America’s Tour breeding ‘fat and happy’ also-rans

American captain Tom Watson, front left, was by all accounts a non-speaking skipper, but the visitors were also hampered by a golfing culture where players have no financial need to win tournaments. Photograph: Ian Rutherford
American captain Tom Watson, front left, was by all accounts a non-speaking skipper, but the visitors were also hampered by a golfing culture where players have no financial need to win tournaments. Photograph: Ian Rutherford
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Let’s be honest. The 40th episode of golf’s most addictive soap opera will not go down in history as one of its most memorable episodes.

The play, with one or two notable exceptions, tended towards really good rather than great. The spectators – those able to see past the self-important throng of Z-list “celebrities,” past-it sportsmen, off-duty marshalls, family members, “officials” and politicians gathered between punters and players – conducted themselves with decorum rather than delirium. And, armed with a noticeably superior squad, the European side widely tipped to win the Ryder Cup for the eighth time in the last ten matches duly did so with a wee bit to spare.

Perhaps the only surprise was that, having proved over and over they don’t know how to win, the visiting Americans, “led” by former Open champion Phil Mickelson, showed they don’t know how to lose either. While it would be hard to dispute anything on the lengthy list of disparaging points “Lefty” made about the shortcomings of his captain, Tom Watson, his choice of time and place was questionable at best. If only because of his stature in the game and his reputation in Scotland, the five-times Open champion deserved better than public humiliation.

What those uncomfortable few minutes did expose was the wide schism – long suspected but always denied – within your typical US Ryder Cup team. In total contrast to the cheerful togetherness of the Europeans, the visitors were revealed as little more than a disparate and dejected group of individuals thrown together for a bit of golf. On the face of it, their collective treatment of their isolated skipper – not one player spoke up on Watson’s behalf either during or after that fateful press conference – was both cruel and unusual in a game that prides itself on a peerless etiquette.

As ever though, there are two sides to every tale. The harsh reality is that Watson is a man with many hard edges. In common with the vast majority of those who have risen to be the best golfer on the planet, the 65-year-old Kansan is a difficult guy to like.

Judgmental. Unforgiving. Confrontational. Defensive. All descriptions easily applied to Watson, the sort of guy who regularly writes inane and largely pointless letters of complaint to local newspapers: “Dear Mister Editor, with regard to the angle at which Rickie Fowler wears his baseball cap…”

“Hard to know” can also be added to the list above. By all accounts, America’s non-playing captain was a non-speaking skipper. For the 12 men under his command, especially the younger members, Watson’s reticence must have been disconcerting at a time when, far from home, they all needed to be on the same wavelength.

Still, this latest US defeat cannot be solely attributed to the captain’s inability to understand how the role has evolved over the more than two decades since he led his nation to victory at the Belfry in 1993. It certainly isn’t necessary to go over any Ryder Cup with a jeweller’s loop when the better team wins. Europe clearly owned the very best players on the premises, a fact that surely supercedes any nonsense perpetrated by the opposing captain.

But changes need to be made across the Atlantic if the most exciting event in all of golf is not to subside into the realms of foregone conclusion. Somehow or other, the American players have to be more engaged, not just for the three days of matches but in the weeks and months beforehand. Right now every time a European golfer utters the words, “Ryder Cup”, his US counterpart is invariably saying “Fed-Ex Cup”. One is played for with pride and passion, the other is but a grotesque and unsightly money-grab.

Ah yes, money – the root of all mediocrity. Think on this little gem. Since the PGA Tour changed from 60 all-exempt players to 125, the US has won but four of 15 Ryder Cups. The biggest and wealthiest tour in golf is breeding a generation of “fat and happy” players who, generally speaking, feel no pressing financial need to win tournaments.

Not that the estimable Jim Furyk is either fat or (outwardly) happy on the course, but the former US Open champion played at Gleneagles in his ninth Ryder Cup as his side’s highest-ranked player – having last won an event as many as four years before. The conclusion is clear. For too many of Uncle Sam’s preening and pampered nephews, finishing eighth every week provides a level of comfort and complacency that far outweighs greater ambition.

Which brings us to Paul Azinger, the only winning US captain in this century and the man Mickelson praised to the heavens late last Sunday evening. Will the former USPGA champion return to lead his troops into battle at Hazeltine two years hence? Don’t bet on it. If the high heid-yins at the PGA of America behave true to form, they will not listen to Mickelson and are, in fact, more likely to do exactly the opposite of what the 44-year-old Californian suggests.

Besides, Steve Stricker represents an option just as attractive. As was so obviously the case with Paul McGinley, this 46-year-old native of Wisconsin is liked by almost everyone on his home circuit. Like McGinley, he is an astute tactician – it was Stricker who urged Watson to pair Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler at Gleneagles. Like McGinley, his playing career is all but over. And, unlike the distant OAP that was Watson, Stricker would remain well known to those in the 2016 side. That’s a lot of pluses.

All of which is not to suggest that everything is hunky-dory in the European camp. Behind the great job done by the outgoing skipper lurk a few home truths, not least the already imminent selection of McGinley’s successor. With Darren Clarke – a more than worthy candidate – the ante-post favourite, the “record” of the European Tour when it comes to this appointment is murky indeed.

The numbers are not pretty. One especially. Should the big Ulsterman win the vote made by the three immediate past-captains (McGinley, Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie), George O’Grady, the chief executive of the European Tour and a representative of the Tour Committee, it will mean that, since the continental Europeans came on board in 1979, there will have been 16 captains from Great Britain & Ireland and only three from outside these islands. Those figures fail miserably to reflect the bigger picture. While 39 per cent of European Ryder Cup players since 1979 have been continentals, only 16 per cent of the captains have not been British or Irish. Do I hear the word “bias”?

For now, however, we must celebrate a fine overall performance from the home side at Gleneagles. With the so-called “Mister Ryder Cup,” Ian Poulter, not much more than a passenger, with the world No.1 playing well but unable to win more than twice in five games and with Caledonia’s own Stephen Gallacher losing both his matches, Europe still romped to a five-point victory. Only briefly was the eventual result ever in doubt. And that, more than anything, was perhaps the most disappointing part of this whole affair. Come on America – buck up.