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Post Ryder Cup and Tom Watson
Created by John Eipper on 09/30/14 3:51 AM

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Ryder Cup and Tom Watson (Randy Black, USA, 09/30/14 3:51 am)

John Eipper asked for my feedback to David Duggan's 29 September lambast of Tom Watson and the US Ryder Cup team's loss to the European Tour team.

First, a bit of history: The Ryder Cup was founded in 1927 as a match play contest every two years between the US PGA team and Great Britain's. The Republic of Ireland was added to the GB team in 1953. The original setup featured the top money winners from both team's countries.

For those readers who are not familiar with the match play format, it's a matter of one player competing against another, one hole at a time over 18 holes. For instance, if you make take 9 strokes to get your ball in the hole on a par 4 hole and your opponent takes 4, you're still losing by only one (hole). You make a 3 on the next hole and your opponent shoots a 6, the match is tied.

In 1979, because Great Britain and the Irish were not doing well against the Yanks across the pond, the rest of Europe and really the world was made eligible to compete against the USA. There are variants of the one-against-one format, such as 2-man teams competing against the European 2-man team, called a four-ball match, but the matter remains that virtually all of the picks for each side's teams are determined by the individual pro's records over a one-year period.

Each side's captain is allowed to select one or two players who otherwise do not qualify based on money winnings over the prior year's competitions.

Once the team is assembled, each captain determines who will play the following day against the other side. One captain reveals their picks and the other captain responds. That's about it.

That David Duggan is second guessing American Captain Tom Watson for his team picks in the recent losing effort, it's unfortunate. Watson did not set out to disappoint David.

Watson is one of the greatest strategists of all time. He is a five-time winner of the British Open, was the leading money winner on the PGA Tour five times at the height of his career, won eight major championships during his career, more on the senior tour, dozens of other championships and at age 60, 26 years after his last major win, he finished second in the 2009 British Open. He's an all-around nice guy who is loved as much in England as in the USA.

That 2009 Open Championship was the most heart-breaking thing I've ever seen on a golf course. You had this nearly 60-year-old, arthritic professional trying to nurse it in on the final hole for an unbelievable 6th championship against an early 30's Stewart Cink.

Watson limped up the 72nd hole fairway of the Open Championship, needing only a par to win his 6th Open trophy. His approach shot flew over the green into deep grass. He sculled his chip past the hole and flubbed an 8-foot putt to fall into a tie with Cink.

Within an hour, he lost the 4-hole playoff. If there's a point in one's golfing life where you tend to lose your "touch," it's the tendency in old age to choke over short putts. Watson did. It was Watson's tournament to win on the last hole and after the bogey 5, he never had a chance during the playoff. You could see his balloon deflate on that final hole when his potentially winning putt missed. You just knew he was done.

I cried along with the millions who watched this sad finish on global television.

More background: Watson defeated Jack Nicklaus, the unquestioned greatest golfer in the history of golf, in the 1977 and the 1982 British Opens. In addition to his five British Open championships, he has three British Senior Open trophies (players over age 50) for a total of 8 Open Championships. For the unknowing, the British Open is simply the Open. In the US, it's the US Open. In Merry Old England, it's simply "the Open."

Regarding the matter of the recent loss to the EU golf team, we are faced with the matter of the global growth in the popularity of golf. Today, whether you are from South Korea, Fiji, Rio, Dallas, Toronto, Juárez or Barcelona, you have an equal chance of achieving greatness on the golf courses of the world. But only if you are determined, hard-working, athletically talented, have great eye-hand coordination, are intelligent and especially willing to work at golf, no matter the weather or the day of the week.

Note: I took the attached photo before the final round of the Byron Nelson Championship at Preston Trails Golf Club in Dallas in 1975. I processed the color film myself and made the print in my darkroom and got Tom to sign it at the tournament the following morning. I had not spoken to him for about four years, yet he asked me by name about my golf career and how I got into news photography. He won the tournament about five hours later. His prize that day was $35,000. These days, the same win would result in something north of $1 million.

Tom Watson is one of the finest people I've ever played with or have known. And I've known and played with a few.

Tom Watson, © Randy Black, c. 1975

JE comments:  An excellent appraisal of a golfing legend.  And judging from recent photos, Watson still has the hair.

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  • Tom Watson and Sportsmanlike Losing (John Heelan, UK 09/30/14 7:22 AM)
    I agree with Randy Black (30 September). Tom Watson assembled a great team for the Ryder Cup, with some of my US heroes and a few new faces. Golf depends not only on skill and luck but also the equanimity of the player under pressure. Over a long competition like the Ryder Cup (and Augusta for that matter), the pressure is intense and unrelenting. It is not surprising that players suffer peaks and troughs in mental attitudes. One can blame that pressure when in the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island (US), Bernhard Langer missed the last putt in the last match (about 6 feet and easy for a professional) to allow the US to win the Cup.

    In 2014, both teams were outstanding, but this time the luck was with the Europeans. What disappoints me is the intemperate outburst from another of my US heroes--Phil Mickelson--about Tom Watson's captaincy. Mickelson has gone down in my estimation for appearing to be a bad loser, something that is anathema to Brits, specially golfing Brits.

