Tour Confidential: Why Does U.S. Keep Losing Ryder Cup? Plus Phil Mickelson Vs. Tom Watson, and Team USA's Next Captain

Tuesday September 30th, 2014
U.S. team captain Tom Watson and his veteran star Phil Mickelson didn't see eye-to-eye at Gleneagles.
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1. The Europeans have now won eight of last 10 Ryder Cups and haven’t lost a home game in 21 years. What’s the secret of their success?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Better players, some years. Better team. Better management. Way better attitude. The U.S. plays like it's life-or-death. For the Euros, it's just life.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): It's simple. They're better golfers. More important, they have better short games. They like each other. Mostly, they're just better. All four U.S. wins since 1983 have been extremely fortunate at best, if not downright lucky sometimes. They're good.

Eamon Lynch, executive editor, Golf.com (@EamonLynch): It seems this question gets asked every two years, and every two years we hear about how Europe makes more putts, gets better breaks, bonds better. We also usually hear about how the captain doesn't matter, that it rests with the players. I think this week showed that captains do matter, and European players seem to rally around their leader a little more cohesively. The only European loss since that 1999 collapse in Boston was 2008, when the team was led by a man who was an 18-handicapper in the team room. That year's American team had perhaps its most passionate captain in recent memory. That stuff counts. It certainly did this week.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): That they don't take over Rockefeller Center to announce their captain's picks. The Euros just seem to play more relaxed and more as a team and seem less vulnerable to the insane hype.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): The clichés are true about American individualism and European collectivism. The Europeans have more guys who are comfortable playing for something bigger than themselves. They seem to welcome that distinctive sort of pressure. Contrast that with a crazy talent like Bubba Watson, who devolves into a collection of uncontrolled ticks come Cup time. A lot of human ATMs on the U.S. side, but not all have the psychic make-up for this event. Given that the Ryder Cup has become a biennial beat down and so many American players complain of fatigue, maybe it's time to do-away with the pulse-less Presidents Cup and make it Europe vs. the World. Or they could just give us Canada for starters. Then at least we'd get Graham DeLaet's playoff beard.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): The Europeans just seem to play looser. This frees them up on the full swings and, more important, on the greens. And, sorry, but I don't buy the whole "we-are-more-of-a-team" thing. The Euros have just play better golf, hit more clutch shots and hole more putts.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): The Euros have hit no shortage of masterful shots. That's the short answer. The long answer is that the U.S. effort has been mismanaged from the top down. If it was truly important for the U.S. to win the Cup -- and it should be, for the sake of competitive balance -- then surely the PGA of America would've reappointed Paul Azinger, who became the only winning captain in the last 15 years when the U.S. crushed Europe in 2008. How is that not a no-brainer? Jason Dufner was tweeting his support even before the matches ended Sunday. Europe has passion, yes, but also a coherent strategy and reams of meaningful data to back it up. The U.S. is mostly just throwing stuff against the wall and hoping it sticks.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): It's tempting to again mention Europe's superior "teamwork" and how they "play for each other" but this week it seemed clear that Europe simply had the better players. Not to say that this can't turn by 2016, or that the U.S was drastically outclassed, but last week the European team reminded us again why they've become one of the most reliable juggernauts in sports today.

Jessica Marksbury, associate editor, Golf Magazine (@Jess_Marksbury): One word: Foursomes. Why can’t Team USA get it together in that format? After such great performances in fourball, it’s a total buzz kill to end each day so poorly, and it’s hard to regain that momentum.

2. In the losers' press conference, Phil Mickelson threw U.S. captain Tom Watson under the proverbial bus, saying that the U.S. should not have strayed from 2008 captain Paul Azinger's winning "formula" and that the American players had no say on Watson's team. On Golf Channel, Brandel Chamblee said that Mickelson's selfish attitude explains why the U.S. keeps losing and that he "tainted" the Ryder Cup for young players like Jordan Spieth. What did you think of Mickelson's comments?

