Right Field

In (Partial) Defense of Tom Watson

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.

Now, the truth is that some of us respond better to positive reinforcement than to tough talk or harsh criticism. But it’s also true that sometimes the best way to motivate others is to challenge them, to make them angry, to raise their hackles so they want to come out fighting. Challenge their manhood and, with good competitors, the likelihood is that they will “man up.” (Forgive the sexist phrasing, but, well, it applies, so there’s really nothing to forgive.) After all, stories are legion about Saturday night American Ryder Cup gatherings in prior years being alternately weepy and psychologically oh-so-uplifting — “You’re the greatest, man; no you’re the greatest; no, we’re the greatest: Let’s go kick butt!” — and yet, with the exception of whatever magic Ben Crenshaw pulled in 1999 (and the rather easy win in 2008), the results have been the same: The U.S. squad loses, almost always by getting consistently and decisively outplayed on the closing holes.

The truth is, this has been a soft generation of American players. How many times have how many of the supposedly top players actually stepped up their games and made birdies on the final holes of a tournament to take out Tiger Woods? Just about never. Instead, aside from a few journeymen with nothing to use, the usual response to Tiger’s glare has been to fold. This generation hasn’t had a Tom Watson or a Lee Trevino who could look the great Nicklaus in the eye and beat him down the stretch with marvelous shots. 

PGA Tour golfers these days all travel with entourages. They have swing coaches, caddies, short game coaches, mental coaches/sports psychologists, agents, fat endorsement deals, and royal treatment by tour sponsors at every stop. What nonsense. Nicklaus checked in with his coach Jack Grout about once a year. Lee Trevino’s only coach was the hard Texas dirt. Ben Hogan, practicing until his hands turned bloody, would probably have threatened to brain somebody with a wedge if that somebody dared suggest he hire a coach or, Lord forbid, a mental guru. The old-school ways bred self-reliance. The generation now aged approximately 30 to 50 or 55 might not be able to even survive without their vaunted entourages, their “support systems.”

But this team did have a fair number of relative youngsters. This team had several players who won majors at relatively early ages. Maybe they had the toughness that the half-generation before them lacked. Maybe all they needed was to be challenged. 

So that’s what Watson did.

After all, how many coaches, in how many sports, have used reverse psychology to great effect? How many coaches have achieved good results through berating their players at the right times? How many have deliberately tried to make the players even hate them (temporarily) in order to find a way to get the players at just the right state of hardened edginess? Scores? Hundreds? More. Probably thousands (upon thousands). For 15 years American captains have tried the old rah-rah. (Davis Love, for who I have tremendous respect, was described in one account as having the warm mien of a supportive older brother. It’s not his fault, but his team suffered a historic Sunday collapse.) That didn’t work. So why shouldn’t Watson, who was hired to be “tough” and to get the team to “buckle down,” try being harsh when kindness so many years had failed?

Really, how many times can players falter on the Back Nine; how many times can they lose the 17th or 18th holes; how many times can they miss fairways and duff chips and foul up putts when it really counts, before it’s time to try something different? 

So Tom Watson was mean to  players on Saturday night. Tom Watson was even rude. Tom Watson didn’t make them feel good about themselves. Well, good for Tom Watson. 

Okay, so maybe it didn’t work. And maybe — well definitely — some of his decisions were just downright poor, in terms of who to pair with whom and who to play when. Others have catalogued those criticisms, again and again, so I won’t belabor them. But two points should be made in Watson’s favor. First, why is nobody giving him credit for what turned out to be a stroke of genius, completely as unusual as it was, of putting rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed out as partners in the opening Four-balls, especially considering that neither had been playing well in recent weeks? Watson, using the tough-guy approach, even told them that he was throwing them into the water in order to force them to sink or swim. Well, it worked: They swam. Actually, better: They surfed. They were the stars of the show. They were terrific. Challenged rather than mollycoddled, them produced great results. So why shouldn’t Watson use that same psychology — the old-school, make’em perform without a net approach — for the rest of the team? If Stuart Smalley didn’t work, maybe Vince Lombardi would. But I digress. The point is that the unconventional pairing worked. Watson would have been blasted by the naysayers if Reed and Spieth failed, but instead they did great. Also superb was the new pairing of Ricky Fowler and Jimmy Walker. Meanwhile, the conventional pairings, the ones where players supposedly felt oh-so-comfortable with each other, failed spectacularly. Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson had a record as a great pairing. They bombed. Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley were supposed to be unbeatable, but they won their first match only because their opponents played even worse, and they were terrible in the second match. Matt Kuchar was supposed to be able to pair well with anybody. His teams bombed. And so on.

So, the only thing that had worked for Watson was when he took players out of their comfort levels. So why not take them out of their comfort levels again, why not be a burr under their saddles, when their backs were to a 10–6 wall? What was there to lose?

Finally, here’s the real rub of the green: It shouldn’t matter much who one’s partner is. A player’s job is to hit the ball from where it lies. In match play, his job is to get it in the hole better than the opponent does. The Euros consistently hit the shots when they need them. For 15 years, Americans haven’t. All of this Sturm und Drang about pairings and the like is overblown. The role of the captain is overblown. Either a golfer gets the ball into each hole in fewer strokes than his opponent, or he doesn’t. Ray Floyd wouldn’t be whining about pairings. Lanny Wadkins wouldn’t. Nicklaus wouldn’t. Trevino wouldn’t. Johnny Miller wouldn’t. Lord knows that Hogan wouldn’t. And of course Watson himself, in his heyday, never would have dreamed of such a thing. They would just go out and beat you. The current crop of Americans hasn’t done that. Tom Watson was right: They just got outplayed. Instead of pointing fingers, they should knuckle under and learn darn well how to win.

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