In captain Watson, U.S. has a throwback who can move the game forward

Watson nearly won his ninth major championship at the 2009 British Open at Turnberry.
Fred Vuich/SI

NEW YORK — The PGA got it right, calling in Tom Watson from the cold to captain the 2014 Ryder Cup team, when the matches will be played at Gleneagles, in Scotland. There will be 24 players and two captains and an army of assistants, but there won't be another person on the grounds who is a more revered figure than Watson.

Not Prince William or his good-looking wife. Not Medinah hero Ian Poulter or Darren Clarke, who might be Watson's counterpart for the European team. Watson, with his five British Opens and his three senior British Opens, will be as popular at Gleneagles as anybody. The man's a stoic, in victory and defeat, and the Scots love that.

(Related Photos: Tom Watson's Career Highlights)

Will that popularity help the Americans finally win a Ryder Cup road game, something they have not done since 1993, when Watson had his first stint as captain?

I think the answer is yes, but it has nothing to do with spectators shouting for Toom. It has everything to do with Watson as a symbol of American golfing greatness. The captains who have recently preceded Watson have all been accomplished players. But only Watson is in the pantheon of all-time greats.

And at the PGA of America's press conference on Thursday on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building, where Watson was introduced by PGA President Ted Bishop, Watson reminded us again about the root of his greatness: "I hate to lose."

(Related Photos: Past U.S. Ryder Cup Captains)

Many have said that. They all say that. But with Watson, it's not about saying it. (These days, hating to lose means showing up at Tour events and making cuts against players who were not born when he won his last major, in 1983.) Don't confuse Watson's man's-man style with Hal Sutton, who ran an old-school club in 2004 and got shellacked. Watson is lousy at bluster. It's his example that stands tall.

Watson will be 65 at Gleneagles, by far the oldest U.S. Ryder Cup captain ever. A bunch of the players will be half his age. There will be gaps between their lives and their interests and his. But if the players are smart, they will look at the example his golfing life provides and take a page from it. How he embraced bad weather, bad bounces and an often crooked driver. The only current American player who is really cut from the same mold is Tiger Woods.

(Related Photos: Tiger's Career in Pictures)

They are not friends. Watson has said various high-and-mighty things about Woods over the years, including that Woods "needs to respect the game more." (Who made Watson chief of the respect police?) Watson was nothing but conciliatory at Thursday's press conference.

Asked about his relationship with Woods, Watson said, "He's the best player maybe in the history of the game. He brings a stature to the team that is unlike any other player on the team. And if he's not on the team for any unforeseen reason, and I'm sure he will be, you can bet that he's going to be No. 1 on my pick list. My relationship with Tiger is fine."

Before the press conference, in a statement, Woods said, "I think he's a really good choice. Tom knows what it takes to win, and that's our ultimate goal."

That's a little PR game that won't fool anybody who has ever seen the two of them standing on a tee together, waiting to play. They share Stanford and the Champions Dinner at Augusta and a whole bunch of things. But there's not a closeness there. It seems unlikely that one will ever develop. For purposes of the U.S. winning a Ryder Cup, it does not matter. If anything, Watson's presence will act as some sort of motivator for Woods. He's always trying to prove somebody wrong.

There are really two parts to the Ryder Cup, and the importance of Part II has been lost in recent years. I have the hope that Watson can turn that around. Part I is that the Ryder Cup is the Super Bowl of golf, an intense, exciting competition that relieves us for three days from the monotony of our lives.

But Part II is what the Ryder Cup does for the game, and having an elder statesman like Watson running your show can only be a good thing, if he chooses to embrace it. The lords of American golf, in Watson's lifetime, have unfolded as follows: Hagen and Sarazen, Jones, Hogan and Nelson and Snead, Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson, a gap, then Woods. In fairness to Woods, it's too early to judge where he falls in that continuum, not as a golfer but as a figure in golf.

And that's why Watson is so important in this regard. I happen to think it's important that Rickie Fowler know something about Byron Nelson, that Bubba Watson know something about Sam Snead. The greatness of golf, or part of its greatness, is that there's one long path from Old Tom to Tom Watson. Watson can tell the kids on his team, in that intense week they are together, where the game has been. And that will help shape where it goes.