Interview: Tom Watson, veteran US Ryder Cup captain

The veteran US Ryder Cup captain is relishing the chance to test his leadership skills in his beloved Scotland. Picture: Getty
The veteran US Ryder Cup captain is relishing the chance to test his leadership skills in his beloved Scotland. Picture: Getty
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MY FRUSTRATION was growing. I’d just sent a second text message in less than 24 hours to an unheralded Scottish golfer requesting an interview when the email landed in my inbox. “Do you have a phone number where Tom Watson can reach you shortly?” it read.

The message had been sent by the five-time Open champion’s management company in Kansas in reply to a request, made through the PGA of America, for an interview with Watson. The wheels had been set in motion the same time the first of those two texts was sent and here, in total contrast to my other target, was a golfing legend waiting on the other end of the phone to give his first interview to a Scottish media outlet since he was appointed as the American captain for next year’s Ryder Cup in the home of golf.

Watson was on holiday in Hawaii. “I’ll send some sunshine over to you,” he said at the end of our conversation, having remembered I’d told him, as we exchanged pleasantries at the start, that it had been a bitterly cold day in his beloved Scotland.

That’s one of the great man’s many qualities. He may be the person being interviewed, but he also listens. He’s also as illuminating as ever, never one to waste words, unlike, for example, Padraig Harrington, who can be just as interesting at times but takes an eternity to get his message across. Watson words are always meaningful. There’s no beating about the bush, either. It’s been his way throughout an illustrious career and he’s not going to change now.

It is down to change, though, that the first Ryder Cup to be held in Scotland since the 1973 match at Muirfield – Watson made the first of four playing appearances in the event four years later at Royal Lytham – will have the welcome bonus of him leading the Americans into battle in Perthshire against a European side that will have Irishman Paul McGinley as its captain for the latest instalment of the inter-continental contest.

On the back of five defeats in the last seven matches, the PGA of America, with recently-installed president Ted Bishop the driving force behind the move, ripped up its ‘rule’ book for the US captaincy. David Toms, a fortysomething former major winner, had been mentioned for the 2014 post. So, too, had Larry Nelson, a three-time major champion and reckoned to be Uncle Sam’s equivalent of Sandy Lyle when it comes to being overlooked for the Ryder Cup captaincy. Bishop, though, felt drastic action was required. Watson, the last American to taste victory on European soil – at The Belfry in 1993 – got the call and gladly hauled his captaincy coat out of the wardrobe.

He’ll be 65 when the encounter comes around on the PGA Centenary Course on 26-28 September next year. He’ll overtake John Henry Taylor, who was 62 when he performed the role for Great Britain in 1933, as the oldest captain. Watson will also be eight years older than previous American record-holder Sam Snead, who was in charge as the two sides played out a draw in 1969. Yet, ever since his appointment was announced at a news conference held in New York’s Empire State Building just before Christmas, there hasn’t been a negative word uttered about a person of that age potentially being out of touch with some of his players.

Honest man that he is, Watson is the first to admit there are some names on the PGA Tour at the moment that are less familiar to him than others. By the time next year’s match comes around, though, he plans to know everything about all 12 of the men in his team down to the finest of details. “Since my appointment, I have been looking a little bit more closely at the tournaments that these young players are playing in,” he said. “To be frank with you, I am trying to get to know these players a little bit better than I have in the past. It is part of the process of finding out who the best players are out there.

“The way I look at it just now is that it is too early to make decisions on anything, ie my vice captains, and certainly when it comes to my player picks. I have a variety of people I have in mind for vice captains at the moment, but it’s too early to tell. However, the process of trying to get to know my players either through watching them on television or reading their profiles in Tour manuals, finding out who they are and what interests they have, is certainly under way and I’ve found that to be very interesting. It’s been a good process and I’ve enjoyed it.”

Russell Henley, a rookie winner of the Sony Open in Hawaii last month, may have been a player that Watson needed to do some digging about, but the last three victors of PGA Tour events needed no introduction. Tiger Woods re-affirmed his ownership of Torrey Pines by winning the Farmers Insurance Open for a record seventh time; Phil Mickelson responded to that by delivering a popular Phoenix Open victory the following week; then, after finishing second in both those events, Brandt Snedeker, last year’s FedEx Cup winner, got his reward for persistence by prevailing in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am last weekend.

