Shane RyanSeptember 29, 2014

Oh, Captains: How Tom Watson Lost His Players While Paul McGinley Won a Ryder Cup

Every two years, at every Ryder Cup, the same question emerges: Do the captains really matter? Or are they merely symbolic figureheads who have no effect on the final outcome? By the end of play on Saturday at Gleneagles, with the Americans reeling from a two-day debacle, the answer was no longer in doubt.

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Graeme McDowell and Victor Dubuisson made up the fourth and final European pairing sent out in Saturday afternoon's alternate shot session by team captain Paul McGinley, but they were the second team to finish. The partnership was more than six months in the making, beginning when Dubuisson finished second in February's Accenture Match Play championship. The result served notice that the 24-year-old Dubuisson was an emerging star, and one who stood a very good chance to make the Ryder Cup team on merit. McGinley, who treated his captain's role with an obsessive, conscientious zeal since being named in January 2013, made it his business to understand the young Frenchman.

Dubuisson is not an easy person to understand. Read any story about his personal life, and you're bound to run into the word "complicated." He's intensely private and painfully shy, to the point that he becomes uncomfortable when faced with personal question as benign as, "what are your hobbies outside the golf course?" According to Thomas Levet, the elder statesman of French golf and a mentor to Victor, he becomes more nervous at a press conference than in the thick of contention on Sunday. His relationship with France is rocky, his interpersonal behaviors can be eccentric, and he seems to have had a mysterious upbringing that involved quitting school sometime between the age of 10 and 12.

Solving this enigma posed a stiff challenge for McGinley. But with time and persistence, by showing up at tournaments and corporate functions where he knew Victor would be present, he broke through the barriers, earned Victor's trust, and conveyed everything he learned to Graeme McDowell. That was the partnership he envisioned -- the whip-smart veteran leader using his experience to nurture the young, dynamic rising star. Soon McDowell was close with Victor, too . . . or at least close enough to make the partnership comfortable. McGinley's hard work paid dividends when the pair dominated Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson Friday afternoon, dealing that American duo their first ever loss in two Ryder Cups.

Their opponents on Saturday were Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler, who had just finished their third 18-hole match in a span of about 30 hours. The Centenary course at Gleneagles is a difficult one to walk, with endless hills and long distances between holes. Adding to their burden, each of Walker and Fowler's matches was an emotional odyssey that ended with a halved match. What's more, Watson put them out last, where they were likely to meet the rested McDowell/Dubuisson duo that played in the same position Friday.

It was only the latest in a series of perplexing decisions by Watson that almost seemed designed to handicap his team. It began the day before he made his captain's picks, when, as the Golf Channel's Jason Sobel reported, he told those close to the process that his final pick was a player other than Webb Simpson (Sobel didn't name the third player). Early the next morning -- as in, 4:30 am early -- Webb Simpson texted Watson in a desperate last minute campaign to earn a place on the team. Watson texted back, and then the two spoke on the phone. Simpson sold himself, and it worked -- Watson changed his mind, Simpson made the team, and the previous pick was out. The impulse decision (this week, Watson has endlessly referred to making decisions with his "gut") backfired almost immediately, when Simpson went out in the Ryder Cup's first match with Bubba Watson -- a move that was hard not to read as the captain trying to justify his pick immediately -- and imploded. He didn't make a single birdie, and things got so bad that he began taking five or six practice swings before every shot. Bubba did his best, but Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson blew them out, 5&4. After Simpson's miserable performance, there was no question of playing him again before Sunday.

Nor did Watson want to go with Bradley and Mickelson, the American stars of the 2012 Ryder Cup. On Friday, the pair beat Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia 1-up in an exciting 18-hole match, and Phil had convinced Watson to let them play the afternoon alternate shot format as well. This went against what the captain had told the team, which was that the afternoon pairings would be determined by who played well in the morning. If that were the case, he would have played Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, the exciting rookie duo who beat Ryder Cup legend Ian Poulter and Scottish crowd favorite Stephen Gallacher in scintillating fashion, 5&4. Following their morning win, the young pair approached Watson wondering what time their afternoon match would tee off, and whether they had time to practice, when the captain broke the news that they'd be sitting out. Shocked and confused, they pleaded their case. Watson wouldn't budge, and Spieth and Reed finally had to accept the edict, but they didn't bother hiding their frustration from Watson, or from the media.

