Captain America: How Tom Watson became captain for the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup team

February 4, 2014

My journey with Tom Watson started when he holed that chip shot from off the 17th green at Pebble Beach to beat Jack Nicklaus and win the 1982 U.S. Open. I was watching in my dinky little pro shop at the Phil Harris Golf Course in Linton, Ind. I still remember the roar that went up as Watson circled the green. Even though it was his sixth major and Nicklaus was near the end of his career, there was a little David and Goliath in that day at Pebble. I always have been a Tom Watson guy.

Twenty-seven years later I attended my first Open Championship, at Turnberry. It was Sunday, and I spotted Watson on his way to the practice green. At 59, he was bidding to become the oldest winner in major championship history. He walked outside the ropes, and it was just the two of us. It was an opportunity for me to offer a handshake and wish him good luck. But I chickened out, and we passed like two ships in the night. On that fateful day in that brief encounter, Watson, all 5'9" of him, totally intimidated me.

The events of that Sunday inspired Jim Huber's final book, Four Days in July. It was about Watson's compelling week at Turnberry. I read the entire book on the flight home from the PGA Grand Slam of Golf in 2011. A couple of days later I called Huber because I wanted to know more about Watson, the man.

"He's a tough guy," Huber said. "He can be complicated and opinionated. He has beaten the drinking thing, and he survived a tough divorce. But Tom is in a good place. Why do you ask?"

I told Huber that I had this crazy idea: asking Watson to be the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup captain at Gleneagles. After a brief silence, Huber gave me a one-word answer: "Brilliant."

He took the secret to his grave, which sadly came less than two months after our conversation. We talked a few more times before he succumbed to an aggressive form of leukemia. The only regret I have about Watson's captaincy is that Huber won't be at Gleneagles to see it.

My first call to Watson caught him in a field somewhere in South Dakota. He was hunting pheasant and asked me to call back that night. When I did, he couldn't remember my name. It was an awkward beginning to a phone conversation that would forever link the two of us. We talked for about 45 minutes. He told me why we were losing Ryder Cups. He believed the Americans were worn-out after the Tour Championship; they were unfamiliar with European Ryder Cup venues; and they simply had been outplayed.

Then I asked Watson if he had any interest in being a Ryder Cup captain again. He replied that he had been waiting on that call for years.

The next morning he reached out to me. We talked for almost two hours. He asked me about the current-day Ryder Cup. He reflected on 1993, when he captained the Americans at the Belfry, the last U.S. victory on foreign soil. He talked about his relationship with Tiger Woods. Watson and Woods are alike in more ways than they are different. From Day One, Watson understood the importance of Woods to a winning Ryder Cup effort. We addressed Watson's age and how that would be an asset, not a liability.

When it comes to the Ryder Cup, Watson is about winning, and that was music to my ears. Seven of the past 12 Ryder Cups have been decided by one point or less. Talk to anybody who played on Watson's 1993 team, and they will tell you that he was the tangible difference in the match. His deflection of some off-course issues along with his prowess on pairings brought the Cup back to the U.S.

Tom Lehman once told me, "It is one thing to play for a captain like [Paul] Azinger, [Corey] Pavin, [Davis] Love or me, and it's another to play for Nicklaus or Watson. Tom is the toughest competitor I know."

Keegan Bradley, one of the young guns, confided this: "I really want to play for Watson. He is a legend, and that would be so cool."

This has already been a memorable journey, and it's only getting started.

Ted Bishop, the general manager and director of golf at The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind., is the president of the PGA of America. He was featured in the 2013 SI Golf+ equipment issue.