This week’s 40th Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, Scotland, will not be a landslide victory for the Europeans. It will not turn into Bambi versus Godzilla; Angola versus the USA Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics; or the Denver Broncos versus the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
At least that was the message conveyed by Tom Watson and Paul McGinley, the U.S. and European captains, respectively, at the captains’ press conference at Jack Nicklaus-designed Gleneagles on Monday.
“I think we’re slight favorites; we’re not overwhelming favorites,” McGinley said. “But we have been favorites before in the Ryder Cup. It’s not like this is the first time ever. I did some calculations when the two teams were formulated and their average ranking was 16 and ours was 18. This is not a weak American team.”
Watson, who at 65 becomes the oldest ever Ryder Cup captain, added: “The media look at the teams, look at Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson -- the European team is loaded. But I know our team is totally committed to bringing the cup back. I know that. And as captain I’m going to do everything I can to help them do that.”
In one sense captains can do only so much at the Ryder Cup. They make their wild-card picks, choosing the three players they see fit to fill out their 12-man rosters. They combine those players for eight four-ball (best ball) and eight foursomes (alternate shot) matches Friday and Saturday.
But in another sense captains can do much more, from taking care of the logistics to managing personalities to delivering rousing speeches to controlling the message going into the pressure-filled matches. Spin doctoring was clearly the first order of business for McGinley and Watson.
McGinley must disabuse his players and the media of the corrosive idea that all they need do this week is show up and collect the trophy. Watson must keep telling his players that Team USA has a chance, even though Europe’s Ryder Cup record is a gaudy 7-2 over the last two decades.
“I made it very clear to them,” Watson said. “This trip is a redemption trip. Those players who played on that team -- [seven] of them are on this team -- it’s time to make amends. It’s a motivation.”
McGinley and his wife, Alison, met the American team’s charter as it landed in Edinburgh on Monday morning. The American players and their wives or significant others posed for photos as they stood on the rolling staircase outside the British Airways plane, the players wearing jeans, dress shirts, no ties, and blue blazers. Rickie Fowler showed off his new haircut with “USA” shaved into the side of his head. Conversely the Europeans have arrived piecemeal, with Graeme McDowell expected to be the final of McGinley’s charges to get to Gleneagles late Monday afternoon.
The Americans’ first order of business, Watson said, was merely to beat the jet lag, or, as he put it, “get their legs.” Among the lessons he learned over the course of his illustrious British Open career -- five wins -- is the danger in rushing out to the golf course, playing poorly, and then trying to find a fix in time for the competition to begin.
“I basically told them, ‘Don’t worry about your golf swings for the next couple of days,’” Watson said.
Both captains said they have not instituted a social-media policy, and both enjoyed a laugh about Rory McIlroy nearly missing his tee time at Medinah in 2012. “The good thing about this week,” McGinley said, “is anyone who is late can roll out of bed and be on the first tee in five minutes.”
Both captains tried to diffuse their respective tempests in a teapot.
For Watson the talk has been about who’s not on his team -- there will be no Tiger Woods, and nor can Watson rely on the red-hot Billy Horschel. The excitable Florida Gator won the final two tournaments of the season, the BMW and Tour Championship, and the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus, after Watson selected Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson with his three captain’s picks. “I sent him a text,” Watson said Monday. “Horschel -- damn you, you’re a day late but not a dollar short!”
Ever the good company man, Watson refused to fault the selection process, as many have. Although it would seem he made his three picks two weeks too early, he said the timing was necessary in order for players to adjust schedules, plan travel, sort tickets, and try on uniforms.
McGinley said he has only “strategic” concerns about pairing McIlroy and McDowell, despite the ongoing lawsuit between McIlroy and his former management company, Horizon, which currently manages McDowell. Much has been written about the nasty, long-simmering legal spat, which isn’t due to be heard in court until February of 2015 but which could be settled earlier. McIlroy has maintained he and McDowell remain friends -- the two went out to dinner in Denver the week of the BMW -- and McGinley believes it.
That’s not to say they’ll be partners again this week, as they were in 2012 at Medinah (they went 1-2-0) and 2010 at Celtic Manor (1-1-1).
“They’ve played in six matches together and they’ve only won two,” McGinley said, “so it’s not written in stone that they would play together.”
Two of Watson’s dynamic duos are easy to predict: rah-rah Bradley and Phil Mickelson, who went 3-0-0 before being benched for the Saturday afternoon four-ball matches at Medinah; and Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson, who went 2-1-0 at Medinah and 3-1-0 at the 2011 Presidents Cup.
Watson said he has even coached American fans on what to sing on the first tee when the European supporters begin chanting, “Ole, ole.”
“It’s the U.S. soccer chant,” Watson said with a twinkle in his eye.
And what exactly is that?
“We believe that we can win,” Watson said.