Changing the Ryder Cup Odds

Whatever other qualities Paul Azinger has exhibited as a past — and future? — United States Ryder Cup captain, no one can say he doesn’t have a consistent message.

When I saw his quotes in stories by Steve DiMeglio of USA Today and Alan Shipnuck of in the wake of Europe’s resounding defeat of the U.S. Sunday in the 40th Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, Scotland, his comments sounded familiar.

USA Today: “There is a razor-thin line between winning and losing these matches,” Azinger said. “Europe has the intangible right now. They give themselves the extra 1% chance to win through its business model and cohesiveness. Even if you play blackjack perfectly in a casino, the casino still has a very slight edge against you. Right now Europe is the casino and the U.S. is the guy walking to the blackjack table with a fistful of $50s” “It’s a razor-thin difference between winning and losing,” he says. “We’re not miles away.” But with a rueful chuckle, he added this coda: “If you play perfect blackjack, the house has only a 1% advantage. But in Vegas they build great big casinos on that 1%. Right now Europe is the casino and America is the guy sliding up to the table with a fistful of 50s.”

Azinger clearly likes the casino analogy. Four years ago, prior to the Ryder Cup in Wales, in an interview for a Golf World story I did about the role of captains in the biennial event, he said: “It’s not up to me how they play. It’s up to me to recognize the winning edge at that level is razor-thin. If I can do anything, it’s create the environment to get the proper side of that edge. Vegas has a 1- or 1½-percent edge in blackjack, and they kick [butt] in blackjack. I just wanted to get that 1-percent edge. I didn’t feel the burden to motivate anybody. I knew it was up to the players. All I could do was control the controllables.”

Well, the Americans have lost three consecutive — and eight of the last 10 — Ryder Cups and the “controllables” are on a lot of folks’ minds as the latest U.S. loss gets dissected with the eagerness of a high school biology class with a new shipment of frogs and tweezers.

No doubt captains can and do count in the Ryder Cup. Maybe it’s the 1 percent that Azinger — whose winning “pod” and “like personalities” approach at Valhalla in 2008 that was part of the first U.S. win since 1999 wasn’t utilized by the three successive U.S. captains — talks about. Maybe it’s even more than that.

Certainly many of the Gleneagles post-mortems are centering on U.S. captain Tom Watson and what he did or didn’t do two decades after guiding America to a Ryder Cup win in 1993. The man whose golf game has been so uniquely full of life so often in his 50s and 60s didn’t have the same verve as a 65-year-old skipper of a team missing several top American players. PGA of America president Ted Bishop went old-school in selecting Watson, and the pencils and chalk broke. A country, once again, was no match for a continent.

I don’t think the Ryder Cup means more to Europe than the U.S., but it means something slightly different. That was evident again at Gleneagles, as it had been at Medinah, Celtic Manor, the K Club, Oakland Hills, The Belfry, Valderrama and Oak Hill — all the places there have been happy day-after headaches for the “Ode to Joy” gang starting in 1995. There may be an X factor that has no explanation. That was never more true than on the second day of the matches last week when Ian Poulter, clearly struggling in contrast to his superhuman last several Ryder Cups, had a pivotal and unlikely pitch-in that meant so much for his side.

So what should the Americans do so that their clothes, not those of the their European counterparts, might be stinking of champagne on a Sunday night in September?

Consider what has worked.

Tony Jacklin, who led Europe’s resurgence as its captain in the 1980s, told me in 2010 that Azinger was the only subsequent captain who had picked his brain about the Ryder Cup success. Jacklin had no deep secrets — he made sure everything was first class, oozed confidence and tried to be a true friend to his charges during the matches — but that Azinger sought his wisdom says a lot. Azinger’s team-building methods, broadly if not specifically, should be considered in 2016 and beyond.

It would be a radical change, but give the captain the opportunity to select his entire team, not just a couple of players. Azinger had increased the number of U.S. picks to four so that the squad might suit his ideal, but Watson — somewhat surprisingly, given his forthright approach to playing the game — reduced it to three.

Regardless of the specific evolution of the American captaincy or team between now and Hazeltine National in 2016, the status quo doesn’t seem to be an option. What happened in Scotland did not stay there. The man (or, why not, woman?) calling the shots and the men hitting them need to do different, and better. With rare exception, for a long time now, the percentages, whatever they are, aren’t adding up to a hundred for the U.S.




















































Two For The Show

Phil Mickelson wasn’t going to win the BMW Championship before he bailed on the final two rounds at Cherry Hills, but his exit formalized what, thanks to injury and ugly golf — or both — has been in view for weeks. With Mickelson’s early exit from Colorado, although it probably won’t be a priority for spectators disappointed not to see him this weekend, an era is officially over.

