INTERVIEW: Team USA captain Tom Watson

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If anybody can, Tom Watson can. That’s the view of the PGA of America, who broke tradition by appointing the 64-year-old Ryder Cup captain for the second time. There is no more experienced, gutsier and pluckier golfer on the planet, and he is determined – no, desperate – to end America’s victory drought.

Watson, who captained USA to a 15-13 victory at The Belfry in 1993, loves the Ryder Cup, and hates losing. The shocking defeat at Medinah two years ago is still raw in his memory. He wants his side to play with pride and passion and show the spirit and fighting qualities he displays whenever and wherever he tees it up. Europe, you’ve been warned…

“It’s great to be at the helm again. As I informed Ted Bishop, president of the US PGA, I’d been waiting for the phone call to be asked to be captain again for almost 20 years. I enjoyed it immensely the first time around and always wanted the opportunity to do it again.

“We’ve got some good players confirmed on our team, but you look at the European team – they’re formidable, boasting both the US Open and Open champions. You look at their team and our team right now, it makes you wonder. But it’s still very early to judge either team because there’s still a way to go and form can change.

“For me, the most enjoyable thing about being captain is getting to know some of the younger players. I’ve had the opportunity to introduce myself and talk with them, play golf with them, talk about the Ryder Cup, talk about the golf swing a little and life in general. I’ve been able to get to know some of these players, and it’s very important to do that before we get over to Scotland, and to build a personal relationship with them and that they understand who I am and have an ease of communication with me.

“Down the years, the crowds have been very generous in their support of me and I’ve had a pretty good run with them in the UK. However, I’m under no pretence that the crowds are going to be swayed by my presence and will be rooting for the US team. On the other hand, Scotland is a place where they know and love golf and I’m sure the galleries will not only be wonderfully supportive of Europe, but also be in good form for our team as well.

“Gleneagles is a good venue, and I’m pretty sure the course will produce a lot of birdies. It’s in good shape – I played it a few weeks ago – though obviously the weather might be a factor. I think the course is straightforward, and easy to learn so our players who haven’t played it will get to learn it pretty fully before the bell goes off on Friday. And that’s very important.

“It’s the competition that’s driving me on now. I still enjoy playing competitions and sometimes I feel as if I can compete and that’s still the motivating factor to be out here. If I can’t compete, I won’t be out here.”

Tom Watson What are your key roles as captain?
“My main job is to pick three players. Number two is to form the partnerships and decide the order they’re going to play in. I’m a stage manager. I set the stage for the players to perform – if I can do that from a mental standpoint, that’s one of my chores to do. The functional chores are the picks and pairings. The mental chores are dealing with the players before, during and after the matches.

“The one thing I bring is experience in the matches, and that’s why the PGA of America chose me. You have to have experience to understand what the pressure is like and be able to help players who may have some difficulty in dealing with it. I hope the players create a wonderful bond with each other – as the Europeans do. It’s like the Three Musketeers; a ‘one for all and all for one’ mentality. It has been said that our teams are not cohesive, but that’s a non-starter. I’ve talked to all the captains and the teams have always been as cohesive as possible. My main hope is the players are all playing well so they can rely on their games to deal with the pressure.”

How will you decide on the three picks?
“Watching how they play under pressure is the most important factor in my selections for the three picks. How do they finish a tournament when they’re just behind or have the lead? I want players who are playing well at the time – and that will have a lot of weight in my decision making. I took a good look at the course and played it just before The Open and what I discovered on that trip about how the course is playing will go into my selection process. I’ll pick players who I think can handle that golf course.”

What do you think about Paul McGinley as your opposing captain?
“He’s a wonderful man and I have the greatest admiration and respect for Paul. We get along fine. We’re captains of two teams that want to beat each other’s brains out. We’re there to compete but we have a great respect for each other and we’ll both be doing the right things.”

What did you learn from your previous experience of being captain in 1993?
“The famous basketball coach Roy Williams told me he prepares a gameplan for his players before they play every game and invariably five minutes into the game the gameplan goes out the window and he coaches by the seat of his pants. That’s what happened in 1993 because we had a fog delay that created issues with some of the players in terms of dealing with the pressure. Everyone got tighter and tighter as it went on and on and I had to coach by the seat of my pants – and that’s what I did.”

What different challenges does playing in Europe pose for you and your team?
“I don’t think there’s any difference really because when you learn to win in America, you can win anywhere. If winning is part of your make-up then you’re going to win anywhere. I want players in my team who’ve won before and know how to stay in the lead and do the right things that are necessary to win.”

Are you particularly excited by the prospect of the team’s younger guys like Jordan Spieth?
“He played in the Presidents Cup so he has some international experience, but he was very nervous at that. When you have young people who haven’t played before that’s where I and other experienced players can help. Jim Furyk, for instance, would be a great soother of nerves for some of the younger guys. It will be the same for the European team – they’ll have rookies. The nerves will play out on both sides.”

Are you wary of any European players in particular?
“We have to be respectful and wary of anybody competing against us. I go back to the matches I captained in 1993 and the last fourball match on Saturday was John Cook and Chip Beck against Monty and Faldo. It was like throwing the lambs to the wolves as far as the headlines in the British tabloids were concerned – and the lambs ate the wolves in that last match, which gave us a really good feeling going into Sunday. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, you can still be beaten in matchplay.”

What is it about the Ryder Cup that enables some golfers to elevate their game to the next level?
“I think the pressure elevates certain people’s games. You see more shots holed from off the green in the Ryder Cup than you do in other tournaments and there’s only 24 guys playing (as opposed to a whole field). It’s unbelievable. The players respond to the greater pressure.”

How much would it mean to you to regain the Ryder Cup for America?
“It would mean a great deal to me, but I would love to see the players hoist the trophy up because they did it. I’m sitting on the sidelines rooting for those players and trying to create the best possible situation to let them go and perform. The most important thing is to have those players say, ‘I performed my best and I got a standing ovation’.”

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