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After the heavy 16 ½ to 11 ½ loss to Europe at the last Ryder Cup at Gleneagles two years ago, Phil Mickelson stunned the assembled media by launching a thinly-disguised attack on captain Tom Watson’s leadership of the defeated US team, highlighting Paul Azinger’s successful approach in 2008 and assigning the blame to the team having strayed from those methods.
Nobody bothered to tell Mickelson that although the US team were expected to put up a fiercer challenge, with four of the top five players in the world rankings and holding three of the four major titles, Europe were clear favourites and their superior players simply outgunned their old rivals.
With Watson looking understandably crestfallen – and as one of the greats of the game, such public criticism is not something he would have encountered before in this most genteel of sports – the reports afterwards concentrated on whether Mickelson would ever play in the event again, his public grilling of a legend deemed to be out of line.
However, the effect that a third defeat on-the-spin had on the Americans’ psyche meant that not only was Mickelson’s attack on Watson not acted upon in a disciplinary manner but instead an 11-man task force was appointed to analyse the reasons for the US team’s continued shortcomings and to identify a system that could be implemented to create a winning formula in its place.
A statement from the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) announcing this new initiative heralded the taskforce as being intended to “develop the right strategy and building ongoing processes and infrastructure for future generations of US teams”. Tiger Woods for one hailed the decision and believed it to be “a great step to accomplish what we all want – to win the Ryder Cup”.
Jim Furyk – who along with Steve Stricker, Rickie Fowler, Woods and Mickelson was appointed to the task force alongside three losing former captains in Davis Love, Tom Lehman and Raymond Floyd, and three heads of the PGA – believed the task force was “a big statement in my opinion….I thought it was a wonderful idea and I’m really anxious to hear the ideas.”
The problem so far is that new ideas seem to have been in short supply. It has yet to be confirmed that the US team will revert to Azinger’s ‘pod’ system of 2008 where the 12 players were put into three groups of four prior to the event and kept together through practice rounds and into the matches. Each pod was able to make decisions on pairings, when they would play, were able to pick the final member of their group pre-tournament and each had a vice-captain as the leader of that particular pod. Mickelson felt that in doing this Azinger ensured every player was invested in the event and all desperately wanted a successful outcome.
The task force’s first duty was to pick a captain and in a move redolent of Dick Cheney recommending himself when entrusted by George W Bush to find a suitable vice-president running-mate for the 2000 election, they found the right candidate from within their own ranks, namely Love. Their new captain was at the helm four years ago when, leading 10-6 going into the final day, the US team was drubbed in the singles with Europe winning 14 ½ to 13 ½ in what became known as the Miracle of Medinah.
In truth the appointment of Love reeks of safe establishment decision and Love’s speech before the singles this Sunday should be interesting; it is hard to escape the fact that no matter the score, the memory of that final day capitulation will linger in some players’ minds.
Love of course, has hit the headlines these past few days for some comments which have been assessed as being equal parts foolhardy and inaccurate. His contention that this US line-up is “a great golf team….the best golf team maybe ever assembled” has already been criticised for its potential to add extra motivation to their opponents while his side’s collective 11 major victories pales in comparison to many other previous teams; for example, the star-studded 1981 team had collected almost five times that total, a whopping 49.
Rory McIlroy, when asked by the Golf Channel for his take on Love’s views revealed his dry wit and steely competitive edge: "Definitely assembled the best task force ever, that's for sure…. it's up to us to go there and try to upset the odds."
It is hard to understand Love’s motives for airing views which would be perceived as being over-confident. Fellow task force member Mickelson might have told him that a key part of Azinger’s strategy in 2008 was to play up Europe as the favourites and to give his ‘underdogs’ an extra motivation in proving they were just as good as their more celebrated opponents.
Azinger, of course, isn’t a member of the task force and the only other winner in the last 10 events, Ben Crenshaw, isn’t either, although at least Azinger was asked to be. It’s unclear why the inclusion of fellow former losing captains on the task force, Floyd and Lehman, is necessary to break with the past, the former being a captain all the way back in 1989 while Lehman presided over a joint-record defeat at the K Club 10 years ago. Surely Crenshaw would have been a better person to include, considering his experience is a winning one.