“I was encouraged by the fact both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson won on successive weekends and I tweeted my congratulations to both of them for their great wins and good play,” revealed Watson of the duo who have enjoyed enormous individual success yet have failed to provide the vital spark for the Americans in the Ryder Cup. “I was impressed by both of their golf swings in those tournaments. I thought they were both very sound.

“As for how important they might be to my team at Gleneagles, that will depend on how they are playing at that time. The whole Ryder Cup process is about trying to get players playing their best that week. As the captain, I want 
to have all 12 of my players heading to Scotland playing their best golf. Of course, that hasn’t happened enough for the US in recent matches. Too many of our players haven’t been on their game and when that’s the case it’s the job of 
the captain to determine how you play those players.”

In the eyes of the game’s purists, it will be a sacrilege that the first Ryder Cup to be held in Scotland for more than 40 years is not taking place on a links course. Given Watson’s love affair with seaside golf in this country, it would certainly have been apt if it had been at somewhere like Turnberry, scene of his ‘Duel in the Sun’ with Jack Nicklaus in the 1977 Open Championship and where he came heartbreakingly close to becoming the event’s oldest champion at 59 four years ago, or Carnoustie, Muirfield and Royal Troon, the other Scottish venues where he claimed the Claret Jug. “There are about a dozen links courses I could choose,” admitted a diplomatic Watson.

Instead, he’ll be trying to win back the Ryder Cup on an inland course designed by Nicklaus, his old adversary. Watson will be picking his brains to learn everything about it but, even then, he is resigned to the fact his players will be at a major disadvantage due to the fact the Europeans have been playing the PGA Centenary Course in what is now the Johnnie Walker Championship for the last 15 years.

“I’ll be with Jack and, of course, I will try to glean as much information from him about the course as I can,” he said. “I need to do that to try and give our team as much help as possible. But the European team always has an advantage going into matches over there because, very intelligently in my opinion, they have staged the Ryder Cup at European Tour event venues. The players themselves have been able to play the venue a number of times in tournament conditions and in a variety of weather conditions, too. That has certainly helped give the European team an advantage.

“I will certainly mention to my players the possibility of coming to play the course before the match itself. It’s maybe a little too early this year to do that but maybe next year. It’s not necessarily worked for us in the past when players have come over early and played the Ryder Cup course in advance of the event. But I will certainly mention the fact that if players are up in the area then why don’t they go and play the PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles.”

There’s a chance that Watson will do that himself during the week of this summer’s Open Championship, though his first official engagement for the 2014 joust will be an event in September to mark the Ryder Cup being a full year away. That is likely to be the first time he comes face-to-face with McGinley since their respective appointments because, as things stand, the Irishman is unlikely to qualify for the world’s oldest major this year.

“I’ve not been in direct contact with Paul since he was appointed,” said Watson, who congratulated his opposite number via Twitter seconds after he was given the nod ahead of Colin Montgomerie, Lyle, Paul Lawrie and Miguel Angel Jimenez after they were all considered by the European Tour’s tournament committee in Abu Dhabi last month. “It would be nice if we could get together at this year’s Open Championship at Muirfield but, if not, we will definitely be getting together at Gleneagles later in the year to promote the event and I’m looking forward to that.”

McGinley is well aware of the affinity Watson holds with Scottish golf fans. It has even been suggested that, with Watson as captain and the circumstances of his appointment when most sportsmen his age would be shunning a return to the spotlight in the third biggest event on the sporting calendar, some of them might be rooting, inwardly at least, for an American victory at the north end of Glen Devon. The man himself, however, reckons that definitely won’t be the case.

“I’ve had a few messages of congratulations since my appointment from some of my Scottish friends, but when it comes to the Ryder Cup I am sure the people over there will be pulling for the European team,” said Watson. “I just hope my team is playing well and that we can make it a match – with us winning. But I don’t expect the European fans will be pulling for my team because of me – despite the fact I know I have such a strong affinity with the Scottish fans in particular. I love the way the game of golf is lived and played in Scotland. I always have. The home fans pulling strongly for their team is part of the contest and I have no delusions that it will be anything but that way at Gleneagles.”