Each season from 1993 through 2013, either Mickelson or Tiger Woods — or both — won a PGA Tour event. That is 21 years, a generation, a lot of success for the two men who have defined this span of golf that began in one century and continued into another.

Seventy-nine wins for Woods in the period, 41 for Mickelson (whose other tour win, as an amateur at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open, predates it). A total of 120 victories that are the statistical lumber of their roles over two decades that have been dominating, captivating, mystifying, aggravating — sometimes all at once.

Without a victory by either golfer in the hyphenated 2013-14 PGA Tour season, during which the two stars were primarily frustrated by their ineffectiveness, the streak is over. It says Mickelson is 44 and Woods is 38 and that nothing is forever. It says they have been superb and tenacious golfers and we have been fortunate to watch them go, styles as different as right and left, disparate except for their appetite to be clutching silver or crystal after 72 holes.

Their tango at the top — Woods leading — compares favorably to previous duos who have won tournaments over long stretches. Over the past century four other winning pairs who were part of such enduringly successful streaks come to mind, every one of the golfers a legend.

Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, from 1918 through 1938, matched the 21 straight years of Mickelson and Woods. The next power twosome, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, had an even longer run if you throw out 1943, the heart of World War II. Excluding that season, when neither won, the Snead-Hogan run went from 1936 through 1961, 25 straight seasons. (The only years Snead didn’t have a victory in that period were 1947 and 1959.)

As Snead and Hogan were winding down, the two other eras were beginning.

When Mickey Wright won the 1956 Jacksonville Open, that started 23 consecutive years of winning on the LPGA Tour by she or Kathy Whitworth that concluded with Whitworth’s victory at the 1978 National Jewish Hospital Open. Whitworth would win a record 88 titles, Wright 82.

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus did the women one better on the PGA Tour, a 24-year stretch that started with Palmer’s 1955 Canadian Open triumph and ended with Nicklaus’ 1978 IVB-Philadelphia Classic title. Palmer (1955-71), Nicklaus (1962-78) and Whitworth (1962-78) have the longest individual streaks on the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour with at least one victory a year, 17. Those records figure to last a long time as surely will Gary Player’s 28 consecutive years (1955-82) of winning a tournament somewhere around the globe.

We’ll see in a few months whether Woods and Mickelson have the stuff to resume winning, to start a new streak to follow the old one, which began with Mickelson’s victory at the 1993 Buick Invitational of California and ended when Woods won the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

It won’t be easy for either of them, at or loitering at the top for so long. Golf years are not quite dog years. The very best keep their bark before we notice, or sometimes accept, their bite is gone. But with both Woods and Mickelson being shut out this season, age cannot be ignored. Win or lose, as for a generation, many will be watching.

The fabric of Tom Watson

No doubt the best birthday present for Tom Watson, who turns 65 today, would be a belated one: a Ryder Cup victory later this month by his United States team, which hasn’t won in Europe since 1993, his previous turn as American captain. Watson announced his three captain’s selections Tuesday evening and unveiled the team uniforms Wednesday morning — both on television, which scarcely had an interest in golf when anyone outside of Kansas City first heard of Tom Watson more than four decades ago.

The picks were scrutinized more than the threads, or at least one of them: Webb Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion who was all but absent in the major championships this season. Chris Kirk’s Deutsche Bank victory was too little and too late for a captain who already had three Ryder Cup rookies on his team along with the singular Bubba Watson, a Simpson pal and partner at the 2012 Ryder Cup.

In the long view of Watson, the fabric of his squad or its clothing will mean about as much as a practice round in January to a golfer’s chances at the Masters in April. The fact that Watson is still a public golf figure, not someone merely hitting balls on the back forty of his farm as he becomes eligible for Medicare, encourages an appraisal of how he got there.

Despite eight major titles among his 39 PGA Tour victories, Watson isn’t in the conversation as best golfer ever. Thanks to his grit and extraordinary competitive longevity, though, he loiters in the frog hair with the right to be justifiably proud that he was the best of his time, a juncture when he took the baton from Jack Nicklaus like a sprinter hungry to win a high-stakes race against the fastest man in town.

When Watson turned back Nicklaus in 1977, first in the Masters then a few months later in their epic showdown in the British Open at Turnberry, he defeated a longtime star still fit, focused and in no mood to be dislodged from his long reign atop the sport. With his improbable chip-in on No. 17 in the final round at Pebble Beach in 1982, a delicate shot that delivered an forceful upper-cut of disappointment to Nicklaus, who could taste his record fifth U.S. Open, Watson reiterated what he was all about. And he led the PGA Tour money list five times when the feat was still a true currency of achievement.

