On Thursday, the PGA of America will announce the U.S. captain for the 2014 Ryder Cup, which will be held at Gleneagles in Scotland. Here’s a quick look at the likely candidates, or, if you prefer, the usual suspects:
David Toms is the favorite. He’ll be the right age — 47 in 2014 — and he’s a former PGA Championship winner. (Toms won in 2001, beating Phil Mickelson by laying up on the par-4 18th at Atlanta Athletic Club.) He’s smart, well-spoken and very popular with his fellow players and the media. Toms can still play, too; he won at Colonial in 2011 and finished 47th on the money list this year despite only five top-10 finishes. He’s pretty much a slam dunk to get the gig.
Fred Couples seems to be loved by everybody, he’s got experience, and he’s a proven team leader — don’t let his easy-going nature fool you. He captained the U.S. to Presidents Cup victories in 2009 and 2011, and he drew rave reviews from players for his hands-off management style. While that experience may appear to be a plus, he’s also signed up to lead the 2013 Presidents Cup team, which would make it tough for the PGA of America to tap him for 2014. Couples loves team play, though, and his knack for winning and keeping his fellow players relaxed may be just what the Americans need. Couples would be an inspired and popular pick, but he’s probably too far out of the box for the straight-down-the-middle PGA of America.
Paul Azinger captained the only American Ryder Cup win this century, in 2008, and he reshaped the team’s future by drastically altering the selection process. With four wild-card choices instead of the two, he had far more leeway to choose the hottest players. Inspired by the Navy SEALs, he split his team into four-man pods for practice rounds, mostly dividing them by personality. It all added up to a victory for the U.S. despite the absence of Tiger Woods, who was injured. Azinger still does some TV commentary and is current with the game, though he no longer plays competitively. If the PGA is serious about winning, Azinger is the obvious choice. But that would go against the PGA’s modern tradition of one-and-done captains.
Phil Mickelson’s name has come up as a possible playing captain. The last man to take on that dual role was Arnold Palmer in 1963, back when the Cup mostly consisted of the U.S. thrashing Great Britain and Ireland every two years. It might appeal to Phil’s ego to attempt something that no one has tried in half a century, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea. Mickelson’s match record is short of legendary at 14-18-6, and he owns the dubious honor of having lost the most matches in U.S. Ryder Cup history. He is famous for surprising moves — using two drivers, no drivers, antique Ping Eye2 wedges — and this year told captain Davis Love not to send him out for the Saturday afternoon matches despite being unbeaten with Keegan Bradley. None of that exactly fits the image of a leader. Besides, he’ll only be 44 in 2014. What’s the hurry?
Tom Watson, 63, was recently asked if he’d be interested in captaining the ’14 squad. He said he would do it if tapped, and the resulting media mini-squall made it sound like he was lobbying for the job when he was simply answering a question. Watson is not close to today’s crop of players, which could make it easier for him to make tough decisions — like sending Mickelson and Bradley back out on Saturday afternoon. He is revered in Scotland for his British Open titles, so his role would play very well in Europe. But Watson has already had his shot, captaining the winning ’93 team, so his selection would be a major surprise.
Larry Nelson, a three-time major champion, was famously passed over for the ’97 Ryder Cup captain’s job. He’d been told he was next in line after Lanny Wadkins, but Tom Kite got the gig. Nelson was belatedly inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, years after he should’ve been voted in, and has been outspoken about his Ryder Cup miss. Could a groundswell of support for Nelson, who will be 67 in ’14, earn him the job? I don’t think so. Naming Nelson now would put the PGA of America in the embarrassing position of explaining why he was passed over before.
Jim Furyk will be 44 in 2014, so it may be too soon for him, too. He’s won a U.S. Open and is considered bright, savvy and tough. He had a chance to win the U.S. Open last year and the WGC event in Akron, but he stumbled on the finishing holes, and he also finished poorly to lose a crucial Ryder Cup singles match. He seems certain to have a Ryder Cup captaincy in his future ... but probably not this soon.
Jeff Sluman’s name doesn’t come up that often, but he served as an assistant captain several times for Jack Nicklaus at the Presidents Cup, sometimes carrying a pretty heavy load, and was an assistant captain to Love at this year’s Ryder Cup. He is smart, funny and extremely well-versed in running a team. He even has the necessary major on his resume — the 1988 PGA Championship at Oak Tree. He’ll be 57 in 2014, however, so his time may have already passed if the PGA is sticking with captains in their 40s.
Mark O’Meara has two things going for him. He is a two-time major champion and a Friend of Tiger, or at least he was before Woods’s scandals. For years, O’Meara downplayed the importance of the Ryder Cup and complained about not getting paid. He played on five Ryder Cup teams and lobbied for the captaincy for the 2006 team but was passed over for Lehman. O’Meara has said he believes his window has closed, and he’s probably right.