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How Tom Watson's Ryder Cup captaincy really took shape

December 14, 2012

Breaking the mold on American Ryder Cup captaincy, as the PGA of America did with a blockbuster announcement Thursday in New York, all began with the writings of Jim Huber. When a copy of the essayist's book, "Four Days In July," on Tom Watson's mythical run at the Open Championship in 2009, was placed in the hands of Ted Bishop at last year's PGA Grand Slam of Golf, the then-PGA vice president was moved. So was Huber when Bishop called to pitch his idea of Watson in a return engagement as captain, 21 years after leading the United States to its last Cup victory on foreign soil. "The idea is absolutely brilliant," Huber said.

The idea was not only brilliant, so was the execution. Three months after the longtime writer and broadcaster died suddenly and tragically of acute leukemia, 13 months after Bishop presented his idea, Tom Watson stood on the sidewalk outside 30 Rockefeller Center, announced to the world by Matt Lauer on the "Today" show as the next American Ryder Cup captain. Before our eyes, "Four Days in July" became "Three Days in Scotland" with a September 2014 run date.


Photo by Getty Images

At 65 and 22 days when the matches begin, Watson will be the oldest Ryder Cup captain ever, but as Luke Donald the artist painted the word picture on a tweet, we all can't wait to see the Young Tom "rocking his flat cap" once more. Something that Bishop first thought was off the wall has stuck.

Turns out, this was a conversation we'd be having even if Justin Rose didn't make his putt on the 17th green at Medinah, or if Martin Kaymer didn't bury the game winner in the 18th green for Team Europe. For Bishop, it was all about the fit of Watson and Scotland, where he is a kindred spirit, where the people call him "Our Tom." Maybe Watson, the favorite son, adopted with the four claret jugs he won on their sod, will add a Ryder Cup to his treasure chest and go off into the mist with the bagpipes playing and everybody crying with him. Maybe he won't and it will be like Turnberry, but there's not a better ambassador, a better man for the job at this point in history, than the man selected.

Even Larry Nelson and David Toms would have to admit that. The love Watson has for Scotland shows in his eyes and the corners of his mouth simply when he hears the accent. He is a romantic when it comes to the game and the idea of him going back to the site where Walter Hagen played Ted Ray in the 1921 Ryder Cup simply turned him on. At his news conference in the Empire State Building, he quoted the history, waxed about returning to Pershire, and did everything but sing "Scotland The Brave" during his big reveal. I remembered what he said at Turnberry about the game "being a fabric of life over here."

Keep in mind this is more than a feel-good story. Bishop didn't orchestrate this simply as a nostalgia trip or to create a storyline that would keep the audience over here in America for those 4 a.m. wakeup calls to watch golf. Nor did he do it as a knee-jerk reaction to the latest loss by a PGA-generated Ryder Cup team. This had been in the pipeline 11 months before Davis Love's team couldn't hold a four-point Sunday lead in Chicago. Selling the idea to the PGA's officers and rolling it out before Christmas was a game changer without a shot being struck.

If this is anything like 1993, Watson will not lead by committee the way Love did, nor will he shut himself off to feedback and rule like Hogan did in '67. "He won't walk in the (team) room and say, 'Here's the lineup," said his caddie, Neil Oxman. "He won't be a dictator." At the same time, Watson made it clear it's his team, and that "the ultimate decision is mine."

Watson is expected to have the chops Tony Jacklin had with Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer, when he had to cajole them into playing matches when they were tired, as was the case with Phil Mickelson Saturday at Medinah. It's doubtful whether he will bow to Tiger Woods' wishes about moving down on the lineup card to 12th -- as was the case in this year's singles. As Jacklin told me Thursday, "At the end of the day, the captains captain and the players play."

As for being in touch with the young kids, Watson will be playing the Masters, the Open Championship, and the Greenbrier, where he will be bumping into Tiger and all the other superstars on a regular basis over the next two years. If there was a potential friction point to this announcement, it was the Watson-Woods relationship after Tom's critical comments of Tiger's on-course behavior in 2010. That was smoothed over when the Woods camp issued a statement before Watson walked into the Empire State Building. Watson said he stood by his words but that they've both moved on, which appears to be the case.

"If he's not on the team for any unforeseen reason, and I'm sure he will be, you can bet that he's going to be No. 1 on my pick list," Watson said. "I want him on my team."

Always a fan of the gentleman's game, Jim Huber was indirectly a peacemaker, too.