Here is where it starts to look more like the task force may be a bit of a clique, having been assembled by players, current and former, who are friends off the course and hold similar views. While Woods and Mickelson could never be accused of being buddies, Stricker and Furyk are confidants of both and with the pair having lamentable records in the event (3-7-1 and 9-17-4 respectively), it’s unclear what they are bringing to the party.
Speaking of lamentable records, Fowler is currently the only player in Ryder Cup history to have played eight matches without winning a single one, claiming just three draws along with his five defeats. While Fowler’s passion for the cause could never be questioned, his poor recent form and dreadful record in the event should surely have left him out of contention for a captain’s pick. But Fowler’s a popular guy and players enjoy his company so it was the safe and easy call for the captain, picked by the task force, to pick a fellow member of the task force.
Two-time major champion Bubba Watson, who has a far-from perfect record in the event but has three wins in his eight matches, was omitted from the four captain’s picks and it is difficult to understand, particularly when one acknowledges that Hazeltine would suit his game, why he has been ignored. His surprise last-minute call-up as a vice-captain is strange when one thinks of his relative lack of popularity on tour (a survey revealed poor Bubba to be the player fellow PGA Tour pros would be least likely to help in fight in a bar).
Indeed Love admitted popularity could play a part in his decisions, saying "If somebody says: 'I want you to pick this guy because I want to play with him and we won't lose,' then we are going to take that into account,” which seems a strange approach to leadership. It appears that in the pursuit of leadership the US team have actually decided to ignore it and replace it with rule by consensus or clique if we’re being critical.
Love had talked about the experience among his eight automatic choices as a good opportunity to bring in young players who weren't tainted by previous defeats. But in reality he’s picked the same old veterans of past embarrassments to forge this bright new future.
Alongside Fowler, big-hitting JB Holmes, who enjoyed an impressive record on his one previous appearance in 2008, and Matt Kuchar were the first three of Love’s picks with Ryan Moore joining them as the last choice following his play-off loss to McIlroy at the Tour Championship. With Fowler and the safe hands of Kuchar easy picks to make and generally uninspired, and Holmes having clear credentials having finished in 11th spot in the Ryder standings, the only sign of new thinking came with Love waiting to see if anyone produced a stirring display at the weekend to force their way into the team. Moore did, so he fills the last slot on the team.
The jobs for the boys approach of the task force has seen some grumblings with David Feherty attacking its very existence: “How is a task force going to teach the Americans to play better? How is a captain going to change that? That’s totally BS.”
Lee Westwood, one of Darren Clarke’s picks for Europe, has questioned Woods’ role as a vice-captain and what experience he can bring having only been on the winning side on one occasion: "I don't know what impact there will be from having Tiger around. They have always struggled to find a partner for Tiger that's been successful. He could have an adverse effect in the team room.”
The alleged lack of a team ethos has been pinpointed as the principle reason why the US has such a poor record in recent years and Westwood feels that is why Bubba has been omitted.
However, having a group of players who are too close may not be the best approach either as everyone may be too nice to one another with nobody challenging views and opinions. There are countless examples of sports teams which included players who hated the sight of each other but who worked together to be very successful. In ignoring this and in placing harmony above all else, the task force may have missed the opportunity to really create a new lasting template. This, along with an absence of any new ideas, and a committee which is comprised mainly of people with losing experience, could be the US team and the task force’s downfall.
Although the bookmakers have the US as clear favourites, with five major winners apiece, the teams seem fairly evenly matched going into this weekend. While the US team contains only one rookie and includes a host of players who only have bad memories from past editions, the winning mentality in the European team and the rejuvenating effect of six rookies could tip the balance in the defending champions’ favour.
Experience can be overrated, particularly if it’s not of the winning kind, and the US team could pay the price for the task force’s unwillingness to break from the past.
Of course, should the US win back the Sam Ryder trophy on Sunday evening, the task force and Love will be hailed as huge successes. Change and fresh thinking was promised but little has been delivered; now the US must deliver an overdue victory in this great tournament or else there will be many who will want to ditch the task force and go back to the drawing board.
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