It was always going to be Davis.
The PGA of America, which runs the U.S. side of the Ryder Cup, never had another captain candidate for the 2012 team.
Fred Couples, despite his popularity and his success with the 2009 Presidents Cup team, was never a consideration, although you could easily see him being one of Love’s assistant captains next year. Paul Azinger, who changed the American team selection system en route to a rare U.S. win in 2008, was never a consideration. Bringing back the 2010 captain, Corey Pavin, who was highly regarded by the PGA brass, was never a consideration. (The board knew it wanted Azinger and Pavin in ’08 and ’10; it was the order they were unsure about.)
Nope, the job was always going to go to Davis Love III, winner of the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot and son of a PGA of America teaching professional, the late Davis Love Jr. The PGA title was a critical credential. Winning at least one major is considered a starting point for consideration. His father’s PGA membership helped, too. Arnold Palmer, Raymond Floyd and Curtis Strange are among the Ryder Cup captains who had fathers who were also in the golf biz.
But Love’s most important credential was simply his personality: his even-tempered demeanor, his skill in the press tent, his playing record, his ease with grown-ups (sponsors, PGA board members), his intense desire for the job, his intelligence, his methodical preparation.
When he spoke to board members about the job, he spoke about the importance of getting to know each player as an individual and treating him accordingly. In this, Love, a major seam-head, was taking a page from two veteran baseball managers with modern approaches to team play, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. Love’s point to the board was that the goal was to win, but that you could not treat a Ryder Cup rookie as you would Tiger Woods.
It had to be this year for Love. Not only did they want him as captain when he was still in his late 40s and a regular presence on Tour, but they also wanted him working a home game.
The board feels that some captains are better-suited to Cups played on U.S. soil. Jack Nicklaus, when he captained the ’87 team on a course he designed, Muirfield Village, would be the most obvious example of that thinking. But the PGA also wanted Hal Sutton (Oakland Hills in ’04) and, in the end, Paul Azinger (Valhalla ’08) to work Stateside. The PGA board — made up of 20 men and one woman — felt the same way about Love. The 2012 Ryder Cup will be played at the No. 3 course at the massive, sprawling Medinah Country Club, about 30 miles from Wrigley Field in Chicago. Can’t get much more American than that. Love will be 48 on opening day of the 39th Ryder Cup, on Sept. 28, 2012.
The PGA of America’s how-to-pick-a-captain formula — later 40s, at least one major — rules out a lot of good outside-the-box candidates: Joe LaCava (Fred’s looper) or Jack Nicklaus (age 70 and counting) or Jack Welch (former GE chairman, excellent motivator, noted golf buff). The last time the PGA really made a surprise pick was in ’63, when Arnold Palmer, 34 and at the height of his powers, was a playing captain. Picking Love was decidedly unsurprising.
The surprising thing was that Love told the board that he planned to do his best to make the team on points. And if he does, they would welcome him as a playing captain. There hasn’t been one since ’63. It would be improbable, of course, but nothing like impossible. At the U.S. Open last year at Pebble Beach, Love finished in a tie for sixth.
Motivation is a major consideration for any professional golfer, particularly a financially secure one in his late 40s. Love has motivation. Despite his 20 Tour wins, including the PGA title and winning the Players twice, he is not a slam-dunk for the World Golf Hall of Fame, where his to-die-for swing greets visitors on a video wall. A successful captaincy would help his chances. Playing on a winning team would help even more. Playing well on a winning team would make him an automatic.
Love had a T-9 finish, breaking 70 for all four rounds, at the Sony Open in Hawaii last week, his first tournament playing Bridgestone clubs and balls. Love has spent most of his career as the face of Titleist, and he expected he’d go off into the sunset with the familiar black-and-white Titleist bag. But Titleist and Love could not come to terms on a contract extension at the end of last year, and now Love is making his to-die-for swing with (some) Bridgestone clubs in his hands and (always) a Bridgestone ball at his feet.
Fred Couples pointed Love to Bridgestone, which has its American base in Covington, Ga., about five hours by truck from Love’s home in Sea Island. Love always drives a truck. (He’ll call a mini-van a truck. He’ll call a Hertz sedan a truck. He’ll call his rolling motor home where he bunks at most tournaments his truck.) For Love, the smolder runs deep. You can imagine him having extra motivation this year, trying to prove that Titleist made a bad move, letting him walk.
Love’s opposing captain will be Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, the 44-year-old two-time Masters winner and one of Europe’s best Ryder Cup players. Love is an open book when talking about himself in public and exceedingly discreet when talking about other players. But he has told friends that he regards Olazabal as possessing an almost perfect combination of golfing graciousness and steely resolve. He likes him. As players, they are near opposites. Olazabal made his best moves from 60 yards and in; Love made his from 220 yards and out.
In 1996, Olazabal did not play because of a mysterious foot injury that interfered with his walking, but not his swing. Some years later, Casey Martin sued the PGA Tour for the right to use a cart in competition because of a physical disability. Love was impressed by Olazabal’s response when he was asked why he never sought permission to use a cart: “It never occurred to me.”
With Love and Olazabal as captains, the 2012 games will have the opportunity to be played with the original sporting grace Samuel Ryder intended when he began the competition. To Nicklaus, to the golf writer Herbert Warren Wind, likely to Woods and many others, the Ryder Cup is nothing more than a significant golfing exhibition played for bragging rights among friendly countries. Since the ’91 Ryder Cup at Kiawah, only one Cup has had that founding vibe, the 2002 Cup, the one that was postponed a year because of the Sept. 11 attacks. That year Sam Torrance’s team defeated Curtis Strange’s, but there was no carping when it was all over. On Saturday that year, Love and Woods played together and won twice.
Typically, the PGA will announce the next captain within six or seven weeks of the conclusion of the previous Ryder Cup. The PGA waited this year not because it was undecided. The announcement could have been made at the Ryder Cup in Wales, where Love was an assistant to Pavin. The board members were impressed by Love’s willingness to do anything to help the team, including the distribution of dry towels to players in the wake of the rains that plagued last year’s competition. The board waited this year because it wanted to distance the Love announcement from the losing effort in Wales, not have them linked.
In early December, Love came to the PGA headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He could drive there blindfolded. He had a five-hour “interview” for the job. He talked about his experiences as a Ryder Cup player and what he’s learned from different captains. He told them that playing Ryder Cup golf has been the single most significant thing to him in his golf career.
When the interviews were over, dinner was served. The PGA was worried that word might leak out if they gathered in a restaurant, so they had dinner in a board room. Some thoughtful person retrieved the dinner menu used at the 1998 PGA Champions dinner, when Love, as the newest PGA champion, bought dinner for all the previous winners, an annual tradition that doesn’t get much attention, not compared to the equivalent dinner at the Masters. The menu consisted of fried chicken, biscuits, cobbler, all your traditional Southern fare. It wasn’t a post-interview dinner. It was a celebration. A good man was getting a job he craved.