Ryder Cup: Watson quick to back Woods in rules row

ONE of the few brave enough in the past to put his head above the parapet and aim criticism at Tiger Woods, Tom Watson now appears to be adopting a more tolerant attitude to the world No 1 in his role as the American Ryder Cup captain.

Tom Watson insists Tiger Woods was a leader for the US at Medinah. Picture: Jane Barlow

At Gleneagles yesterday as the “Year to Go” celebrations concluded with a joint press conference with Watson and Paul McGinley, the American skipper declined to criticise Woods for his three rules violations this season or his relaxed attitude at the end of last year’s match at Medinah.

There, with Europe having already retained the trophy after staging a record-equalling last-day fightback, Woods conceded a putt to gift Francesco Molinari a half in the final singles, costing bookmakers a small fortune in the process as the match ended 14½-13½ to Jose Maria Olazabal’s team, instead of a draw.

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Watson said: “Personally, I probably wouldn’t have done that as I’m trying to win my match.” Watson went on to use one of the biennial event’s iconic moments – Jack Nicklaus conceding a putt to Tony Jacklin to ensure the 1969 match at Royal Birkdale ended in a share of the spoils – to illustrate that Woods was perhaps acting in a sporting manner.

“You look at what Jack did with Tony Jacklin, he gave him the putt, said, ‘I know you wouldn’t have missed it, but I wasn’t going to let you have the opportunity’. Tiger did the same sort of thing, I think,” he added.

As for those rules violations, the latest of which led to Woods being penalised after his ball moved as he removed a twig during the BMW Championship, Watson claimed all three had been committed unintentionally by the 14-times major winner in the “heat of battle”. He also revealed he was in no position to criticise.

“Every one of them was innocent,” insisted the man tasked with trying to land a first American win on foreign soil in the Ryder Cup since his side achieved the feat at The Belfry in 1993. “I’ve made violations, especially in my older age, including twice in successive years at Augusta. Come on, I know better than that but it happens.”

What hasn’t happened nearly enough for the Americans during a sequence that has seen them lose seven of the last nine clashes with Europe is either Woods or Phil Mickelson transferring his individual brilliance to a team stage. Woods has only been on one winning team in seven appearances and mustered just half a point at Medinah, while Mickelson’s record of playing more times than any other American is offset by the fact no American has lost as many matches as he has.

“I haven’t spoken to Phil about his record in the Ryder Cup and it’s the same with Tiger,” said Watson of the players currently first and fourth in the standings for next year’s team at Gleneagles. “But I did ask that pertinent question to [2012 US captain] Davis Love, as well as how they were in a team situation, how did they act, what were they like,” added the 64-year-old. “He said they were as knitted a group as possible and Tiger was a leader, especially at the end when they lost. Everyone looks up to Tiger and for him to be a leader is very important for our team. In what way? That’s private. But he acted as a leader.”

In Watson’s eyes, Woods was anything but a man to look up to after his personal life was turned upside down by extramarital affairs that came to the surface just under four years ago and led to a divorce. “Tiger has to take ownership of what he has done,” said Watson at the time. “And when he comes back he has to show some humility to the public.”

Asked yesterday if he’d tried to hold out an olive branch, if one was needed, to Woods since his appointment as US captain towards the end of last year, Watson revealed that a dinner during this year’s US Open had been the closest they’d come to any sort of meaningful conversation. “I haven’t sat with Tiger privately for any length of time, but I’ll have a sit down with him,” he added.

Watson, who will have assistant captain Andy North as his “eyes and ears” at next week’s Presidents Cup, insisted it was too early to tell if he’d implement the “pod” system that worked so successfully for Paul Azinger at Valhalla in 2008 but he knows already what he is looking for from the 12 players who make his team in Perthshire. “You want people with heart who will give you everything, that’s the bottom line,” he declared.

Watson had a “pit of my stomach feeling” as he watched Europe pull off the Miracle at Medinah a year ago. “I wish I could have helped the team like in my old days,” he added before revealing a startling last-day statistic from the Chicago clash. “Europe were 25 under par collectively on the Sunday; America were eight under. They just ran the tables on us,” he said.

Catching McGinley, for one, by surprise – and probably the PGA of America as well as he’d never mentioned it to them before – Watson said he would like to see the Ryder Cup return to “its purest form” one day by the wild cards being scrapped and players qualifying for teams under their own steam.

“If you look at it, it’s such a thing to shoot for, to try to make it,” he said. “I know the problems with Euro players playing on the PGA Tour [a situation that has led to the team being picked from two separate points lists], but in the US, why do we need wildcards?

“It would relieve pressure on me to call up the guys who are out as that’s not a pleasant call to make.”