There seems to be debate about whether Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson would be good Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup captains, or even should be.
Of course, they would be. And should be.
Why? It’s simple. Because they are Tiger and Phil. On that basis alone, they each – to use the verb of the moment - “deserve” the jobs.
They are icons. Players of all ages remain in awe of their records. In the end, peers know better than anyone the full extent of a player’s accomplishments, and on that most important basis, Woods and Mickelson command immense respect. It’s always an honor to make a team. But playing on the first team captained by Tiger or Phil would be a special honor – and a motivator.
Saying Woods and Mickelson are undeserving of the position - by virtue of not having shown enough passion or leadership qualities on past teams – seems to be based on making little stuff more important than big stuff.
It also shouldn’t be ignored that both players would create two years worth of buzz for any team they were chosen to captain. The selling of the Ryder Cup, and especially the Presidents Cup, should not be taken for granted.
But first and foremost, being chosen as a captain is a reward, a thank you, a tribute from being one the game’s greats, and frankly, the greater the better. It was thus for Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, and yes, in the ill-fated last Ryder Cup, for Tom Watson.
Having been a great player is not necessarily, or even probably, an indicator of managerial skill. In team sports, it’s rarely the Hall of Famer who makes the exceptional manager or coach, but more likely the second string catcher, backup point guard or journeyman offensive lineman.
And especially in golf, great players are usually hardwired to be highly individualistic. They tend to lack empathy, lean toward ruthlessness, and keep their own counsel - lone wolves. Even if they are not so by nature, the most gifted players soon enough find out that such qualities are assets in tournament golf, and adjust accordingly.
It’s been the predominant personality-type of U.S. Ryder Cup captains. Even lesser gods like Jackie Burke, Raymond Floyd, Tom Kite, Curtis Strange, Paul Azinger and Corey Pavin fit the bill. As Trevino once thoughtfully generalized about his brethren, “We’re all hard bastards.”
This is why the PGA of America’s Ryder Cup Task Force – with its implied collaborative CEO-type job description - seems off key to me. I’m sorry, but soft-hearted types like Davis Love, Jay Haas and Tom Lehman are the exceptions. And each of those admirable people have at times wished they were at least slightly harder bastards.
The need for a natural manager as captain would make sense if leadership were required over a full season and longer. But for all the hype about a two-year run-up, sorry, it’s one week. Yes, a lot of thinking goes into pairings, but no past captain in an honest moment wouldn’t admit that those decisions amount to a crapshoot. Some player input is fine, but in the end the buck stops with the captain, period. And beyond that, this is golf. The big decisions take place in the moment, inside each player’s head.
In the immediate aftermath of last year’s Ryder Cup, I was almost swayed by the argument that Paul McGinley masterminded the European victory. But with time, and after his umpteenth televised victory lap, I’m back to my old position. In no other sport does the term “just roll the ball out” apply more than to a team golf captain.
Saying Woods and Mickelson are undeserving of the position by virtue of not having shown enough passion or leadership qualities on past teams – seems to be based on making little stuff more important than big stuff.
No doubt the pairs’ collective pre-match behavior hasn’t always been by the book. At times, they have each acted as if they were bigger than the event (which particularly in the case of Woods, wasn’t that far off). But once the bell rang, they played hard. Perhaps not with the same edge that they brought to a major championship, but what past great did? To say Woods’ Ryder Cup record of 13-17-3 and Mickelson’s 16-19-6 are embarrassments or indicators of apathy is an unreasonable leap.
Finally, I think they would both be good captains, Woods in particular. He has never been a vocal leader, but his on-course example has often been an inspiration. Despite the fact that most players saw their performance suffer when they paired with him, there’s no sentiment that Woods isn’t a genial and even fun playing partner. My guess is that he would be terse in the team room, building consensus among his assistant captains and key players, and then make firm decisions. Not being able to delegate the delivering of bad news might be an unaccustomed challenge, but one that at 40-plus Woods could handle.
Mickelson is the more interesting case. Yes, he’s become a leader among the young guns, but in large part because he enjoys staying in close touch with the little boy within. Rather than reverence, Mickelson engenders a loose camaraderie, which as a captain could be a double-edged sword. His more offbeat ideas would might elicit some good natured derision in the team room, harmless in a winning environment, but perhaps doubt-inducing if things went south. His more public style would expose his tenure to criticism in a loss, even – sardonic or worse - from his own players. What goes around comes around.
And let’s not forget, both Woods and Mickelson have been closely involved with the ongoing machinations of the task force. That alone shows a degree of passion. They have each have demonstrated they care more now than ever about team competitions, and along with their innate qualifications, that’s more than enough to serve multiple stints as captains.