Saturday 16 December 2017

Dermot Gilleece: Choice of Watson reveals panic in American ranks

Europe should stick to their guns when picking next Ryder Cup captain

Watson's appointment should be viewed as a compliment to Europe
Watson's appointment should be viewed as a compliment to Europe

Dermot Gilleece

With another golfing year slipping gently into history, Europe could be said to have entered a new, hugely optimistic phase in transatlantic rivalry. Vibrant memories of dramatic deeds at Medinah have been richly enhanced by Rory McIlroy's status as a truly dominant World No 1.

It was enough to tempt those inveterate dreamers in our midst to consider the possibility of a first ever European sweep of next season's Major championships. But then aspiring Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke hit us with curiously defeatist words.

Referring to the announcement of America's skipper for the 2014 matches at Gleneagles, Clarke made the remarkable observation: "Whoever it is standing on that stage opposite Tom Watson needs a huge presence. We seriously need the right man for the job. They've made a big statement."

Assuming there is no subtext to Clarke's remarks, as in some newly-discovered impediment to his own chances of the captaincy, they are totally at variance with Ryder Cup history. And they do scant justice to the current strength of the professional game on this side of the pond.

McIlroy has been careful to publicly limit his ambitions in the 2013 Majors to simply being in contention for all four. But, deep down, we know he will be disappointed if he fails to win at least one of them. Then there are the genuine prospects of a reawakened Martin Kaymer, along with Britain's Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose. Graeme McDowell also remains a serious Major candidate and Pádraig Harrington will not have forgotten how to cross the line, should the opportunity arise.

The most immediate concern, however, will be the selection of a leader to take over the reins held so capably by Jose Maria Olazabal at Medinah. It is expected to happen during the week of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship (January 17-20) when Clarke and Paul McGinley appear to be the main candidates. This is where the Americans seem to have played a trump card, if Clarke's reaction is to be taken at face value. My own view, however, is that choosing Watson has simply exposed the panic in their ranks; their mistaken belief that a strong, iconic leader can miraculously deliver victory.

On the importance of leadership and strategy in averting defeat in crucial battles, Brian Clough famously said: "Players, not tactics, lose games. There's so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes."

In uttering those words, Clough might have been drawing on Ryder Cup happenings in recent decades. Like in the 1987 matches at Muirfield Village, where the PGA of America chose the most iconic living exponent of the game to lead their team on a course he owned and designed himself. And Jack Nicklaus proceeded to deliver America's first defeat on home soil. Did he blame himself afterwards, like Davis Love felt inclined to do in the wake of Medinah? Not a bit of it.

"I saw the weaknesses, not just in our players but in our system," said the Bear. "Our players aren't as tough as they used to be because their opportunity to win a tournament occurs so seldom. That means they are not tough enough coming down the stretch."

Love would have empathised with those sentiments when serious heat was applied by determined Europeans late on a fateful Sunday afternoon at Medinah. Apart from competitive frailty, it exposed an inherent lack of understanding among Americans of the subtleties of matchplay golf. European players – Poulter is a notable exception – become familiarised with matchplay from their early amateur days, whereas their American counterparts concentrate almost exclusively on strokeplay, certainly during their formative years at college.

Early failures in successive World Matchplay tournaments caused Seve Ballesteros to admit angrily: "I should be good at this, because I like to beat people. But I'm not." Knowing that the problem lay in having bypassed amateur ranks, he set about making an intensive study of the process. Through acknowledged experts like Hale Irwin and Gary Player, he learned that a key requirement was to keep mistakes to a minimum. "Irwin would go par, par and sometimes birdie," said the Spaniard. "This creates much pressure. I know, I felt it."

Well-learned lessons brought Ballesteros five World Matchplay titles between 1981 and 1991 and made him the most feared opponent in recent Ryder Cup history.

Watson, however, is expected to paper over US shortcomings simply through the power of his personality. In this context, it may be appropriate to recall that when he became the last American to lead his country to victory in Europe in 1993, he had considerable help from the opposition.

As it happened, the top five European players, Ian Woosnam, Ballesteros, Olazabal, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo, delivered only one singles point between them in a 13-15 defeat. Those things tended to happen when extreme pressure came on the leading players of a line-up with a relatively thin supporting cast. Not any more.

Looking towards Abu Dhabi, I would be quite happy to see McGinley chosen to stand "opposite" his boyhood hero. Whatever the decision of the Tournament Committee, America's choice of Watson must not lead to an ill-conceived panic reaction but should be viewed rather as a compliment to European strength.

Meanwhile, we in Ireland have strength of a different kind to build on in 2013. When reflecting on a year considered by many to have been the best in the history of the European Tour, chief executive George O'Grady reached a fascinating conclusion.

"The highlight for me wasn't Medinah, remarkable though that was," he said. "It was the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, where record attendances over four days brought fans together from North and South for the benefit of golf on the whole island."

Which should be a source of considerable pride as we look towards the next staging at Carton House. But, as the next European captain will be acutely aware, building on success can be the toughest challenge of all.

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