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The Bubba Watson Dilemma


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September 19, 2016

The task force for this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team seemed to have a great idea when it delayed the timing of the fourth and final captain’s pick until after the Tour Championship, effectively waiting until the actual week of the matches at Hazeltine National to choose the 12th man. The move was a full buy-in to the “get the hot player” theory.

The theory might get validated. But at the moment, the “late pick, great pick” goal is suffering from the law of unintended consequences.

Bubba Watson—ranked seventh in the world, the highest Ryder Cup point-getter among non-qualifiers and a winner of two major championships—is not on the American team. No player with the equivalent of that record while in his prime has ever been passed up as a captain’s pick since the European team first employed wild-card choices in 1979, and the Americans followed in 1989. (In 1981, Seve Ballesteros was voted off the European team over a dispute about appearance money.)

If Watson doesn’t get picked this Sunday, damage will be done to his reputation and his image, which suffered a blow when he wasn’t among captain Davis Love III’s initial three picks a week ago, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar and J.B. Holmes instead were chosen. The shunning only made more conspicuous the anonymous 2015 ESPN poll of players in which Watson was chosen the one they would be least likely help in a parking-lot brawl.

Of course, even Watson doesn’t dispute that he’s a hot mess of “issues.” The pure golf narrative against him is that, talented as he is, his flaws could get accentuated in team play. Even though he held it together well enough to close out two majors—claiming a pair of green jackets in 2012 and 2014—Watson is a noticeably nervous player under pressure. In three previous Ryder Cups, he is 3-8-0 (although for what it’s worth, Watson is 5-3-2 in two Presidents Cups). Specifically, it’s his putting that becomes suspect. And in a team-golf sense, he can be viewed as mentally weak and unreliable. In the September issue of Golf Digest, an anonymous European pro says of Watson, “His head is his weakness.”

The interpersonal narrative is that Bubba has a difficult presence. His quirks and idiosyncrasies make him a high-maintenance teammate who does not play well with others and is, potentially, a drag on chemistry.

It seems telling that until Golf World’s Tim Rosaforte asked Love what was the deal with Bubba, none of his peers opined that Watson should be the pick. Because Love has stated that his picks have been adjudicated by committee, perhaps the word is out that the anti-Bubba fix is in.

If Watson doesn’t get picked this Sunday, damage will be done to his reputation and his image, which suffered a blow when he wasn’t among captain Davis Love III’s initial three picks a week ago. Not that Watson’s reputation is Love’s first priority. Winning the Ryder Cup is.

Love has used diplomacy to disabuse that idea. “I literally told him the other day, ‘We love you, Bubba,’ ” he told Rosaforte. “It’s about pairings. Reason why he wasn’t in the first three didn’t have anything to do with personality, it has to do with golf pairings. We picked guys to fit, now pick another guy to fit.” Pretty words, but if Love doesn’t choose Watson, it means he was deemed a bad fit.

After his first three choices basically followed the point standings, Love might feel obliged to the task force’s presumed mission statement to do something out of the box.

On the other hand, it’s possible he has intended to pick Watson all along, but is keeping his options open in case someone else does something truly spectacular at the Tour Championship. It would help explain Love’s odd comment that “I told Bubba after the Olympics, ‘Remember, there’s a pick after the Tour Championship.” Perhaps not picking Watson, who hasn’t had a top 10 since March, was designed for him to feel some urgency to earn his spot with 11th-hour good play.

Not that Watson’s reputation is Love’s first priority. Winning the Ryder Cup is. His charge is to choose whomever he and his brain trust deem will give the U.S. team the best chance to win for the first time since 2008.

The problem is that Love’s alternatives—for all of Watson’s presumed negatives—can’t really be argued to be better choices. Based on the non-team members Love invited to the practice session he’s hosting today at Hazeltine, Watson’s competition is Daniel Berger, Justin Thomas and Jim Furyk. Unless one of the three is at least a runner-up at the Tour Championship (which Furyk can’t be since he’s not in the field), and Watson plays poorly, they should not get the pick over Watson.

Furyk is a stalwart, a leader, a much-respected future Hall of Famer. But he’s 46, has won once in the past six years and would bring an overall Ryder Cup record of 10-20-4. His notable intangibles will still be conferred in his role as vice-captain.

As for Berger and Thomas, both are talented, aggressive 23-year-olds, each with one PGA Tour victory. Berger in particular is a feisty competitor. Much has been made by the task force of building a foundation for the future by getting young players “into the rotation.” But who is to say where a player’s game is in two years? Certainly Anthony Kim looked to be the future when, at 23, he was arguably America’s best player at the 2008 Ryder Cup. In professional golf, two years is a long time.

If Watson doesn’t get picked, it will be historic. In 1995, Lanny Wadkins passed on a two-time major winner (and acknowledged loose cannon) in the then 29-year-old John Daly, choosing instead Curtis Strange. But even though a past-his-prime (but seemingly in form) Strange lost a crucial singles match in the Americans’ defeat at Oak Hill, Wadkins has no regrets, saying that he was considering Lee Janzen and Payne Stewart and others before Daly.

In 1999, European captain Mark James left off Nick Faldo, making no secret of his view that Faldo was unpopular with his peers. But Faldo, although the leading European at the time in Ryder Cup appearances and points, was clearly passed his prime, having plummeted in the world ranking after winning his final tournament in 1997. Although James might have been disrespectful in his comments, Faldo’s legacy as a player was beyond reproach. James also passed on another 42-year-old future Hall of Famer, Bernhard Langer, choosing Andrew Coltart and Jesper Parnevik before losing at Brookline.

There are some parallels between Watson’s situation and Sandy Lyle’s in 1989. Lyle had won the Masters for his second major in 1988, when he had also reached No. 1 in the world. He began 1989 nicely, with two runner-ups and a third on the PGA Tour through February, and was still No. 2 in the world. But then, inexplicably, the bottom fell out on the then-31-year-old Scot. Lyle continued to play so poorly, he didn’t qualify for the Ryder Cup team. And when captain Tony Jacklin offered him a captain’s pick, Lyle, despite Jacklin’s urging, declined.

Watson, who was No. 2 in the world in February, is certainly not declining. He has said repeatedly that representing America at the Rio Olympics (which he did) and the Ryder Cup were his main goals in 2016.

Captain’s picks aren’t called wild cards for nothing. In some ways, there are no right or wrong choices, because form in golf—and especially in the Ryder Cup—is so capricious. Bubba Watson deserves to be picked, but perhaps losing at Hazeltine has become so unacceptable that the American team is discarding tradition and living by Clint Eastwood’s line in “Unforgiven”: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Sept. 19, 2016 issue of Golf World.