VAN SICKLE: I wrote a column on it Sunday night. Phil should've waited till he got back to the team room to get in Watson's face if he was going to say anything. It might be time to say goodbye to Phil as a Ryder Cup player unless he plays his way onto the team. There's only room for one captain. and as for any potential future Phil captaincy -- I vote no.

BAMBERGER: I thought Brandel's response was more interesting. Phil obviously doesn't like Watson and he had the ideal platform to let the world know. Watson's been doing the same thing to others for years, most notably Woods, Gary McCord, liberals. I've been worried that Brandel lost his bite ever since GC dressed him down after he took on Woods' moving ball at the BMW last year. He was consistent here, standing up for golf's gentlemanly tradition. I happen not to agree with Brandel -- I think Phil was doing to Watson what he's done to Finchem and Mike Davis and various others. Letting them know how he feels. He makes golf more interesting. How about Mahan when Phil was going on about pods? His eyes were like, What fresh hell is this? Watson sat Phil, and Phil wasn't going to sit there and take it.

LYNCH: It is clear there is a mutual antipathy between Mickelson and Watson, which wasn't helped by the fact that Watson made public Phil's texting plea to play on Saturday. I suspect that Watson's gaffe was a case of being tone deaf, Phil's was calculated. Autopsies should wait until the corpse is cold. The press conference was not the place to make his point.

PASSOV: Phil has earned elder-statesman status. I'm applauding him for his candor.

RITTER: An event like the Ryder Cup doesn't become "tainted" by the losing team's press conference, but Phil's performance was about as big of a grenade as you'll ever see thrown at a professional golf press conference. There was clearly some tension in that team room by Saturday night, and even though Watson bungled several decisions before and during the event, Mickelson was wrong to point it out at the presser. It was an awkward ending to disappointing week for the U.S.

GODICH: Phil being Phil. I had to chuckle that this was the guy who practiced on another course at Oakland Hills in 2004 and even last week couldn't see fit to travel with the rest of the team to Scotland. While Phil said what many had to be thinking, I don't believe that was the forum to bring it up. He's going to have to play his way onto the team in 2016, because I don't see anyone using a captain's pick on him, what with the controversy he brings with him. And when his turn comes to be captain, his every move will be scrutinized. He sure as heck had better bring home the cup.

SENS: There's a lot to second-guess about Watson's captaincy. And I have no problem with Phil speaking his mind, even if he was speaking more from a bruised ego than anything else. That's not unusual. Bench any proud athlete and you're going to hear them grumble after a loss. More notable was Phil pointing out that he has played on eight losing teams. That's the real issue. We go out with pretty much the same core every time and expect different results. Let's not mythologize Azinger's pod system. Better to spend our energy trying to clone Patrick Reed.

MARKSBURY: I’m not surprised that Mickelson was unhappy, but I am surprised that he vented his feelings publicly. Seems unlike him, especially coupled with his jab at Rory and Graeme’s relationship earlier this week. Isn’t Phil supposed to be the affable everyman? Maybe I’m old school, but as one of Team USA’s elder statesmen, Phil should have stood behind Watson.

MORFIT: I give Mickelson points for honesty. He felt the team was mismanaged. He said so. End of story -- but of course it's just the beginning of the story.

3. Who was each side’s Most Valuable Player and Least Valuable Player?

VAN SICKLE: Patrick Reed showed the most fire but I think Jimmy Walker showed the most guts and helped carry Fowler. For the Euros, pick anyone. Justin Rose is obvious. G-Mac was key. So was Lee Westwood, who chaperoned Jamie Donaldson and groomed him to get the winning point.

