain Paul Azinger) got everyone involved in the process" and (2) "he had a gameplan." Should Phil have evaded the question and said something politically correct like "I don't think this is the right forum to discuss that?" Maybe, but that's why many of us love Phil . . . because he's not afraid on or off the course. And I don't know this for a fact because I obviously wasn't in the room but I'm pretty sure that he had made these comments before and they were falling on deaf ears so he said "screw it, if Tom Watson and the PGA of America are going to blow me off, I'll just tell the world."

And oh by the way, Phil was spot-on and by going public with his frustration, he drastically improved the U.S. team's chances in 2016 because now some changes that have been long overdue will likely be made. Foremost among those changes is to stop making the captain's position a ceremonial gig and make it a job. Paul McGinley has played in 29 majors, missed the cut in 14 of them and never finished higher than a tie for 6th yet the European players fought for him to be their captain because they knew his unspectacular career as a player didn't mean jack squat when it came to winning the Ryder Cup.

"Maybe Phil was right about not sending
my entire army up the middle."
Meanwhile, the PGA of America continues to handout the Ryder Cup captain job likes it's the ambassadorship to Fiji. That has to stop and while we're at it, let's take the captain's picks out of the hands of one guy so we can avoid having him swayed by another 4:00 a.m. text campaign. NFL teams have dozens of people involved in the drafting of 6-10 players every year and the NCAA has an entire committee to assemble the tournament bracket. Can't the PGA of America get at least five to seven knowledgeable people (odd number for voting purposes) in the room including the captain, one or two former captains and the two most experienced players who qualified on points. I mean how many times do we have to arrogantly waltz in like Longshanks' army in Braveheart and get our asses kicked before we decide to fix this thing?

* For me, that just means really bummed-out . . . not quite on the verge of throwing myself off a balcony or breaking a glass over someone's head. I have never reached Premier League soccer fan or SEC football fan levels of emotional attachment to sports which is a good thing because for me, that would end somewhere between a whole bunch of stitches in my forehead and incarceration (or both).

** When he shot 64 on Saturday, we REALLY thought he had taken control of the tournament. Then he semi-gagged on Sunday with a 70, Jay Haas passed him with a 64 including a ridiculous closing birdie on the hardest hole on the course and another Tom Watson redemption story was dashed.

*** Can we please bury the term "Ryder Cup Rookie" along with the corpse of the 2014 U.S. team? Patrick Reed won the 2014 WGC Cadillac against one of the best fields in golf, Jordan Spieth finished 2nd at the Masters, Jimmy Walker finished top ten in three majors this year and they all have at least one PGA Tour win. The word "rookie" is highly misrepresentative of them and just comes off as more and more stupid as first time players like them, Dubuisson and Jamie Donaldson continue to rack-up key points.  

I may have found our next captain.
They're not rookie NFL quarterbacks learning to read coverage or rookie NBA point guards getting accustomed to the speed of the pro game. They are golfers and they play the same game in the Ryder Cup that they do at Augusta, Doral and Pinehurst. Sure there might be a little more pressure but, to paraphrase Sergeant Hartman, "Reed, Spieth and Walker are new and inexperienced but they've got guts and guts is enough."  

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