When Mickelson tired that afternoon, and he and Bradley lost to Dubuisson and McDowell, Watson made the reasonable choice to rest them on Saturday morning. But when he prepared to make foursomes pairings later that day, he delivered the surprising message that they wouldn't play in the afternoon, either. As on Friday, Phil appealed to his captain again to let he and Bradley play in the alternate shot session. He even tried a text message plea when the first entreaty failed, but this time, Watson wouldn't be swayed. (Maybe Phil should have had Webb Simpson send the text.) Nor would he play Bubba Watson, who had made six birdies in the morning in a losing effort. His gut told him instead to go with Fowler and Walker, fresh off 54 holes of stressful draws.

By the third hole of the match, it was clear that Jimmy Walker was tired. He hit a shot on that hole that, in McDowell's words, was poor even by amateur standards. The Northern Irishman sensed a deep fatigue in his opponents, and he approached Dubuisson with a simple message: "Let's show these guys how energetic we are. Let's show these guys how up for this we are."

Victor Dubuisson

Dubuisson heeded the advice, and the blitzkrieg was on. By the ninth hole, they were already 5-up on the Americans, who were wilting in the Scottish afternoon. By the 14th hole, it was over.

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In that same Saturday afternoon session, McGinley led with Lee Westwood and Jamie Donaldson. Westwood, one of the great European Ryder Cup players of all time but in the waning stages of his career at age 41, was a captain's pick that surprised many. In late 2012, when McGinley was the presumptive favorite for the captain's position, his chief opponent was Darren Clarke, another Northern Irishman as well as a good friend for whom McGinley had pulled out of the 2006 PGA Championship when Clarke's wife died in order to attend the funeral and support his friend. McGinley was viewed as the natural captain in 2014, and Clarke had even written him a letter saying he wasn't interested in the job. Clarke changed his mind after the 2012 Ryder Cup, and became a candidate for a short period before withdrawing and declaring his support for Colin Montgomerie, stating that he didn't believe McGinley had the appropriate stature to stand opposite Tom Watson. McGinley had never won a major, and only played in three Ryder Cups. (How ironic that sentiment looks now...)

Montgomerie's cause gained support until Rory McIlory came out publicly in favor of McGinley, which prompted a series of endorsements from Luke Donald, Justin Rose, and Ian Poulter. McGinley won the job, but in the time when Clarke was considered an option, Lee Westwood was vocal in his support, comparing Clarke's resume favorably against McGinley's. So when the time came to make captain's picks, and the third and final choice came down to Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, it seemed like a no-brainer -- McGinley would reward loyalty by picking Donald.

Except he didn't. Westwood was pleasantly stunned, and Donald was upset, but McGinley had a plan. And that plan didn't hinge on holding grudges, or letting his judgment be clouded by ego and pride. Like McDowell, he saw Westwood as a bit stronger in the veteran leadership department, and someone he could pair with a Ryder Cup rookie. History was his guide; in previous Cups, Westwood had worked the same magic with rookies like Nicolas Colsaerts and Martin Kaymer.

That rookie this time, it turned out, was Jamie Donaldson, who had suffered through his own drama to make the team. The Welsh 38-year-old had narrowly missed making the Ryder Cup team on points when he failed to get up and down on the 18th hole at the PGA Championship in Valhalla, and when he saw McGinley in the caddie room after his round, he was distraught. The captain told Donaldson he wanted him to make the team, but that it would be tough to pick a rookie, and that he needed to earn his way on. Two days later, they spoke on the phone, and McGinley helped him formulate a plan. Donaldson would go to the Czech Republic to play in the European Tour event and try to earn the $20,000 it would take to make the team. McGinley advised him to play aggressively, to play without fear, and Donaldson heeded his words; not only did he earn the $20,000, he won the tournament.

The unlikely pair, which had delivered a win in the lead-off spot Friday afternoon, were facing Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar, who hadn't played together in any practice rounds in the days leading up to the competition, and were a combined 0-3 up to that point. Like Fowler and Walker, they were playing instead of Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson, and Kuchar was chosen over Bubba Watson, his superior partner from the morning match.

The Europeans won on the 17th hole. "Every credit to Paul for having the confidence to send us out again," said Westwood, referencing their loss in the morning four-ball session. "It was a ballsy move."

