TOM Watson has received his fair share of compliments over the years when it comes to the home of golf but the ultimate one, surely, was delivered by his third and final vice-captain selection for next month’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
Having just been unveiled by Watson to join Andy North and Raymond Floyd on his backroom team for the biennial contest, Steve Stricker was asked by The Scotsman to outline why he believed the five-times Open champion was the man to improve an American record of just one victory over Europe in the last six matches.
“When you think of Tom Watson, the first thing that comes to mind is respect,” replied the 47-year-old, who played on the winning US team here at Valhalla in 2008 before experiencing the other side of the coin at Celtic Manor two years later as well as Medinah in 2012.
“The second thing is we are going over to Scotland and Tom is Mr Scotland himself. He’s one of them over there. So I think it was a great choice by Ted (PGA of America president Ted Bishop) and the PGA and I know as players we will all look up to Tom.
“I think the players will rally behind Tom and I’m looking forward to be part of it. It was an honour for him to call me. What happened the last time (Europe equalling the record last-day fightback to claim a sensational 14½-13½ victory) still stings me and to have the opportunity to get the Ryder Cup back and to play for Tom is a dream come true for all the guys.”
Asked how it felt to be described as “Mr Scotland”, Watson jokingly said: “If I am, I can’t understand the language. But I love it there and I love the way they love the game.”
As Watson prepares to become the event’s oldest captain – he will be 65 by the time the match comes around – he doesn’t have his troubles to seek. Dustin Johnson, who won three points out of three in 2012, has already been ruled out as he takes a break from the game to deal with “personal issues”. Then there’s Tiger Woods’ injury issues and worries now as well over Jason Dufner over neck problems.
Heading into the 96th PGA Championship, the final qualifying event for nine automatic spots, Watson also has both Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley in positions where they will need captain’s picks if they don’t produce strong performances this week.
Despite all of that, however, Watson is still relishing the prospect of taking up the reins again for the first time since he led the Americans to victory at The Belfry in 1993 – their last triumph on European soil.
“From the beginning of the year, people have asked me how much work it has been to be Ryder Cup captain,” he said. “And I say, ‘it really has not been any work at all. It’s been a joy’. And the joy has been to be able to walk up to these guys on the team or trying to make the team and getting to know them.
“When we go over to Scotland (on 22 September), I’d like to be able to understand who these players are, what their likes and dislikes are, and it’s been fun to get to know a lot of these players for the first time.
“The Ryder Cup has been a very large part of my life. Growing up, I really used to look forward to it, to watch it, to listen to the aftermath of it. Some of the legendary stories, such as Brian Barnes beating Jack Nicklaus twice on the same day (at Laurel Valley in 1975). That was part of my love for the game and part of my love for the Ryder Cup.”
Watson’s popularity in Scotland would appear to be the only positive thing going for him just now, but his opposite number reckons that opinion would be disrespectful to the American captain and his players.
“I think Tom Watson has a lot of strings to his bow,” insisted Paul McGinley. “He’s been a magnificent golfer and won a lot of major championships, the majority of them in Scotland.
“But there’s also integrity in him as a human being. Everybody likes Tom Watson and he is going to be a very popular figure in Scotland, there’s no doubt about that. We will respect him very much as a team and the crowd will respect him, too. But we are under no illusions how strong America are going to be – we know that we are going to be in a real battle against them and particularly Tom Watson.”
That said, Stricker’s opening remark after sitting down beside Watson summed up the belief that things are not going to plan for one of the game’s legends. “I don’t like that all these guys are showing up hurt or leaving the Tour for personal issues,” admitted the newly-appointed vice-captain.