Hard lesson for Americans

2014-10-04 00:00

THE aftermath of the Ryder Cup has been almost as interesting as the event that inevitably wound its way to a sixth European victory out of the last seven matches. The defeat inflicted further scar tissue on the already damaged psyches of the Americans. By the end of the contest, the oldest players in the USA team, Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson, looked fed up with being perennial losers to a team that was once regarded by their predecessors as not worth full attention.

The size of the modern Ryder Cup ensures that the ignominy of continued defeat is now occupying the minds of the officials of the American PGA. But they were left in no doubt what their players think by the nicely timed broadside delivered at his captain, Tom Watson, by an infuriated Mickelson at the post-match press conference. Mickelson has received a great deal of knee jerk criticism from the usual chorus of pundits including Nick Faldo who seems unable to resist any opportunity to make a thoughtless comment.

On the surface it might seem that Mickelson’s remarks were injudicious in respect of both their public nature and timing. In fact, what America’s longest serving Ryder Cup player did quite deliberately was to capture maximum attention for the frustrations felt by his team-mates. He implied that, unless things change, further defeats by the Europeans are a certainty. Mickelson pointedly referred to Paul Azinger as the only Ryder captain he had played under who had come with a plan and invested in his players.

Captains have long been chosen by the American PGA as a tribute to former Major title winners with scarcely a thought given to the age and man management capability of their selections. With the captains choosing their vice captains on the same basis, the result is that the management teams of the Americans have consisted of out-of-touch old timers whose attitude has been that what happens on the course is the sole responsibility of the players.

Their sole function was “to dispense advice if required”. That they should be the eyes and ears of a highly involved captain has escaped both them and the hierarchy of their PGA. Spectators at Gleneagles are adamant that the 70-year-old Ray Floyd, one of Watson’s deputies, was never seen to leave his buggy throughout the match.

The American PGA failed to draw any conclusion from Paul Azinger’s time as captain. When he delivered America’s lone victory in the last 15 years, the Europeans were captained by a detached Nick Faldo who had been given the job as a reward for his playing career without any regard to his well-known inability to look beyond his own narrow self-interests. He accepted advice from neither his successful predecessors nor his players, whom he dealt with on the basis that they, too, were possessed of his own aloof temperament.

Azinger on the other hand, went about it with the precision of a top class CEO or military commander. No detail was too small for Azinger. The players were involved in his decision making. In short, Azinger captained his team in the manner of all the successful European captains since Tony Jacklin, whereas Faldo took as his model the failed efforts of America’s former Major winners. The result was the less talented but charged up Americans easily dealt with Faldo’s demotivated troops.

The difference was that the Europeans learnt the lessons from Faldo’s failed captaincy while the Americans reverted to the model that served them well when the teams of Great Britain had been no match for their star players. One of the lessons in sporting life is that the seeds of failure are often sown in times of success.

Ted Bishop, the chairperson of the American PGA, is known to have forced the appointment of Tom Watson as captain for 2014 after reading Four days in July, the account of Watson’s near miss at the Open Championship in 2009. He had been persuaded that the American team needed a former player whom they respected as a golfer.

In Bishop’s mind no one fitted the bill more than Watson, who had done it all and shown that he was still competitive with the younger players. He claims to have consulted other luminaries before announcing Watson’s appointment but there is little doubt that his mind was made up by a book rather than an in-depth inclusive process.

What Mickelson’s outburst has done is to ensure that the lazy habit of choosing American captains from a handful of Major winners is broken. Bishop has already admitted as much. Ironically Paul Azinger, who could well be chosen as their next captain, actually fits the bill on that account having won the PGA championship.

It also seems certain that in future the American team will only be finalised after the Fedex Cup and Tour Championship. The changes that are surely coming will be due largely to Mickelson’s controversial intervention. It needed someone of his stature to draw a line in the sand.

The American PGA should have been shaken by the recent defeat for other reasons not least of which is the fact that television viewing of this Ryder Cup in the States slumped below that of both the NFL and college football. NBC, who have signed the television broadcasting rights for the Ryder Cup through to 2030, are concerned that further defeats will cause many viewers and advertisers to drop the event altogether.

The Europeans have no such problems.

Their template for success is well established. It is carefully handed down from captain to successor. The captains invest in the players between events. Newcomers to the team are nurtured within it. Friendships made during the Ryder Cup endure for life. On tour, the team-mates enjoy each other’s company off the course. As a team it is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Americans must surely understand that business as usual will not bring victory.

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