Rarely has a revered figure in sports, especially in gentlemanly golf, been so widely eviscerated (absent a major scandal, as with the fall of Tiger Woods) as legendary champion Tom Watson in the wake of his captaincy of last week’s failed U.S. Ryder Cup team. Younger legend Phil Mickelson already blasted Watson by implication in an awkward press conference right after the competition ended last Sunday, and columnists already were pronouncing Watson a “terrible captain” (and expressing similar judgments) even before the news broke in the past day or so that Watson had treated his players roughly and even rudely during the three days of competition and especially the night before the final day’s singles matches. In the past 24 hours, the critics have piled on, and it seems as if there is not a soul taking Watson’s side.
Well, as they say, let’s ride into the breach. But first, some background.
Probably nobody has ever accused Watson of being warm and cuddly. He’s a tough guy. And he always has been a bit of a know-it-all (or more than a bit), and a bit too full of his own sense of righteousness. One remembers a scene years ago in which, quite unpleasantly, he publicly accused the great Gary Player of cheating. Watson could have quietly pointed out to Player that he thought Player had improved his lie and give Player a chance to make up for it himself (as golfers often do, such is the code of honor of the sport). If Player did improve his lie (which nobody but Player really knows), it could have been a minor, absent-minded thing, rather than a deliberate attempt to cheat. But no: Watson was definitive, accusatory, even nasty.
Watson also has treated Jack Nicklaus, at least in public, quite oddly. For nearly four decades now, Nicklaus has waxed almost poetic about his high regard for Watson, as both a golfer and a man — and, so devoted is Nicklaus as a friend that he several times in public has sounded almost choked up when talking about Watson, and . . . well, enough stories. The odd thing is that Watson really hasn’t reciprocated, at least not in public. I can’t remember ever seeing or hearing Watson speak really fondly — respectfully, yes, but not fondly – of his older competitor and erstwhile friend. I’ve seen occasions where interviewers all but asked Watson to say something really nice about Nicklaus, to which Watson responded with praise . . . for Nicklaus’s wonderful wife Barbara, instead.
On the other hand, Watson is known, rightly, as a man of deep personal integrity. He is punctilious about the rules of the game. He has taken stands, at some cost to himself, against religious bigotry and intolerance. And he has gone out of his way to help younger golfers overcome serious problems with the bottle (a problem he himself reportedly suffered for a while, but willed himself out of). Aside from the incident with Player, he almost always has been publicly gracious in both victory and defeat.
Still, the reason he was chosen to be captain this year, breaking the mold by serving at age 65 (usually Ryder Cup captains are in their 40s), is that, with his fierce competitiveness and persona as a no-nonsense tough guy with a record so commanding of respect, the PGA obviously thought he might be able to instill some of his toughness into a U.S. team that was the inheritor of a growing record of late collapses.
Here’s what 2012 captain Davis Love said back in January about Watson’s impending captaincy:
“He’s going to shock a lot of people,” said Love, the 2012 U. S. captain. “He’s going to captain this team. It’ll be a good change. He’ll shake it up a little bit. He’ll be tough and fun. He’s very intense. He’s not a laid-back Fred Couples. It’s a perfect time to have somebody like Tom. As my mom says, it’s time to buckle down. Tom Watson is a good one to get them to do it.”
Hence, it should have been expected, when the U.S. golfers played horribly on Saturday afternoon to fall behind by a daunting 10–6 tally heading into Sunday’s twelve singles matches, that Watson wasn’t going to go the gentle route. None of this Stuart Smalley happy talk about how great each team member is; nothing “new age,” nothing rah-rah. The truth is that the players weren’t getting the job done, and Watson told them so.