GLENEAGLES, Scotland — On Sunday the Ryder Cup captains will recede into the background, at least until one of them uses champagne for shampoo. Because the singles lineup is done in a vacuum, there’s not much to second-guess. (Unless you’re Mark James and you put all your scrubs out first and let the opponent build critical momentum.) No, Sunday singles is all about the players, so this is the perfect time to assess the Watson and McGinley administrations. (Trigger warning: may contain graphic metaphors and offensive criticism.)
It’s fun to second-guess the choices as soon as they’re made, but this week is where the rubber meets the road. Tom Watson’s first mistake was asking for only three picks instead of the four the PGA of America was willing to grant him; one extra spot would’ve allowed him to take a flier on a Billy Horschel or a Chris Kirk. His second mistake was not pushing the selection date back until after the Tour Championship. If you ask for the world the PGA will give it to you. (See Azinger, Paul.) Watson’s third mistake was having the wrong revelation, as Webb Simpson was clearly a bad call. His fourth mistake was sending Simpson out in the very first match of the Cup (!), with a flighty partner no less, in Bubba Watson. Poor Webb was already on the hot seat, and he never recovered from his ghastly pop-up on the 1st tee, getting benched for the next three sessions. Keegan Bradley and Hunter Mahan were O.K. selections and played decent enough.
As for Paul McGinley, Stephen Gallacher seemed like a good choice at the time, based on his strong season, but he looked overwrought in front of the home folks in Friday fourballs and was benched thereafter — but give McGinley credit for that, as there was considerable external pressure to play the only Scot on the roster. Any captain would have selected Ian Poulter, based on his body of work, so his shaky play doesn’t reflect that poorly on McGinley. At least Poults provided some fireworks down the stretch in Saturday fourballs, helping Europe earn an important halve. McGinley’s biggest quandary was whether to take Lee Westwood or Luke Donald. He went with the former, and the wily veteran responded with two key foursomes victories, mentoring rookie Jamie Donaldson in both.
When it comes to choosing clothes, the point is not to do something stupid, a la the Americans’ notorious Sunday shirts in 1999. Europe’s duds were entirely forgettable, which is the point. I liked the U.S.’s pinstriped pants on Friday, but Grandma’s crocheted American flag sweaters on Saturday provoked some of the funniest tweets of the week.
Winning the press conferences is almost as important as winning the matches. McGinley exuded confidence and ease, and was expansive and good-natured throughout. He had a well thought-out answer for everything. Watson was crotchety and defensive, and that was before the matches even began. It got even worse once things went pear-shaped. His incoherent mumbo-jumbo in trying to explain his thinking — or lack thereof — in his Friday night presser will forever color how his captaincy is remembered. On Saturday night, instead of projecting Crenshaw-like belief, he was strangely subdued. Such a tone filters back to the team room.
What you have read above is fine and dandy, but the pairings are by far a captain’s most important chore. Oh boy, where to start with Watson’s blunders? His decision to send Simpson out first on Friday has been covered. Partially. It also speaks to Watson’s arrogance and rigidity. That was his way of saying, Y’all didn’t like my pick, so suck on this. That meant leaving Matt Kuchar on the bench, even though he’s 18th on Tour in birdie average. When Kooch and Bubba lit up Gleneagles in fourballs on Saturday, it only made the Simpson decision look worse.
Capt. Tom deserves credit for coming up with two inspired teams involving three rookies: Jordan Spieth-Patrick Reed and Jimmy Walker-Rickie Fowler. Unfortunately he mishandled both. The benching of Spieth-Reed for Friday’s afternoon session and playing Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley was extensively picked over that night — never sit your hottest players, especially in favor of an arthritic 44 year-old who had already played 18 high-stress holes! — but the ramifications continued to play out on Saturday. Because Phil was so gassed and needed a break, it broke up the U.S.’s best fourball team. And because the tired Mickelson-Bradley team struggled in alternate shot on Friday, Watson wouldn’t give them a second chance and exiled for all of Saturday his putative team leader (Phil) and potentially his emotional juggernaut (Keegan). It’s particularly curious that Bradley didn’t play in afternoon foursomes, given that he is one of the best drivers of the golf ball on the planet. Memo to the captain: Keegan doesn’t have to play with Phil. For that matter, why was two-time Masters champ Bubba sitting on Saturday afternoon? His style is certainly quirky for fourballs, but Watson played beautifully in morning fourballs. If he’s driving it in the fairway, and he was, who wouldn’t want to play from there? Instead Kuchar was given for a partner pea-shooting Zach Johnson, who was overmatched on the par-5s while getting whipped by Westwood and Donaldson.
Finally, there was the decision to trot out Jimmy-Rickie on Saturday afternoon even though the duo had already played three of the most intense matches of the Cup, each a nail-biter that went the full 18 holes. (Spieth-Reed’s stress-free 5-and-4 win on Friday morning made them better candidates to play every session.) Walker-Fowler had nothing left and predictably lost five of the first eight holes in a tone-setting ambush by fresh-legged Victor Dubuisson and Graeme McDowell. Even after a disastrous Saturday afternoon, Watson was asked by NBC’s Steve Sands if he was happy with the decisions he’d made. “Yes,” was the terse reply. This guy is either stubborn or delusional, or both.
McGinley certainly had the advantage of better players — or, at the very least, players playing better — but he also emerged as a canny tactician. The Justin Rose-Henrik Stenson coupling was inspired, and McGinley rode them masterfully, giving Stenson the afternoon off on Saturday but going to the whip with Rose in a fourth session. (JRo’s gritty play positioned him as the man of the match.) The Sergio-Rory team was the right call for two veterans who never had their A-game; neither panicked and their mellow vibe allowed them to keep scuffling, ultimately earning a halve and a win in their last two matches together. At the same time, McGinley was flexible enough to detach McIlroy on Saturday morning to help get Poulter going, and he responded with a pair of momentum-turning holeouts. Dubuisson-McDowell also emerged as a potential powerhouse, with a pair of victories in matches that never reached the 17th tee. It was such a good pairing that McGinley loses a few points for not rolling them out at least one more time.
Time will tell, but there are no obvious screw-ups here, only minor annoyances. On Friday, Bradley’s girlfriend, Jillian Stacy, told me he had been up since 4:30 a.m. because he was so amped to play. The couple spent an hour in their room looking at pictures and watching videos of their new puppy, just to kill time. After sitting around all day on Saturday, Bradley is going to be crawling out of his skin to tee it up in his singles match. I would have sent him out early, but Watson is icing Bradley until the 10th match, at 1:36 p.m. The captain said on Saturday evening he knew the Euros would send out their best players first, so why wait until the fifth match to use Mickelson, his well-rested Hall of Famer? I do like young guns Spieth, Reed and Fowler going 1-2-3.
McGinley has his deck stacked just about right, except for Dubuisson in the 12th spot. His play has been pretty much perfect — I’d have had that bad mofo Dubu in the first half of the draw to try to help end things quickly. And if it all goes wrong and the Cup comes down to the anchor match, I’m not sure you want a Ryder rookie there, no matter how well he’s swinging.
So, if the U.S. storms back and somehow wins 8.5 points to steal the Cup, does that make Watson a great captain? No, it makes him a lucky devil. Likewise, if McGinley’s troops suffer an epic collapse, is it his fault? Nah. He’s given them every chance to succeed. That’s all he can do. Sunday singles will determine how the captains are remembered, but for me the grades are already in.