"We seem to bring out the best in each other in the foursomes," Donaldson said.

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There are elements a captain can influence, but never completely control. The Europeans were 32 strokes better than the Americans over three days, and while pairings and strategy surely influenced that gap, it's possible that no American captain could have overcome McGinley's preparation and his players' excellence. Then there are other elements, like luck, which are beyond any influence.

Spieth and Reed had been the bright spots for Team USA through two days of struggle, but even their momentum faded as the sun began to set. After leading for most of the back nine, a series of missed putts by Patrick Reed, including a two-footer that lipped out on 16, reduced their lead to a single hole with just 18 to play. Watson and McGinley looked on, knowing that if Europe halved the match on the last hole, with the final point of the day at stake, it would create an almost insurmountable 10-6 deficit for the Americans heading into Sunday singles.

Reed and Kaymer hit straight drives, but Spieth and Rose each put their second into a greenside bunker right of the pin. After Spieth's shot, a strange, half-excited groan could be heard from the stands behind the green. Moments later, on the fairway, American vice captain Andy North stood with both hands on his head, looking on in disbelief -- the ball had somehow stopped just below the back lip, on a downhill lie in the sand, blocked from a direct strike by the grass jutting over the bunker. Reed was forced to attack it sideways, landing the ball far from the pin. Kaymer, in a more reasonable position, put his shot to within five feet. Spieth's putt missed, and after Rose struck his birdie attempt, he turned to his European teammates as the ball dropped and raised his putter in triumph. He had secured a crucial half point as dusk hit Scotland on Saturday night.

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After darkness fell, Tom Watson came into the media room and spent the next 20 minutes trying to rationalize his decisions while downplaying his own accountability. In the rare moments when he seemed to accept a measure of blame, as when he admitted that a fourth straight match for Fowler and Walker was perhaps not the best idea, he immediately shifted the focus back to the players, implying that Walker had disappointed them all by wearing out. One quote in particular displayed Watson at his deflecting best:

"They got a little tired," Watson said. "And that certainly is something that I thought they could handle, and maybe I regret not understanding that they couldn't handle it."

Ryder Cup team

Even as Watson used his players for a shield, he seemed, just like the day before, insistent on following his instincts. "Gut" trumped all. And while some would argue that Watson's unilateral behavior, as well as his stoic, remote quality, was what the team had signed on for and what the "soft" Americans needed after the Medinah collapse, it's hard to imagine that Ted Bishop or anybody else at the PGA of America had anticipated the extent of Watson's distance from his team. Most of the players didn't seem to understand the logic behind his decisions because, as they noted later, he was reluctant to bring them into the fold.

"You know, you can question my decisions on that," he said. "That's fine. But I was making -- I get back to the point, I made the best decisions I possibly could at the time I was making the decisions with the help of my vice captains and my guts. That's what they brought me in as the captain for, to try to make those best decisions."

Yet again, Watson sounded like someone for whom the captaincy solely meant making character judgments based on some inner masculine ethos, like John Wayne wearing plus-fours, rather than a two-year marathon of exhaustive preparations for three days of intense pressure and emotional turmoil. It's no wonder he was roundly criticized in the press and on social media; he seemed to have little sense what a modern Ryder Cup actually entails, or the preparation it requires. And when anyone had the temerity to question his decisions, he became defensive and terse, indignant that someone would suggest to know better.

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Paul McGinley didn't need to rely on his guts. Each time he sent a wave of players out, he was off the course, in constant communication with his vice captains, plotting his next move according to information he had obsessively researched leading up to the Cup along with any new data coming in from the course. Unlike Watson, he knew his players didn't need a cheerleader, and anyway, he had a vice captain for each group in case they did (along with a fifth to stay with the four players who weren't playing and organize their movements). He had spoken all week about a "template" that had been established and carried out on European Ryder Cup teams dating back at least to Sam Torrance's win in the 2002 event. (It was no coincidence that Torrance was one of McGinley's vice captains this year.)

On Wednesday and Thursday, I joked about the template with colleagues, likening it to metaphysical hokum like "The Secret." By Saturday evening, as the contours became clear, I thought it was genius. (Even his main guest speaker last week, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, was chosen because he made a career of winning at home as a favorite -- two qualities shared by this year's European team.) Later, I came to a more measured conclusion -- the template is a fine way to structure a team, but it takes a man with the energy, intelligence, and personal insight to execute it. McGinley was that man and more, a charismatic CEO who has set a standard that future captains may find very difficult to match.

