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Team USA's Ryder Cup Fortunes Won't Be Reversed Without a Change in Philosophy

Photo: Photos by Thomas Lovelock/Sports Illustrated

The latest Ryder Cup flameout for Team USA was this weekend's 16.5-11.5 loss at Gleneagles.

Well, that wasn’t much fun.

No one really expected the U.S. to win the Ryder Cup -- it so rarely does anymore. No, the best that U.S. fans can hope for these days is a memorable loss, like two years ago at Medinah, and we didn’t even get that. This time around the plucky boys in red, white and blue somehow won two of the first three sessions, but in the Saturday-afternoon foursomes they were outplayed and badly out-captained, and after taking 3.5 of four points, the Europeans held a commanding 10–6 lead.

That was the same score as at Medinah two years ago, which set up Europe for a record-tying comeback, but such a thing is possible only with strong play at the top of the singles lineup. On Sunday at Gleneagles, in Auchterarder, Scotland, Europe won two of the first three matches, and from that point on the only suspense was about which player would make the victory official. It fell to Jamie Donaldson, a largely unknown 38-year-old Ryder rookie from Wales, who closed out a shattered Keegan Bradley on the 15th hole in match number 10. The final score was 16.5–11.5, but it never felt that close. Europe has now won six of the last seven Cups and eight of the past 10. Afterward the dispirited American side was once again left groping for answers.

“We’ve fallen short quite a bit,” Jim Furyk, a veteran of the last nine Cups, told reporters on Sunday evening. “Five of you have already asked me tonight what’s the winning formula. If I could put my finger on it, I would have changed this s--- a long time ago, but we haven’t and we are going to keep searching.”

U.S. captain Tom Watson, 65, had an old-school reading: “The obvious answer is that our team has to play better. I think they recognize that fact, that somehow, collectively, 12 players have to play better.”

But this is the very mentality that has gotten the U.S. into this mess. It is folly to keep waiting for the players to fix everything by magically playing better. A culture of losing must first be eradicated. The Americans’ approach to leadership must fundamentally change.

(GALLERY: Check Out the Best Photos From the Ryder Cup)

Watson made little effort to get to know his charges or do any team building beyond a few get-off-my-lawn speeches. He was a remote and disengaged figure in the run-up to the Cup, and once the competition began, he had little understanding of how his players were feeling, physically or emotionally. (It didn’t help that two of his vice captains -- Ray Floyd, 72, and Andy North, 64 -- are decades removed from playing the Tour and the third, Steve Stricker, 47, is now a part-timer.)

While Watson’s counterpart Paul McGinley, 47, was meticulously prepared, having spent years seeking the counsel of his players over long dinners and b.s. sessions on the range, Watson seemed to be making up his pairings willy-nilly. A series of botched decisions for the Friday-afternoon foursomes had a cascading effect that led him to bench his putative team leader, Phil Mickelson, and Bradley, the guy who could have been the team’s emotional juggernaut, for both Saturday sessions. (To that point they had teamed to go 4–1 in the Ryder Cup.) These proud major champions were understandably wounded by the slight, but according to a team insider, what left them more upset was the heartless way Watson delivered the news.

Mickelson vented his frustration on Sunday night in a team press conference that was exquisite in its awkwardness. “Nobody here was in any decision,” Mickelson said of his teammates. In a text message to me later that night, one U.S. team member amplified the thought, saying of Watson, “Although he’s rarely right, he’s never in doubt!”

Over the last 20 years the talent on both sides of the Atlantic has been more or less even. That the U.S. keeps losing is due to problems that are structural and cultural, which Watson’s disastrous captaincy highlighted. The PGA of America has long had a rigid template for its captain: a major championship winner in his late 40s. He is selected by the PGA’s president, vice president and secretary. These are ever-changing outsiders who have no real knowledge of the inner workings of the Ryder Cup. Outgoing PGA president Ted Bishop, 60, is a self-styled maverick who wanted to defy convention during his two-year tenure, and it’s revealing that he conjured in Watson a man who is as out-of-touch with the modern Tour pro as Bishop is.

