Martin Dempster: Couples’ strategy a tip for Watson

Fred Couples. Picture: Getty
Fred Couples. Picture: Getty
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TOM Watson is likely to leave no stone unturned in his bid to vindicate being re-appointed as Ryder Cup captain. Yet, it was surprising to hear Fred Couples reveal during a chat at the Dubai Desert Classic that he’d not been contacted by the great man thus far as the countdown clock to Gleneagles starts to tick louder by the day.

Okay, so Watson is his own man. In fact, just about every Ryder Cup captain over the past decade or so, both European and American, has seemed intent on doing the job squarely on their beliefs and principles rather than leaning on past experiences, either good or bad, of predecessors.

At a time when the United States – the event, too, it could be argued – badly needs a victory, having tasted defeat in seven of the last nine matches, it seems madness that Couples’ input would be wasted heading into the event’s first staging in Scotland since the 1973 joust at Muirfield.

We are talking, after all, about the man that has led the Americans to three successive Presidents Cup wins, the latest coming at Muirfield Village, and, therefore, knows better than anyone what it takes to get Uncle Sam’s boys to transfer their undoubted individual ability into a team environment. Intriguingly, Couples revealed he’d got the best out of his players by effectively becoming a text pest to the likes of Jordan Spieth. Instead of talking to them on the phone, he bombarded with them with text messages to try and figure out their mindset.

“I’m a big texter so I’d text them and, if they answered, I’d tease them for 30 minutes. And, after 30 minutes of getting them to tell me stuff via texts, it was very easy to figure, for example, that Spieth was ready to go and he liked Steve Stricker and Steve Stricker liked him,” he said. “If I’d been talking to Spieth, he’s not going to tell me he’s nervous or doesn’t want to play with this or that guy. But, if you text them enough, they are bound to say something useful.”

A perennial problem for the American captain in Ryder Cups has been trying to find a partner for Tiger Woods, the task having delivered only mild success and, in the case of Hal Sutton’s decision to pair him with Phil Mickelson for the opening session at Oakland Hills in 2004, spectacular failure.

On the back of them gelling so well in that most recent Presidents Cup win, though, it seems inevitable that Woods will have Matt Kuchar at his side stepping on to the first tee in Perthshire, while the same surely goes for Mickelson and Keegan Bradley after they were largely responsible for putting the Americans in the winning position they ultimately blew in the last Ryder Cup.

“I’m pretty sure Woods/Kuchar and Mickelson/Bradley will play every match at Gleneagles, though that might depend on whether Phil or Tiger wants a rest,” noted Couples, who said his own winning formula was more down to decisions taken by the players themselves than him.

“I don’t choose pairings – the players have come to me to tell me who’d they like to play with,” he added. “As soon as two players agree they want to play together, that makes a good team.”

Using his own friendship with Davis Love as an example, he went on: “Him and I didn’t play that many matches together and that’s very weird to me. But we were younger then and didn’t have the guts to say ‘we need to play together’ to guys like Ray Floyd, Hale Irwin and even Tom Watson.

“With me, I tell the players ‘if you are mad at me tell me; if you have a suggestion let me know what it is’. But that certainly doesn’t make me a better captain than anyone else.”

Couples described Watson as “totally different” to him in terms of approach to a captaincy but is adamant the golfing senior citizen’s appointment is “no gamble” on behalf of the PGA of America.

“Whereas I can’t change and be serious and kinda strict and stern, Tom Watson is more of a serious student of everybody,” he opined. “I think he’s going to think he knows most of the players, but it’s going to be hard because I don’t know how many he really, really knows. But he’s got a few months to go to tournaments and I’m sure he will have a few dinners and meet the guys, get to know them and figure out what to do.”

Watson will have it figured out, for sure, and so, too, according to Couples, will Woods by the time the Masters comes around in just under two months’ time. The world No 1 may have made his worst start to a season since turning pro in 1997 but one of his closest friends insists it’s way too early for Woods to be concerned about his game.

“Is he playing his best? No. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out,” admitted Couples. “But, if he gets to Doral, Bay Hill and Augusta and if he’s not playing good in those, then I would be shocked.

“It’s so easy to pick on him because you guys are doing what you’re supposed to do – you’re talking about the best player in the world. Just give him a little room and come Augusta, Sunday night – if he doesn’t play well – then you can say all of these things he didn’t do and the swing is not right. But it will be right.”