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McGinley's template is notable not for the profundity of its themes, which are as simple as avoiding complacency, having fun, and attacking in waves, but for the comprehensive nature of his planning. This is a man who left no detail unattended, and who engineered even the smallest facets of his plan to serve the themes, encouraging a state of group mind. This included motivational speeches and videos, and even extended to the images that adorned the walls of the team room, projections of strength with captions like, "Passion defined our past -- Attitude will define our future." McGinley was too smart to underestimate the Americans, and knew there were times, as in the morning sessions, when his teams would face adversity. The photos were yet another way, for a man who overlooked no detail, to instill the attitude victory would require.

"One particular one comes to mind is right outside our team room," McGinley explained. "It's a huge big one, probably two meters by three meters. and it's a picture of a European rock in the middle of a raging storm in the ocean. The message underneath is: 'We will be the rock when the storm arrives.'"

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McGinley's hand was behind each of Europe's triumphs, and Watson's shadow darkened every American failure. McGinley operated from a plan that allowed him dynamic flexibility, while Watson was befuddled and scrambling almost from the outset. The more you understood how each decision affected the next, and how a captain's framework influenced his team, the more you came to know the answer to the question: Yes, the captain has an enormous impact on the outcome, and no, it's not an accident that Europe has now won eight of ten Ryder cup matches.

Toward the end of his press conference on Saturday, Watson noted that two previous Ryder Cup teams have overcome 10-6 deficits -- the Americans in Brookline in 1999, and the Europeans just two years ago. He said he believed it could be done again, but his energy was flatlining. He looked and sounded tired. I think -- I hope -- he didn't believe the words himself.

A day later, facing the reality of a 16.5-11.5 blowout, he sat in that same seat, wearing a strained smile as Phil Mickelson attacked his captaincy from six seats away. When asked what worked in Valhalla in 2008, Mickelson pointedly noted that the players were invested in one another, and that Azinger had developed "a real game plan." When the next reporter called this a "brutal destruction" of Watson, Mickelson threw out a half-hearted denial. He was less equivocal when someone asked him if those qualities had been present under Watson.

"Uh..." he began, drawing out the word and allowing himself a pregnant pause as he decided how honest he should be. "No. No, nobody here was in any decision. So, no."

When asked, Watson chalked it up to a difference of opinion, but the room was tense. Next to Mickelson, Hunter Mahan tried to keep from smiling -- a shocked sort of grin, amazed that his teammate had said something so inflammatory in such a public arena -- while Keegan Bradley covered his face. It became more awkward from there. When I asked for Furyk's opinion, describing the exchange between Phil and Watson as a "back-and-forth," Mickelson interjected again: "I don't think the premise of your question is very well stated. I don't think that this has been back and forth."

The subtle jab, and the remarks that came before, were the clearest indication that Watson had lost his players.

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On Sunday, after the singles matches go out, the influence of the captain ebbs to almost nothing. There is no more strategy -- good golf is the be-all and end-all. Unrestrained, the Americans finally played with inspiration, and the scoreboard was a dangerous shade of red. You could feel the anxiety build in the crowd, and for a moment you could allow yourself to believe that the miracle was palpable. At 2:08 pm, I looked at the scores and realized that if every match ended at that point, the final score would be 14-14 -- still enough for the Europeans to retain the cup, but on the verge of tilting to an American lead.

But Graeme McDowell, who McGinley had envisioned in the no. 1 Sunday singles spot even before he became captain, reversed an early three-hole deficit on Jordan Spieth, and the American youngster deflated when his lead was gone, slumping his way to a 2&1 loss. McIlroy, who ensured McGinley's captaincy almost two years earlier, flew out to a six-under start through six holes on the way to annihilating Rickie Fowler 5&4. And after hope faded by 3:00 pm, it was just a matter of guessing who would strike the fatal blow. It turned out to be Jamie Donaldson, whose wedge into the 15th hole stopped on a dime and came to rest a foot from the hole. Walking up to the green, Keegan Bradley saw the ball, took off his hat, and set off a wild celebration from the home crowd and the men in blue.

The storm had come, the rock had survived.