McGinley, like the captains before him, was selected in a vote by the European tour’s tournament committee, a body of current players, many of whom were regular Ryder Cuppers. The process has since been modified; future captains will be chosen by the tour’s executive director (George O’Grady), the chairman of the tournament committee (Thomas Bjorn, a competitor at this Cup) and the three immediate past European captains. This is an even better way to do it -- this gang of five knows what works and has close relationships with potential candidates.

In the U.S., the selection of McGinley was considered an outside-the-box choice because of his slight playing resume, though it’s mystifying why anybody would think there is a correlation between succeeding at an individual sport and being a leader of men.

Anyway, McGinley had strong support among the players because of a pair of successful captaincies at the Seve Cup. This grooming of captains is another way in which the two sides differ, with Europe enjoying a far-reaching advantage. The Presidents Cup could be a platform for auditioning unorthodox Ryder Cup candidates -- how about Joe Ogilvie or Butch Harmon or Jim Mackay or Brandel Chamblee? -- but the PGA Tour treats it as if it’s an important event, and commissioner Tim Finchem has opted for the box office of old-timers like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Ken Venturi to lead the U.S. Europe is also cagier in its use of vice captains.

The U.S. tends to bring along old cronies who haven’t earned the trust of the team -- in 2004, Hal Sutton used his acid-tongued octogenarian mentor Jackie Burke. After a lopsided loss some U.S. players were bitter because they felt Burke threw them under the bus to reporters.

McGinley was twice a vice captain before ascending to the captaincy. Last week his five (!) lieutenants included Padraig Harrington, a surefire future captain, and Miguel Ángel Jiménez, a definite maybe, along with past captains José María Olazábal and Sam Torrance. McGinley’s pairings were masterly, and this core group of advisers certainly played a role. Avuncular Des Smyth was the fifth vice captain, and his stated purpose was to shepherd the four benched players, providing them with up-to-the-minute information about their roles and to gently soothe egos when necessary.

“A big difference between us and them is that Europe always has a succession plan,” says Paul Azinger, the only U.S. captain to win a Ryder Cup this century, back in 2008. “McGinley was surrounded by past captains and future captains, and they all reap the benefits. We’re lone rangers as far as captains go. Nobody knows what we’ve done in the past. There’s zero collaboration or institutional knowledge. Corey Pavin [Azinger’s clueless successor] never called me until two weeks before the matches began. And I think he did it only because he was being criticized in the media for not having done it. I’d like to see the PGA of America announce the next three captains at the same time, so they could get together as a cohesive group and create a guiding philosophy.”

Azinger instituted sweeping reforms for his captaincy, changing the qualifying criteria to add weight to more recent results and insisting on four captain’s picks instead of the traditional two. (Watson inexplicably gave one back.) After studying the small-group dynamics of Navy SEALs, Azinger instituted a “pod” system that essentially broke his team into three four-man units. To ratchet up the buy-in, he let the veterans in each pod help make his captain’s picks. All of this and more was laid out in detail in his 2010 book, Cracking the Code. Says Azinger, “McGinley says he read my book. So did Colin Montgomerie [Europe’s captain in ’10]. No American captain has said that. There’s a template there that worked. It’s stupid to not at least look into it.”

Azinger dejectedly watched the most recent Ryder Cup from his Florida home -- “I’m gonna be drunk in half an hour,” he said in the early afternoon his time -- yet even in absentia he hijacked the Sunday evening American press conference at Gleneagles. A reporter threw out a question to “Phil and anyone else” who was part of the last U.S. victory, hoping to understand what had worked in the 16.5–11.5 rout but not since.

Mickelson rarely opens his mouth without an agenda, and this was a tremendous platform to agitate for change. (Those who have subsequently criticized Phil for not waiting to air his complaints behind closed doors don’t get that this was a political move for the greater good and not a personal grievance, though the latter helped inspire the former.)