RITTER: Rose is the MVP, and let's count the ways: 1. He never lost a match. 2. He and Stenson set a Ryder record by going 12-under during Saturday's fourball, and 3. The two matches he halved came after trailing on the final hole. Those halves were two U.S. backbreakers. Euro's LVP is Poulter, who went winless despite his outsized reputation. For the U.S., Reed was the lone unbeaten and he looks like a future star in this event. LVP has several contenders, but I'll take Bubba, who seemed almost disinterested out there despite his usual first-tee histrionics.

BAMBERGER: U.S.: P. Reed, MVP, T. Watson, LVP. Euros: J. Rose. I'm going to pass on LVP. Unless you're going to tell me a player wasn't trying his hardest, there's no point.

LYNCH: Europe's MVP was Nick Faldo, who fired up the team more this year with his "useless" crack about Sergio than he did as captain. Least valuable? Poulter played dreadfully, though the huge target on his back probably helped distract Team USA from the lesser mortals who stepped up, like Victor Dubuisson and Jamie Donaldson. For Team USA the MVP was Patrick Reed. LVP? Someone hand Bubba a tissue.

SENS: Rose for Europe. He registered more birdies than Audubon. Webb Simpson for the U.S., a captain's pick who didn't make a single birdie on Friday and couldn't even win a pillow fight with Poulter in singles. But Bubba gets a close runner-up in this category. He played nowhere near how he does when he's playing for himself.

MORFIT: Rose was a stud for Europe, going undefeated (3-0-2) despite the fatigue factor of playing five matches. Stephen Gallacher was clearly off his game, going 0-2-0. Patrick Reed was MVP for the U.S., displaying the kind of grit that should make him a fixture in this thing for years to come. Bubba Watson, sadly, went winless in three matches. It's tempting to say this just wasn't his type of course, but you've got to believe a guy who can go 64-64 on the weekend to win at Riviera can win anywhere. He should have done better at Gleneagles.

PASSOV: Justin Rose couldn't miss for two days, then snatched an improbable halve after being 4-down to Hunter Mahan. Patrick Reed backed up his swagger with actual results.

GODICH: That's easy: Justin Rose and Patrick Reed are the MVPs. For Rose to play all five sessions and perform like that is remarkable. Remember he was 4 down to Hunter Mahan and came back to get a halve. Reed should be the poster player for future U.S. Ryder Cup teams. Who cares if a player rubs some the wrong way if he can golf his ball. Least valuable? Hard to pick a European when all but one player contributed points. On the U.S. side, I'm taking Capt. Tom Watson. He made poor lineup decisions and was less than inspiring in interviews. That Friday night performance had to be the most depressing first-day press conference in Ryder Cup history. I can't imagine what the vibe was like in the team room. Oh, to be a fly on the wall.

MARKSBURY: Team USA’s MVP: Patrick Reed. What a pleasant surprise! His inspired pairing with Jordan Spieth was fun to watch, AND he managed to win his singles match. I’m so glad we can look forward to his presence on the team for years to come. Least valuable on Team USA? Where to begin? I expected so much more from Zach Johnson, Keegan Bradley, Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan. But if I have to pick a name, it’s Rickie. He played all five matches and only came away with 1.5 points. Very disappointing -- and unexpected -- for a player with his match-play pedigree. Team Europe’s MVP is easily Justin Rose. He played all five matches and didn’t lose a single point. Not only is he a great partner in team competition, he also managed gritty halves when it looked like the Americans were well on their way to a full point. Least valuable player for Team Europe isn’t even worth mentioning in such a one-sided rout.

4. What was U.S. captain Tom Watson's biggest blunder?

LYNCH: We can reheat the debatable strategic moves around pairings, but to me it was the tone he set throughout. Every time Watson needed to publicly bolster his team, he disappointed. Asked Saturday night if he had regrets about how the matches were going, Watson said his regret was thinking that his team could handle it. Think of the effect on morale that has. Even worse was making public the fact that Phil had pleaded with him to reverse the decision to bench him on Saturday. He captained like a man who set his course each night and nothing that transpired on the course the next day was going to divert him off line. In an interview with Golf Magazine earlier this year Watson said he had passion but lacked compassion. He was right. Sometimes wrong, never in doubt.

