BY the time Tom Watson had reached the top of the Empire State Building for a photoshoot yesterday afternoon, his appointment as the 2014 United States Ryder Cup captain had been praised by almost as many people as the 102 floors in the iconic New York building.
They were united in hailing the bold move by the PGA of America as being “exciting” for the event at Gleneagles and, although it may also be a gamble by a country that is clearly hurting after losing seven of its last nine jousts with Europe, Watson is no ordinary old age pensioner.
Even though the likes of Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson, two potential members of his team at Perthshire, weren’t even born when Watson recorded the last of his eight major titles at Royal Birkdale in 1983, the one thing them and others won’t lack when it comes to dealing with the new US captain is respect.
“I was a little surprised to hear that Tom was named as captain this morning,” US-based Martin Laird told The Scotsman last night. “Not that I don’t think he will be a good captain but because the PGA of America have gone a different route than they normally do with their captain selections. They obviously feel like they need to shake things up a little bit after their Ryder Cup results the last 12 or so years.
“I think that the US players will like the choice. From seeing him interact with all the players when he is at Tour events or plays at The Open, it is clear that he still has a strong connection with the current players and that they really respect him. I think he is a captain whose record is so incredible and he is still such a good player in his 60s that players will really want to perform for him. I know if I was on a team with someone like Tom as the captain I sure would listen to what he had to say, he has so much experience you can only learn from it.”
Paul Lawrie, a member of Europe’s winning team at Medinah this year, described Watson’s appointment as “a bit of a surprise but a good one from Team USA’s point of view” while it also drew praise from Bernard Gallacher, his opposite number during his first stint as captain at The Belfry in 1993, and Colin Montgomerie, who led Europe to victory at Celtic Manor two years ago. “It is a surprise but also a very clever appointment,” said Gallacher, who lost that encounter at the Sutton Coldfield venue 15-13 before leading Europe to glory at Oak Hill two years later. “The USPGA obviously decided they needed a bit of experience over in Scotland. The Ryder Cup has become very important to America – Medinah was a complete sell-out – and it’s an event that they want to win.
“Also Tom Watson will keep the Ryder Cup on the front page of the golfing press for the next couple of years. All in all, Tom Watson is going to be good for the Ryder Cup.”
Montgomerie echoed that view but also highlighted how Watson’s record in Scotland – he recorded four of his five Open Championships in the home of golf, including the infamous Duel in the Sun with Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 – would bring its own pressure at Gleneagles.
“What happens if he fails?” said the eight-times European No 1. “He has to win now. If he doesn’t succeed at Gleneagles what’s going to happen in 2016? There is a lot of pressure on Tom Watson, but he can handle that – I’m sure he can. I wish him well.
“Since his achievement in 2009, how close he came to winning The Open again, he’s even more respected now. It will be a task for anybody to take on Tom Watson because he is very well respected, very well liked and loved here in Scotland.”
Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open champion, is the bookmakers’ favourite to be handed the unenviable task of taking on Watson, closely followed by Paul McGinley, with a decision on the European captaincy expected to be announced during next month’s HSBC Golf Championship in Dubai.
While the event’s return to Scotland for the first time since 1973 was never going to be hard for the marketing men to sell, their job has certainly been made a lot easier over the last few weeks. First Europe staged an incredible last-day fightback at Medinah to retain the trophy and now Watson, who is revered in Scotland, is heading here as the US captain.
“I can think of no-one better to represent the US team when the Ryder Cup returns to the home of golf,” said First Minister Alex Salmond in offering his congratulations to Watson. “Tom is, in the truest sense of the word, a golfing legend and someone who will always hold a special place in the hearts of the Scottish golfing public. Tom has always felt at home in Scotland and he will be welcomed back with open arms in September 2014.”
Mike Cantlay, chairman of VisitScotland, predicted Watson will receive the “warmest of welcomes” at Gleneagles even though he’ll be trying to take the Ryder Cup back across the Atlantic with him. “Golf fans the world over have travelled to Scotland looking to emulate his legendary performances on our historic courses and his appointment as US captain is a terrific one, not only for the US team and the PGA of America, but for Scotland as well,” he added.
Bernard Murphy, Gleneagles’ general manager, is hoping some of the magic Watson has produced as a player over the years will rub off on the 2014 event on the PGA Centenary Course. “He is obviously well-known for some dramatic performances on Scottish soil, so we hope his team will bring some of that excitement to the matches at Gleneagles,” he said. “With his track record, he’ll prove a tough man to beat but we’re sure the European team will relish the challenge.”