He jumped in with an eloquent, detailed endorsement of Azinger’s methodology, praising his “great game plan” and ability to get his players “invested in the process.” Mickelson never used Watson’s name, but the critique was obvious. With blood in the water British and U.S. scribes circled back again and again with follow-ups, pitting Mickelson against his captain. Watson offered a nonsensical dismissal of Azinger -- “You know, it takes 12 players to win; it’s not pods” -- and, tone-deaf as always, said of Mickelson, “My management philosophy is different than his.”

The press conference was more riveting than any of the golf that preceded it, and social media was soon aflame. Jason Dufner weighed in with a tweet that was elegant in its brevity: @PaulAzinger #2016. The man himself said on Sunday he would be open to an encore and ruefully recounted how he was rebuffed in 2010. “I lobbied to carry the flag to Europe,” Azinger said. “The answer I got is that there’s more captains than Ryder Cups. It’s all symbolism. Do you want to make people happy, or do you want to win?”

A pie-in-the-sky idea is to turn the Ryder Cup into a kind of national team, following the model of USA Basketball, in which an independent body of experts puts the squad together and sharpens the skills of its players and leaders. The right guy to run it would be someone like Mike Holder, who built the Oklahoma State golf program into a national power and is now the school’s athletic director. But the Ryder Cup is such a cash cow for the PGA of America -- and, to have seen Bishop preening at Gleneagles, a vital part of its officers’ self-image -- the leadership will never allow a decentralization of power.

At the very least the PGA needs more input from current players and past captains in selecting and training its captains. It should sponsor a couple more junior events modeled on the Ryder Cup, with an emphasis on alternate shot; at Gleneagles the Europeans took seven of eight points in this quirky format, which is a staple of club play in the U.K. but basically unknown in the U.S. (The NCAA’s recent switch to match play to crown its national champion is essentially a series of singles matches and thus helpful only up to a point.)

I was eager to discuss a new way forward with Bishop and approached him for an interview before the singles matches had finished teeing off. He was enthusiastic and said to find him that evening after the press conference. But Mickelson’s critique and the aggressive questioning of his handpicked captain clearly rattled Bishop, and at the completion of the press conference he stormed out of the room. I chased after him to remind him of our agreed-upon interview, but Bishop huffed, “I’m not the guy to talk to,” before disappearing into the night.

This pass-the-buck reflex has become endemic on the U.S. side, and it was Watson’s continued blaming of the players that helped push Mickelson over the edge. He was not alone in being miffed with his captain. A veteran of multiple U.S. teams told me in the aftermath, “A lot of s--- went on behind the scenes that people don’t know about. It will all leak out eventually. People talk about Hal Sutton and Lanny Wadkins, but Watson is going to be remembered as 10 times worse.”

So who will be the next Yank on the hot seat? Mickelson and Furyk, both 44, are certain to be captains in the future, but in the short term they want to focus on competing. (Tiger Woods, 38, is a natural to follow them and could be a game-changing presence if he embraces the role. Big if.) Stricker is well-positioned for 2016 but may be too soft for the job; he expressed no desire to play in this Ryder Cup, so why would he want to captain the next one?

Azinger is such an obvious choice even the PGA can’t screw this one up, right? In fact, he makes sense for 2018, too. Europe rose to power with continuity in its captaincy: Tony Jacklin presided over four consecutive Cups beginning in 1983, and Bernard Gallacher captained the following three.

As messy as this Ryder Cup was, on and off the course, the silver lining for the U.S. is that it has created a mandate for change. Azinger believes victory is readily attainable. “It’s a razor-thin difference between winning and losing,” he says. “We’re not miles away.” But with a rueful chuckle, he added this coda: “If you play perfect blackjack, the house has only a 1% advantage. But in Vegas they build great big casinos on that 1%. Right now Europe is the casino and America is the guy sliding up to the table with a fistful of 50s.”

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