GODICH: Plenty to choose from here, but I'll go with the decision to send Phil and Keegan out for Friday afternoon foursomes. In the morning, Rory and Sergio went from 2 down through 10 holes to 1 up after 15 without making a birdie. So, two guys each playing his own ball couldn't make a par between them in six attempts. Keegan and Phil flat-out stole a point with a couple of clutch swings on 16 and 18, but there was nothing in their play to warrant a spot in the afternoon lineup, especially a 44-year-old with arthritis playing in chilly weather. You do so at the expense of a couple of young guns -- Reed and Spieth -- with fresh legs who were the stars of the morning. I said the Ryder Cup was over on Friday night. The U.S. stole the morning session and then just laid an egg in the afternoon. That was all on Watson.

RITTER: In the run-up to Gleneagles, Watson often said that his role was "to put players in a position to succeed." But when he sent Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker out Saturday afternoon after they'd halved three of the toughest matches of the event, he set them up for the exact opposite. That pairing was gassed, and their match again McDowell-Dubuisson could only end one way. Watson should've called on Mickelson-Bradley, who were clamoring to get off the bench, or cobbled together another fresh team for that spot. That blunder handed Europe an easy point, and a four-point edge heading into Sunday. Game over.

BAMBERGER: Sitting Reed and Spieth Friday afternoon. Or not giving himself two more weeks to make his picks. I can't pick one. I won't go into the absurd over-the-top costumes.

MORFIT: His biggest mistake was losing the trust of his players. He said he would ride the hot horses but benched the juggernaut Reed/Spieth duo Friday afternoon. He knew Phil Mickelson was going to have to lead this team, and yet he didn't let Mickelson play a single hole Saturday. But the worst decision was letting Fowler and Walker keep playing Saturday afternoon, when they basically had nothing in a loss to G-Mac and Dubuisson. A total gift to Europe.

SENS: Since second-guessing is our second favorite sport, you've got to single out his captain's picks, who went 2-5-2 and played even worse than that. Watson never said so openly, but on Saturday, he acknowledged his mistake by benching two of his three selections.

MARKSBURY: Has to be the decision to bench Jordan and Patrick on Friday afternoon. Why sit your lightning-hot players, especially when they’re so young and energetic? And that decision led to Phil and Keegan’s benching on Saturday, when they should have definitely played in the morning fourball.

VAN SICKLE: Watson should have rested Phil and Keegan Friday afternoon and sent out the rookies. With Phil and Keegan rested, they could've played Saturday morning in fourballs and not led to the issue with Walker and Fowler running out of gas by playing all four matches.

PASSOV: Accepting the job as captain. That and sitting captain-in-waiting Mickelson twice while playing Jimmy "Where have you been since January" Walker in those spots.

5. Between Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods and Billy Horschel, there was a lot of talk about who the U.S. didn't have on its team. Which players would've made the difference this week?

MORFIT: Horschel would have given Watson one more go-to guy along with Reed, Spieth, Fowler and Walker. In hindsight, one of the worst things that happened to the U.S. Ryder Cup effort was Horschel's fatted second shot into 18 at the Deutsche Bank. It made the guy appear to be anything but the superstar he turned into in the two ensuing weeks. Although it's purely speculative, Horschel seems wired for this type of event in the way that Reed is wired for it.

VAN SICKLE: Horschel was too exhausted to play. Forget him. Dustin Johnson has his own issues to address. Forget him. Tiger was too hurt and too rusty. Now, had Watson named Tiger as a pick, he could've waited on his health until the last minute and named a substitute. But who else would've made a real difference this week? Chris Kirk? Ryan Moore? Brandt Snedeker?

MARKSBURY: I would have LOVED to see Billy out there this week. We need more energy and enthusiasm! He would be perfect.

