The United States lost their third consecutive Ryder Cup to Europe on Sunday evening in Scotland, 16.5-11.5. The defeat was America’s sixth in the last seven editions of the biennial event and the eighth time Europe took home the Cup in its last 10 tries. That’s a few different ways of saying that Europe has flat-out dominated the Ryder Cup over the past two decades.
The latest failing of the red, white and blue has resulted in the emergence of a handful of scapegoats, easy targets for finger-pointers and media types looking to fill column inches. Let’s lay them out.
First, there’s Ted Bishop, the gregarious outgoing 38th President of the PGA of America — the governing body of Ryder Cup USA and the organization that chooses the team’s captain. Bishop, a man caught between old-school tendencies and the need to show proof of life in up-and-coming golf, is not one to let a big moment slip by, nor one who fails to take a strong stand.
Enter Tom Watson. Bishop’s talisman for the back-the-chalkboard, no-nonsense shake up of the US Ryder Cup. The eight-time major winner led the last successful US conquest into Europe in 1993. While his individual playing record spoke for itself, his Ryder Cup mark of 10-4-1 carried enough weight for the PGA of America to tap him as the first two-time captain since Jack Nicklaus in 1983 and ’87. However, simply put, Watson wasn’t the man for the job.
More on that in a bit.
Lastly, and probably most culpably, there were the 12 men who earned (or texted) their way onto the team via automatic qualifying or by doing enough to garner a captain’s pick. Ultimately, the blame lies with them. The US were simply outplayed over the three days at The Gleneagles Hotel. If a number had to be put on the extent to which they were outplayed, 32 would be that number. The Euros were a combined 110-under par over the five sessions while the Americans combined for a total of 78-under par. 32 strokes difference.
While the numbers may tell enough of the story for some, there is more to a Ryder Cup than simply scoring. Strategy, player involvement, pairings, personality mix and player comfortability are just a few of the balls the captain must juggle to ensure his players have the best opportunity to succeed. To that end, Bishop and Watson failed the United States.
As previously stated, Watson wasn’t the right man for the job. A hard-nosed, set-in-his-ways 65-year old, Watson is a man who earned his reputation during a different era of tour players. The 12 he captained last week are byproducts Tiger Woods era; that of big purses, robust entourages and agent coddling. The top players in the world these days make far too much money and are too accustomed to getting their way to have someone like Watson treat them like a nun with a paddle.
The players much prefer a Fred Couples-type. A players’ manager, if you will. One of them. Someone who listens to the players concerns, makes them feel heard and sets them up in the best way that they, the players, feel they can help the team win a point.
You know, someone like Paul McGinley.
Watson was never going to be that guy. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, but those familiar with Watson— which presumably the folks at the PGA of America are — should have known this by spending any significant time with him prior to appointing him. Watson doesn’t suffer fools gladly and he’s ardent in his moral compass. Just ask Gary Player.
That said, Watson is just the latest example of an institutional failure. A system that, unlike the European Ryder Cup committee, views the captaincy as lifetime achievement award of sorts, not a natural progression in a proven winning recipe.
McGinley, the victorious 2014 European captain, has been both a Ryder Cup vice-captain and a Seve Trophy captain twice. At 47 years old, the Irishman is not only a staple at European Tour events, but also at big PGA Tour events thanks to a move into television. The captainship in Europe is more of a pay-your-dues, climb-the-ladder experience that transforms one into a hands-on CEO. The captainship in America is a figurehead position that doesn’t take into account previous captainships or vice-captainships.
If America wants to climb out of the slump that they are currently mired in, they need only look across the pond. If not outright copy the Euro’s process, the Americans should cherry pick their best ideas. To this point, losing 80 percent of the events over the last 20 years, one would hope that the Americans have developed some kind of chip on their shoulder.
Seve Ballesteros, Europe’s invisible leader, took the constant losing to America as a direct insult in the 1970s and early 1980s. The need to prove to himself and his fellow Euro Tour members that they were just as good as their counterparts in America is what sparked the European dominance that we are still seeing today.
The Americans need that kind of bravado, that kind of passion and that chip on their shoulder. Of course, the same problems that arose with a hard-nosed captain may be a hindrance in this case, as well. Too many players with too much money and too many yes-men surrounding them drain that passion. They’re encouraged to be entrepreneurs in a sense, brand managers and their own bosses. As such, when they’re given rigid guidelines, they don’t respond well.
However, as was referenced ad nauseum this weekend on Twitter, the majority of the European team resides Stateside and are guilty of the same coddling and individualistic nature as the Americans. To say the American’s are alone in this epidemic is a cop-out. So, what’s the difference between the two sides?
McGinley led a campaign to get named to the captain for 2014 only after putting in the hours working under other European skippers and captaining less prestigious events. He then lobbied for the captaincy following the 2012 Ryder Cup and embraced the players he would be presiding over, earning their trust and eventually, their endorsement.
Watson’s vice-captains — who, if this were the European team, would be the virtual “captains in waiting” — were Raymond Floyd, Andy North and Steve Stricker. Stricker was a last-minute addition and perhaps a last ditch effort to secure someone with some semblance of a relationship with the players on Tour. The cronyism of the vice-captains should be done away with in full, if only for the betterment of the future of US Ryder Cup teams. The vice-captaincy should act as a farm system for future captains.
Where do we populate this farm system from? Easy: Presidents Cup captains and vice-captains, Walker Cup captains, even prominent teachers and former players still around the Tour with a love for the event and match play format. The current 21-person committee that selects the captain is made up almost entirely of PGA of America suits. This needs to be cut in half in the least and blown up at the best. The PGA of America president will always be in on the decision, so goes the power struggle, but a more player-centric model is necessary.
And as for the players — those ultimately responsible — if Phil Mickelson’s comments told us two things, they were: 1) The players want to be involved in the decision-making; it’s what they’ve come to expect on a week-to-week basis and to deny them that privilege is to bring second-guessing into the fray; and 2) The US is reaching that tipping point where losing is no longer just a shrug of the shoulders; it’s becoming embarrassing and a blemish on their career résumés.
The losing culture that has manifested itself on US soil needs to be eradicated. The current crop of elder statesmen: the Mickelson’s, Jim Furyk’s and Tiger Woods’ of the world need to convey that losing this event every two years in not acceptable. They may be victims of a broken system, but they can be the vehicles for change.
Maybe then, they’re Ryder Cup legacy won’t be the three men who boast the most losses in US Ryder Cup history, but the men who said enough is enough and righted the ship. The systematic failure, like the 2014 loss, does not fall on one person. It falls on a culture and a process that are broken and need to be redesigned.
Europe has won eight of the last 10 Ryder Cups. They’re doing something right. Why don’t we take a page out of their book?