Perhaps the less said, the better, about the embarrassing American results in this year’s Ryder Cup and indeed in Ryder Cups in general dating back 20 years, apart from Ben Crenshaw’s team’s mystical comeback at Brookline in 1999 and the anomaly of semi-easy win at Valhalla in 2008. It was eight full years ago that I wrote a whole column asking if Americans are becoming losers (athletically), and summarizing the theme by writing that “SADLY, THE PROBLEM DOESN’T SEEM to be confined to sports. Somewhere along the way, our national will, our national hardiness and our national competence seem to have started to wane.” In the Ryder Cup, the astonishing statistic (if I heard it correctly) entering today’s singles matches was that of the last 31 Ryder Cup games that went all the way to the 18th hole, the United States had won the 18th hole only three times.
The other statistic (again, I might have mis-heard the exact number, but it was something like this) was that the U.S. team this year, or maybe beginning on the afternoon of the second day, had won only four individual holes on the back nine compared to 35 back-nine holes won by the Europeans.
I should have stuck with my idea that “the less said the better.”
Let’s move on. After having lost eight of the past ten Ryder Cups, including two by crushing nine-match margins and another in a historic collapse, what in tarnation can the United States do to keep these competitions from becoming as nearly irrelevant as they were for many decades when Americans routinely stomped what was then the squad of tiny Great Britain (no continental Europeans)?
A lot of people think that choosing the right captain will be the magic bullet, but I think the captain’s overall effect is overrated. Sure, Crenshaw’s mysticism was the key in 1999 (although even then it certainly helped that 10 of our 12 players, all but Steve Pate and Jeff Maggert, rank probably among the best 75 players of all time, probably higher — and Maggert had regularly showed up quite well in major tournaments and was a superbly steady performer). And Seve Ballesteros clearly willed an undermanned Euro squad to victory at Valderrama in 1997, with help from some odd decisions by American captain Tom Kite. But Davis Love really made no obvious mistakes as captin during the collapse of 2012, and, frankly, most of the other controversies about captain’s choices were overblown.
Still, let’s start there. Who should be the U.S. captain for the 2016 matches at Hazeltine? The American cupboard of obvious choices in their mid-to-late 40s is nearly bare. Some will suggest that Steve Stricker should be the choice, because he’s popular with his fellow Tour members and he served as an assistant captain this year. I am a huge fan of Stricker’s, but I say no. Maybe I’m old school, but I just flat-out do not think an American should serve as Ryder Cup captain without at least one major title to his name. Stricker, as good as he has been, fails that test.
The next choice based on career record — the one most obviously passed over this year in the Tom Watson experiment — is David Toms, who will be just the right age then (49), who is still a decent player on Tour, and whose 13 Tour victories include a PGA title. He’s a good competitor and a good guy. He would be my selection.
But several others suggest themselves. The PGA of America could continue its new experiment of going with seniors near or over 60 (even though Watson was unsuccessful — not his fault) with one of three people: 1) the always underrated Larry Nelson, he of the three major titles and excellent 9-3-1 Ryder Cup record. Along with the next choice, he ranks as one of the two players most strangely passed over as captain. 2) Mark O’Meara. With 16 Tour wins including two majors, he also has the distinction of being perhaps the only person able to get Tiger Woods’ head right. O’Meara befriended Woods from Woods’ first days on Tour, and could really make a difference in getting Tiger finally to be an inspirational and performance leader on the team. On the down side, O’Meara permanently ticked off the PGA of America by his loud and unseemly bellowing for Ryder Cuppers to be paid. 3) Ben Crenshaw. With the atrocious American performances for eight of the ten last Cups, our only hope might be some more Crenshaw mysticism. If I were he, I would be reluctant to get back into the fray and risk a smudge mark on the remarkable legacy of 1999. But if anybody can awaken friendly ghosts, Crenshaw is the one.
But if the PGA wants to return to the usual template of 40-somethings who are unlikely to make the team as players, and if for some weird reason they don’t choose David Toms, there are a couple of other possibilities. The first would be the enigmatic David Duval, whose playing career appears all but over and who suddenly this year has come out with an approachable persona. He’s always been a bit of an odd duck, a loner, and I’m not sure what his relationship with other players is. But his career record, at least through 2001, was that of a real star, and he can call on the memories of being part of the famous 1999 team. The second would be Justin Leonard, although I would certainly wait until one or two bienniums to give him what should be at some point a definite opportunity to be the captain. Leonard will be 44 at Hazeltine; I might wait until he is 46 or 48. Then again, the only two times the U.S. has won since 1993, Leonard was a member of the team each time. Maybe he’s a good luck charm — and, unless his game picks up, the only way to get him on the team is as captain, because he doesn’t look likely to qualify as a player. With a U.S. win being do desperately needed in order to keep the event among the world’s great sporting contests, we might not have the luxury of waiting beyond 2016 to use a good luck charm.
The only other name that seriously suggests itself for the captaincy is that of Paul Azinger, the inspirational, gritty, intensely patriotic, successfully winning captain in 2008. I’d love to see him make a return effort. Behind Toms, he would be my second choice. The only reason he wouldn’t be first is that I think that with the exception of legends like Watson (and maybe Crenshaw), the captaincy should be only a one-time thing.
Okay, now, beyond the captain: What can be done? Is our selection process flawed? Others say yes, but I say no, or at least not in the way that most critics say. Players are so streaky that trying to go with the “hot hand” is absurd. Hunter Mahan, after all, was the “hot hand” just over a month ago, and then played badly in his immediately subsequent tournaments. At some point, collective results really should be the determining factor. We’ve already gone from having the captain making his wild card choices right after the PGA to having him wait an extra couple of weeks. We’ve already gone from two wild cards to three. We’ve already gone from using two full years of point accumulation to using only the majors for two years while the rest of the points must all come from the current Tour season. None of it has made the difference. Hot-handedness is not the answer. Excellent players prove themselves over time, and if they are truly excellent, they will rise to the occasion regardless of any recent hot hands or lack thereof.
The only thing I would change is that I would revert to the old system whereby money earned wasn’t the determinant of the “automatic” spots, but instead only Top-10 finishes would count. Money earned (with double money for current-year major earnings) distorts things in two ways. First, there are so many “special” events with outsized earnings and often no cuts (mainly the World Golf Championship events) that qualifying for those events gives a player an outsized advantage, even if he plays poorly in them. Second, too many players accumulate “dollar points” via a string of made cuts without high finishes. What gets stressed there is not excellence, but sustained performance semi-decency.
True, Tour depth is such now that it’s arguable a top-15 now is as tough as a top-10 finish was 20 years ago. Okay, how about this? Let’s use something close to the old point system, but with points for top 10s in the out-year majors (and bonus points, of course, for winning out-year majors), and points for top 15s of all tourneys in the current year — but with double points for current-year majors and bonus points for major victors, with the TPC top-15s earning points-and-a half and the match-play finalists getting a points-and-a-quarter.
It’s a helluva lot easier to make a putt for the difference between 30th place and tied 25th than it is to really be in contention, and much tougher to make a putt when knowing that getting into the top 15 means it’s the only way to win points at all. That sort of pressure, and that emphasis on excellence rather than bottom-feeding, should help find players better able to perform under Ryder Cup pressure.
But other than that, as I argued in my column eight years ago, I think the problem is cultural. No captain, and no system, can make up for the products of a soft society.