BAMBERGER: Dufner.

RITTER: Watson's three picks went 2-5-2. Not great. Fiery rookies led the U.S team, and if that's the right recipe then Horschel stands as the biggest omission.

LYNCH: If only Tiger and Tom could have just hugged it out in the team room on Saturday night, that might have fired the guys up for Sunday singles. But Tiger was in Jupiter, and Tom didn't mind that one bit.

GODICH: Horschel, without a doubt. And not just because he won the last two events of the PGA Tour season. He has the same kind of fire as Reed does. Plus, it's time to shake things up. Spieth said it best: The young guns don't have the battle scars of the older players. Besides, can it hurt to try something new?

SENS: Horschel. This Cup confirmed what we've suspected all along: the U.S. needs an infusion of fresh, fiery blood.

PASSOV: Billy Horschel is currently sporting Patrick Reed-like confidence and Rory McIlroy-like results. He would have been a difference-maker.

6. Who should be captain of the American team in 2016? Should Watson's captaincy stop another older vet getting the job in future?

BAMBERGER: You mean if they don't want to give Watson a third chance? I'd consider Fred Couples, or Woods or Mickelson. I'd consider Nicklaus, Butch Harmon, Tony Dungy, Azinger. I'd poll former RC players. It should not be a full-time two-year job. The first order of business is to amp it way down.

RITTER: This one is easy. If the PGA of America is serious about winning the Cup back, they have to call Azinger. He galvanized his underdog team in 2008 and also created an innovative practice-round "pod system" that allowed the players to bond and their games to meld before they arrived at Valhalla. What new tricks might Azinger come up with for 2016? Time to find out.

LYNCH: Larry Nelson. I think this job should go sometimes to esteemed veterans, and Nelson is a three-time major winner. Age does not render a captain disconnected from his team, attitude does. And the respect of one’s players is not earned solely by pointing at one's resume, as Faldo and now Watson have illustrated. If the PGA of America sticks with the logic behind the Watson pick -- "They love him in Scotland!" -- then we're looking at a Tim Herron captaincy in Minnesota in '16. The likely European leader is Darren Clarke, another figure players can rally around. Who ya got, 'Merica?

MORFIT: I don't think it was Watson's age that hurt. It was his imperiousness and stubbornness, not to mention his prickly defiance -- long-established Watsonian traits that may have served him as a player but hurt him as a captain. It's fitting that Nick Faldo's disastrous 2008 captaincy came up this week, because Watson was basically Faldo in a nutshell -- hugely accomplished individually, but not so clued-in, communicative or effective as a leader of men. Azinger is the obvious choice to reprise his roll as captain. The Americans will never play their best until they know and trust that the PGA of America is doing everything it can, and until the PGA goes back to the only guy to really figure this thing out in the last two decades, it isn't.

PASSOV: The PGA should admit its 20 years of mistakes and name Larry Nelson to a post that should have been his. Maybe there's a curse in place we don't know about. Fred Couples is my second choice, Phil Mickelson third.

SENS: Patrick Reed. Make him a playing captain. And when he's sitting out a match, he can go around shushing the opposing crowd.

MARKSBURY: I’m guessing David Toms is a candidate, but I think there is a general consensus (at least among older players) that Larry Nelson deserves a chance. I agree. I don’t think Watson’s loss this year should rule out the idea of an older captain. Team USA just didn’t play well. At all. He certainly isn’t to blame for that.

GODICH: Well, if you're going to give Watson a second chance, what about Paul Azinger? But whoever it is, he needs to be somebody who can connect with the players. Sorry, Larry Nelson, your time has passed. Steve Stricker or David Toms? Too nice. Think outside the box, PGA of America. Give us somebody who's going to get under the Europeans' skin.

VAN SICKLE: The only guy who's won a Ryder Cup this century is Paul Azinger. I don't have a second candidate to offer.

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.

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