Ryder Cup: Watson feels the burn
How Tom Watson must wish he’d allowed Phil Mickelson the opportunity to let his golf game do the talking at Gleneagles. Lefty was left right out of Saturday’s pivotal action at this extraordinary Ryder Cup and apparently wasn’t being entirely honest with his “whatever it takes to win” response to the curious benching.
Team USA clawed its way back into the biennial dust-up at 6½-5½ after again dominating the morning fourballs on Saturday. But another awesome foursomes display by Europe in the afternoon, with the experienced Mickelson and Keegan Bradley again powerless as they rode the pine, meant the Americans went into Sunday’s singles 10-6 down, or to use police parlance, more like 10-4, over and out.
Mickelson had a point to make Sunday and uncomfortably for Watson it wasn’t the ultimately inconsequential one he secured with a 3&1 victory over Stephen Gallacher as Europe went on to win 16½ 11½ for their eighth victory in the last 10 Ryder Cups. Rather, America’s talisman waited for the massive media marquee and a worldwide audience which included the entire US team to launch a stinging attack on the style and strategy of Watson’s captaincy of the vanquished visitors.
A reporter asked “anyone” that was on the team the last time the US won if they could put their finger on what worked at Valhalla in 2008 that hasn’t worked since. Enter elder statesman Mickelson. And cue the most intense, awkward and fascinating press conference golf has probably ever seen.
“There were two things that allow us to play our best I think that [2008 captain] Paul Azinger did, and one was get everybody invested in the process. He got everybody invested in who they were going to play with, who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their pod [Azinger split his team into four groups with a vice-captain appointed to oversee each].
“And the other thing that Paul did really well was he had a game plan, how we were going to go about playing together; golf ball, format, what we were going to do. These two things helped us bring out our best golf.”
A game plan? Ouch.
“Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula.”
That feels like a pretty brutal destruction of the US leadership at Gleneagles, another reported probed. “Oh, I’m sorry you’re taking it that way,” said Mickelson. Sitting smack bang in the middle of his now squirming 12, it would have been hard for Watson to take it any other way, as brave a face as he put on the situation.
Wasn’t Mickelson being disloyal? “Not at all. He has a difference of opinion. That’s okay. My management philosophy is different than his.”
Watson went on to defend his methods and said his players were simply not good enough. “You know it takes 12 players to win. It’s not pods. It’s 12 players. Yes I did talk to the players but my vice captains were very instrumental in making decisions as to whom to pair together.”
Mickelson begged to differ. Asked if any of the players had any involvement in the decision making, Lefty said: “Uh [long pause] no. No, nobody here was in any decision. So, no.” Pressed further, Watson said he believed his philosophy going into the Ryder Cup remained a winning philosophy. “Yes, absolutely.”
He agreed, with hindsight, that he may have asked too much of players like Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler who played all five matches, most of which went to the wire. But otherwise, the 65-year-old skipper stood by his decision making.
“Listen, the Europeans kicked out butt. The bottom line is they kicked our butts,” the eight time major champion said. “They were better players this week. I mean, we had a chance today. We started off, got everything in the red. Then they turned it on us, and that’s what champions are made of. They got down and came back and win. They kicked our butts, and that’s the bottom line.”
There was a brief lightening of the mood when Jim Furyk was asked what he made of the back and forth between Mickelson and Watson. “Gee, thanks [laughter]. Just sitting over here minding my own business…”
Mickelson quickly interjected, saying to the reporter: “I don’t think the premise of your question is very well stated. I don’t think that this has been back and forth.” Phil was clearly the only one in the room who felt that way.
Furyk went on to play the peacemaker, saying he had known and respected Mickelson his “entire life” and that he had a “lot of respect” for Watson who had “worked his ass off to try and provide what he thought would be the best opportunity for us.”
“You know, five of you [media] have already asked me tonight what’s the winning formula and what’s the difference year-in and year-out. If I could put my finger on it, I would have changed this s**t a long time ago but we haven’t and we are going to keep on searching.”
Ignorance is indeed bliss
When the Europeans rocked into the media centre, riding bare back on Thomas Bjorn, captain Paul McGinley was oblivious to the revolt in the American camp. “I’m sorry to hear that. But I’m not privy to the American template and how they set up their teams.” Apparently McGinley wasn’t the only one.
What Mickelson and co would give to be a fly on the European locker room wall. In complete contrast to the Americans, the European team were gushing in their praise of McGinley.
Rory McIlroy, who led the European charge on Sunday with a scintillating seven birdies and an eagle in his first 12 holes to rout Rickie Fowler 5&4, led the tributes. “I knew he would be a great Ryder Cup captain. I can’t speak highly enough of the job he did here.”
The world No.1 may have provided the first of the four points Europe needed to retain the Ryder Cup but it was Graeme McDowell’s spirited fightback against Jordan Spieth in the first singles match out that knocked the stuffing out of Team USA. The Americans had been up in four of the first five matches when Spieth missed a short putt to go 4 up on McDowell on the 7th. G-Mac held tough, halving the eighth and ninth in birdies before eventually eking out a 2&1 victory.
Martin Kaymer later sensationally chipped in for eagle at the 16th to beat the winless Bubba Watson 4&2, while Justin Rose fought back from four down to halve his match with Hunter Mahan to finish with four of a possible five points, the best return from either side.
That left the stage to Donaldson to clinch the cup in his debut appearance. He did not get to hole the winning putt. He didn’t need to, a 140 yard pitching wedge to a foot at the 15th seeing Keegan Bradley chuck in the towel, 4&3.
There were still more heroics to come with Sergio Garcia playing 14, 15 and 16 in birdie, birdie, eagle en-route to a sweet 1 up win over Furyk.
The party had started for Europe and its noisy fans. And so to had the post mortem for Team USA as the golf world counts down to the 2016 rematch at Hazeltine Golf Club in Minnesota.
Fast-forward to the media centre and another question for Watson. You said you had a pit in your stomach watching Europe’s final day Miracle at Medinah. What’s the difference between the feeling you had back in 2012 as a heavily invested fan compared to today as the captain of the US Redeem team that has just been Gazumped at Gleneagles?
“Not a damn thing,” Watson said. “It’s the same. It hurts.”
Watson didn’t know the half of it.