The clutch golf Watson played against the game’s 20th century standard of excellence to make his name will still be recalled some far-off date from now as among the finest ever. One fringe benefit of his role as U.S. Ryder Cup captain is that younger people will get a tangential reminder that the Midwesterner with the deep creases on his face and a walkie-talkie in his hand was as tough as they come when facing a shot or putt that really mattered.

More than his mere excellence, for my generation — I’m 55 — Watson is the great golfer that we have gotten to see with our own eyes from pre-prime struggles to peak performances to post-prime amazements led by his runner-up finish at the 2009 British Open at age 59. As intently as I’ve tried to study Nicklaus, I was only 3 when he won his first U.S. Open, 6 when he won the 1965 Masters in awesome fashion, 11 when he sailed his putter toward the sky upon winning his second British Open, at St. Andrews in 1970.

Nearly 20 years my elder, Nicklaus could have been my uncle, or even my father. Watson was like a silly-talented, super-dedicated, high-achieving big brother who hated failure and learned from it in equal measure, a rare and potent attribute for an athlete striving to succeed. Nobody likes losing, but not everybody can build something from the hurt as Watson did after early major blow-ups such as shooting a final-round 79 with the lead in the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Byron Nelson offered help and Watson accepted, the mentoring by one of the very best helping Watson to his first British Open victory the following summer at Carnoustie.

Not long after Watson’s disappointment at Winged Foot, I was a standard bearer for his grouping in the 1974 World Open at Pinehurst No. 2. For a 15-year-old totally hooked on golf, 18 holes with Watson was quite an education. There were detours — in the pines, in bunkers, in ill-conceived love grass someone thought was a good idea — but he never got lost. “Watson pars,” as he fondly remembers them, could be as creative as a brainstorming room of very smart people, and they sustained him until he sank a long birdie putt, or more than one. He was as unafraid of a significant comebacker as Arnold Palmer had been from the late-1950s until the mid-1960s.

But like Palmer, Watson’s window of putting invincibility wasn’t extended. By the late-1980s, trouble on the short ones — the 1987 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, when he lost to Scott Simpson, springs to mind — seemed make the odds long of his sticking around like Nicklaus, for whom age was never a saboteur on the greens.

Watson is an outlier for what came next, because instead of letting shaky putting drive him out of competition, as it does for so many, he persevered to win again. Sure, his last major victory did come when he was 33, but after a nine-year drought on the PGA Tour he won the 1996 Memorial when he was 46 and at Colonial two years later. Unlike one of his idols, Sam Snead, Watson didn’t go to an exotic putting method when things went south, he kept both hands in a conventional grip and kept on putting until they started to drop again. In a different kind of way, it was air as rare as when he was usurping Nicklaus with a putter touched by magic. Being more dogged than victim is hard work.

Along the way, in 1994, Watson had a revelation about how to swing the club. He began keeping his shoulders on the same plane on backswing and downswing and not finishing in the reverse-C position as prevalent in the 1970s as loud pants and hard collars. It simplified his ball-striking that had always been nurtured by heavy practice and has allowed him to do the things he has done in recent years like winning the 2011 Senior PGA Championship at the record age of 61 or threatening to win that event again this year when he closed with a 65 at age 64.

Of course, what will always be the atomic asterisk on Watson’s record, what will distinguish him from golfers who have won more, is how he had walked the 2009 British Open so far down the aisle it was crazy. At 59, 11 years older than the oldest major winner. Twenty-six years after his eighth and final major triumph. With an artificial left hip. Without appearing that it was any big deal when it was sport’s — not just golf’s — arguably all-time almost.

He was on the 18th hole on a Sunday afternoon at Turnberry, where he’d won remarkably 32 years earlier, an 8-iron and two putts away from achieving something of a size never seen, an extra dimension beyond a record sixth British Open. Then there was a puff of wind or a piece of extra-firm turf where the ball landed, perhaps both, and presently Watson had an eight-footer for a winning par that made him, for a painful instant as the ball rolled weakly toward a playoff and second place, seem every bit his advanced golf age.

Men, some of them roughly a third Watson’s age, will have eight-footers during the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles that mean a lot, if not the weight of his singular putt at Turnberry. Whatever he says or whatever you think, there will be occasions when Watson wishes he had a putter in his hands, alone in a crowd to win or lose, to see what he is made of one more deliciously difficult time. That’s whose birthday it is.