    JE comments: Playing-fields of Eton, etc. Together with pluck and the stiff upper lip, sportsmanlike losing might be the greatest virtue Britain bequeathed the world--not that they've lost many of the "Big Matches." World Wars I and II come to mind.

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    • Tom Watson (David Duggan, USA 09/30/14 3:41 PM)
      In response to Randy Black (20 September), I certainly meant no disrespect to Tom Watson personally or to assail his accomplishments both on the course and off. By all accounts, Tom is a gentleman (a woman I know dated him briefly, and he was anything but the pig that became Tiger Woods), and his love and support for his 30+ year caddie, Bruce Edwards (who died in 2004 of ALS, otherwise Lou Gehrig's disease) is the stuff of legend. I, too, was silently cheering for Tom at the 2009 Open, and cringed when he flew that 8 iron over the 18th green (if he was such a good tactician, however, wouldn't he have realized that: 1) he was high on adrenaline and likely to over-muscle the shot, and 2) you gotta be below the hole, but we all make mistakes).

      But for many years, the US Ryder Cup team has not lived up to expectations. And for that, you must look to the captain who makes the captain's picks that round out the US team and sets the pairings in these arcane, only-in-the-Ryder-Cup events known as "four-ball" and "alternate shot." He also picks who will play whom on the final day of "singles competition," again according to the "match play" scenario that Randy described.

      Let me explain. I take as a given that "on any given day," any of these players could beat any other, either in match or "medal" (low-total-strokes) play. Still, more than most sports, golf is a game of streaks and meltdowns (can you say Greg Norman's 1996 Masters?), and in my experience, it is a game that you have to play completely within your ability level. You can't reach back for more, psych yourself up to hit a 300 yard drive when you average 250, because you are only playing against yourself and an inanimate object called the course. The swing is too complicated (lots of moving parts), the ball too small, and the cost of error too great if you get it wrong for "once more into the breach, lads" exhortations to have any positive effect.

      So, the captain, with a rough equivalence of talent, has to make choices. In 2010 and 2012, captains picked Tiger Woods though he did not have enough points to qualify on his own (because of injuries and zipper-induced auto accidents), and Woods went on to post a total 3-4-1 record (OK, he won 3 matches and lost 1 in 2010, and lost 3 and tied 1 in 2012, and if he had won one more match each year, the Cup would have been America's for the next two years, as the margin each year was one point, and he's the greatest player on the planet?). Though not recently, Woods has been paired with Phil Mickelson, and those two guys positively hate each other. In short, chemistry counts, and Woods lacks chemistry with just about anyone on the tour. His 13-17-3 Ryder Cup record pretty much proves that.

      In 2008 Woods was not available, and not coincidentally I submit, that's the only time in the last 15 years that the US won the Cup. The captain, Paul Azinger, made a point of having his team practice as they would be paired. A one-slam wonder (the 1993 PGA over the ill-fated Norman), "Zinger" knew how to get the most out of the talent, and if I may offer an observation about coaches: it is not the most athletically gifted who make the great coaches (contrast Phil Jackson, Tony LaRusso, and Earl Weaver with Ted Williams and Isiah Thomas), but the average guy who can inspire the lesser talents to equal their predicted abilities. As a one-time superstar, on anyone's list of the 10 greatest of all time, Tom Watson may lack the ability or the interest to inspire those lesser talents who do not need two hands to count the number of Grand Slam trophies on their mantles. It is those guys who win you Ryder Cups.

      JE comments: I never thought of that, but David Duggan is right: the greatest coaches always seem to have been also-rans when playing the sports they coach.

      By the by, the baseball playoffs start in a couple of days. I'll be cheering of course for the Detroit Tigers, who are now managed by former Houston Astros catcher Brad Ausmus. His baseball career was not Hall of Fame stuff, but as a Dartmouth man (wink to David), I'm sure he'll know what he's doing in Baltimore this Thursday.

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    • Sportsmanship and the British Empire (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 09/30/14 4:24 PM)
      Commenting on John Heelan's post of 30 September, JE said this about the British: "Not that they've lost many of the 'Big Matches'--World Wars I and II come to mind."

      I fully agree about WWI, but one of the big losers of WWII was the UK with its British Empire.

      The UK declared war on 3 September 1939 when it was practically the greatest power in the world. On the maps the red color of the British possessions was overwhelming.

      But on 8 May 1945, even if the UK was among the victors, it was no longer a great world power while its empire was imploding.  So did the French empire.  Over the following 15 years the British Empire was completely gone, and it remained only an obsolete monarchy good only for attracting tourists and money.

      Just look at a map of the world from 1939 and then at a map from 1961, and you will notice that the overwhelming red color, mentioned above, had completely disappeared.

      Not only that, but already during the war the UK, in spite of the proud actions of its leaders, admirals and generals and the bravery of its soldiers, it was already the Junior Party of the coalition.

      The Soviet Empire collapsed years later in an even worse manner, but apparently Russia is recovering, while the UK cannot be more than the First Colony of the Empire.

      JE comments:  I would argue that the British Empire didn't lose out in WWII, it was the whole notion of empire.  Imperialism had simply run its course in world history--and that's a good thing, in my view.

      I'll let our UK colleagues respond to Eugenio Battaglia's favorable comparison of Russia's present well-being and that of Britain.  I believe Eugenio's point is that Russia is subservient to no other country, and the UK is.

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