Timing is everything, isn’t it? Just ask Billy Horschel.
A month ago, Horschel was primarily known as a talented but temperamental PGA tour pro who wore funky pants, including a rather unfortunate elephant print that he sported en route to a less than stellar final round at the 2013 US Open. His 2014 season was decidedly so-so until about 3 weeks ago, when he caught fire – a 2nd at TPC Boston, and back to back wins at Cherry Hills and East Lake (staring down Rory McIlroy in the process at the latter), resulting in almost $3.5 million in tournament winnings, the $10 million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup, and a big headache for Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson.
Watson had to make his three captain’s picks for the Ryder Cup at the beginning of the month, and at that time took some heat for taking Webb Simpson over Chris Kirk. Now with Horschel’s recent run, there is sudden clamoring for holding off on those picks until the completion of the Tour Championship at East Lake.
Such is the effect of the Ryder Cup, which, ever since Jack Nicklaus recommended that the former Great Britain and Ireland team be expanded to include European countries, has become a biennial passion play, cast by the European and PGA Tours and their respective captains, watched by wildly partisan crowds, and marked by play both spectacular and absurd. The next act is scheduled for the end of September at the Centennial Course in Gleneagles, Scotland.
It’s pure golf, with nothing on the line except for a piece of hardware and team pride.
It has also, to the chagrin of golf fans in this country, has become almost a European victory ritual. Officially, since the Euro expansion in 1979, Europe leads the series, 9 to 7; however, in this millennium, the US has been victorious exactly one time; that being in 2008 at Valhalla. It also has not won overseas since 1993, when Watson captained the team that defended at The Belfry.
There are lots of explanations given for the recent Euro dominance – my own theory is that the late Seve Ballesteros, the patron Saint of all European Ryder Cup teams, left a vial of his blood behind and has some injected in all Euro team members – but the plain truth is that while the American team wants to win the Ryder Cup, the European team needs to win it. When asked if he’d trade his Ryder Cup record and team victories for a single major championship, Colin Montgomerie’s answer was an emphatic “No.” Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, and Lee Westwood might falter down the stretch at the Open or the PGA, but are stone cold assassins in the Ryder Cup.
The 65-year old Watson campaigned hard for this year’s captaincy – usually the position is given to an active Tour player. There’s no doubt as to his passion for the event, and his popularity in Great Britain (and particularly Scotland) should have a positive effect regarding the reception the US Team receives at Gleneagles.
But being a US Ryder Cup captain has not been a particularly enjoyable task in recent years. Of course, losing leaves said captain open to second-guessing, and there’s a virtual treasure trove of reasons for our failures in this completion. Let’s take a stroll down Desolation Row:
1989 – Captain Ray Floyd at the pre-Cup dinner eschews introducing his team individually, instead mimicking Ben Hogan’s infamous proclamation at the 1967 competition that he had brought the “12 best players in the world “ to the competition [Ballestreros, never one to overlook any kind of slight, perceived or otherwise, was fit to be tied at that statement]. He then watched as no fewer than 5 of his men knocked it in the water at The Belfry’s notorious 18th on Sunday.
1995 – Captain Lanny Watkins chose a slumping Curtis Strange as a captain’s pick. Strange reciprocated by losing to Nick Faldo on the final hole of their singles match, a major contribution to that year’s US defeat.
2004 – Captain Hal Sutton decides to pair Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in fourball and foursomes, the worst piece of matchmaking since Taylor Swift hooked up with . . . ok, bad example.
2010 – Captain Corey Pavin was chastised for not having the proper raingear for the team (no, I am not kidding). [NOTE: When it comes to wardrobe choices, the European squad wins that battle hands down, every time].
So Watson’s team goes into this year’s Cup a decided underdog. His counterpart, Paul McGinley, fields a team that features 4 of the top 5 ranked players in the world, along with proven Cup commodities like Garcia, Poulter, and Westwood (his own selection of Stephen Gallacher over former world #1 Luke Donald caused nary a ripple across the pond). He also has Victor Dubuisson, he of the otherworldly short game who pulls off shots like this.
The US, on the other hand, is coming in at less than full strength. Dustin Johnson is “taking a leave of absence” (PGA-speak for “suspended”), Jason Dufner’s neck is keeping him sidelined, Matt Kuchar’s back is balky, and Watson was apparently desperate enough to consider a crippled Tiger Woods for the team. Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk are the most experienced (albeit a combined 23-35-10 in past Cups). Zack Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Kuchar, and Bubba Watson have had their feet in the fire, and Ricky Fowler, Keegan Bradley, and Webb Simpson have gotten theirs wet. The self-proclaimed Next Best Player in the World Patrick Reed, the precocious Justin Speith, and journeyman-made-good Jimmy Walker are all Ryder Cup rookies. For some reason, I think Walker might be the guy who shines from this group; he has a bit of swagger and could get under the skin of a few of the Euros.
But the Ryder Cup does strange things to the best golfers. In the 1991 Cup, 1989 Open Championship winner Marc Calcaveccia shanked one so badly in his Sunday singles that the only comment NBC announcer Charley Jones could say was, “Are you kidding me?” [Partner Johnny Miller, one never to be outdone, added, “I think the maximum height on that thing was about 2 feet.”] . Mahan has been at both ends of the spectrum – he was a key factor in the win at Valhalla, but was reduced to tears in 2012 when he lost the decisive match to Grame McDowell. On the other hand, non-entities like Americans Anthony Kim, Boo Weekley and Jim Gallagher, as well as Europeans Peter Baker, Eduardo Molinari, and a peculiar Irish guy named David Feherty have fared quite well at the Cup.
In any event – most experts are predicting a decisive European victory this time around, and who can really blame them? Right now, the only thing imaginable that would be a hindrance is the Scottish Independence vote, which could cause some scuffles among the usually united European fan base (the Euro spectators are notorious for “taking one for the team” – i.e.; letting an errant shot from one of their golfers hit them to keep it in play – while parting like the Red Sea for a similar American shot). One friend of mine is wondering how the US team can possibly conjure up 6 points, let alone the 14 ½ required to win the Cup.
My prediction? Watson sets the perfect tone for his team. He reminds Mickelson that McIlroy thinks he’s “only got a few holes left in his career, firing up the left-hander. He tells Bubba Watson that haggis is the perfect elixir for calming his nerves. He gets Keegan Bradley to unnerve the competition with his “safety blitz” preshot routine.. And an injury allows him to put in an emergency call to . . . Billy Horschel!
Unfortunately, it won’t be enough. Europe, 15 – 13.