Watson inspires American players as a leader

Tom Watson speaks to attendees during the Hall of Fame Induction for the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club.

Davis Love III reflects on his first Ryder Cup, in 1993, and says his captain, eight-time major champion Tom Watson, was “intimidating to me.” Inspiration was another feeling. Love vividly recalls being with U.S. team members in the airport lounge, before they flew to England on the Concorde, when the captain said, “Guys, we’re getting ready to go on a big adventure.”

A couple of decades later, Love says, “That was very cool, the way he said it.” He calls it the best captain line he has ever heard. Over the years, Love also has competed against Watson, done numerous Polo photo shoots with him and shared a “million situations.” So he has an inkling of how a decisive 65-year-old will lead the United States in the Sept. 26-28 matches at Gleneagles, Scotland, against a European side that has won seven of the past nine meetings.

“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.”

Watson would appear to be the right man at the right time. America is tired of losing the biennial Ryder Cup, and no one despises losing more than the ultra-competitive Watson. He is as beloved in Scotland as a native son, having won four of his five Open Championships and all three of his Senior Opens there. (He nearly won his sixth Open at Turnberry in 2009.) On top of that, he captained the last U.S. Ryder team that won overseas, at The Belfry in England 21 years ago.

Now he’s back as “stage manager,” a term he uses often, and talks of facilitating essential senses of purpose, calm and humor among his “actors.” He talks of trying to ensure his players are comfortable and involved in decisions, yet ready as they attempt to halt the trend of defeat.

“It’s about time to start winning again,” Watson said. “Singularity of purpose is the most important thing. (The players) know the history. I don’t have to accentuate it at all.

I hope they are all playing well, but they’re not all going to be.”

History underscores that. The U.S. has been sharper since the FedEx Cup playoffs began in 2007, but the Americans need better performance, plus leadership, from longtime stars Tiger Woods (13-17-3, including 9-16-1 in pairs) and Phil Mickelson (14-18-6). In general, Watson perceives that U.S. players have altered routines and tried too hard.

“They might take an extra look and take too much time,” said Watson, 10-4-1 as a Ryder Cup player, in the years before the event became a spectacle. “Pressure made me go too fast.”

Such wisdom is welcomed by the likes of Hunter Mahan, who talks of players being inspired and motivated because of Watson, a World Golf Hall of Fame member since 1988. The captain’s knowledge, too, blunts any criticism that he is too old. Watson himself answers the old-age knock by saying, “These players know I’ve been there.”

Watson is smart enough to know he needs 14-time major champion Woods on his side, engaged, past differences between the two Tws from Stanford set aside. As Woods’ personal scandal flamed in 2010, Watson criticized him for swearing on course and being disrespectful to the game, and he called for Woods to “clean up his act.” Watson now calls that episode “water under the bridge and gone” and frames their relationship as “fine.” And when Watson was named captain, Woods called it a “really good choice.”

“If you’re an adult, you carry on,” Watson said when asked how the relationship improved. That said, the captain added, “It’s my responsibility to sit down with Tiger and talk with him about the Ryder Cup and how he feels about it. I’m welcoming that. So far we’ve had cursory conversations.”

John Cook, longtime friend of both, applauds the idea and is not surprised by it. “Watson is not one to not confront someone,” Cook said. “Tiger in his mind will think he manned up and came over. There’s a sense of respect when someone makes an attempt. It goes a long way.”

Cook said it was an “honor” to play for Watson in 1993, his lone Ryder Cup. Before Cook and Chip Beck upset Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie in a tide-turning four-ball match, Watson told Cook, “No two guys are more ready than you and Chip.”

“The positive attitude he always has had on the course showed up,” Cook said. “His positive message to whoever plays is something guys will be able to use the rest of their careers. It’s the way he played golf. There was no whining, no B.S. It’s always on him.”

Cook says he’ll never forget when he and Watson contended at the 1983 San Diego Open and Watson hooked a drive into a hazard on the 71st hole at Torrey Pines. “Anybody else would have turned away or dropped the club, but he watched the ball to the end,” Cook said. “I asked (Watson’s caddie) Bruce (Edwards) why Tom was watching the ball for so long and he said, ‘That’s his punishment. He’s punishing himself.’ ”

That kind of snapshot hardly surprises assistant captain Andy North, one of Watson’s closest friends thanks to countless practice rounds together. North sees Watson as a gracious sportsman, win or lose, and says, “I hope (the players) all understand how competitive he is. I can’t imagine that’s not going to be a positive.”

Watson, taking advice from then-Kansas basketball coach Roy Williams, told his 1993 players that the best way to enjoy the experience is to get ahead early and make a partisan crowd go silent. Before Sunday singles, he told them, “Gentlemen, we’re going to win because I’m a lucky guy” – to which Lanny Wadkins responded, “You sure are the luckiest S. O.B. I’ve ever played with.”

After the U.S. clinched, the late Payne Stewart slapped Watson on the back and said, “Captain, look at those (empty) stands.” Now, Watson seeks an encore, saying, “I hope we can watch the crowd leave early Sunday.”

Much has changed with Watson in the two decades since. He divorced, remarried, fought through an alcohol problem, rebuilt his swing and at 59 came inches from a ninth majorchampionship victory. “I think he hits the ball better in his 50s than his 20s,” said North, Watson’s regular partner at the Legends of Golf. “He turned himself into an unbelievable driver of the ball. And at 64 he’s as competitive now.”

As a recovering alcoholic, Watson helped broadcast funnyman David Feherty quit drinking. During a 2006 interview, Watson noticed the Northern Irishman had a problem, telling him, “I’ve seen that look before. I can see my reflection in your eyes.” He got Feherty to join him at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Kansas City, and the two began calling and emailing regularly. Feherty has said that he’d be dead if not for Watson’s aid.

Watson did not want to talk about helping Feherty but did address how he has evolved since 1993.

“I think I’ve stayed pretty constant with the way I look at things,” he said. “But I’m older, and I’ve learned that patience is an underrated virtue. I think I’ve been a little impatient in life. I think I’ve become a better listener. I read more history now and try to understand current affairs. I like biographies, reading about people.”

The captain, of course, will need to read people when making his pairings and three picks. He wants good badweather, pressure players with “heart and guts,” closers who make crucial 5-footers and hold leads. He says he’ll watch players’ eyes often because “you see a lot by looking in their eyes.” He says he’ll consult players and caddies before making picks, adding, “Caddies know who has heart.”

It’s instructive that in 1993 he chose tough guys Raymond Floyd, 51, and Lanny Wadkins, 43, with his two picks. The veteran pair went 5-2-1 and impressed the captain with determination. Floyd, at that point a Hall of Fame member for four years, was hitting balls on the range in near darkness after playing two Saturday rounds when Watson asked, “What the hell are you doing?” Floyd told him that he had a swing thought he wanted to sort out.

“That’s the type of player you want,” Watson says now. “My advice to anybody who is going to be on this team is that I hate to lose and I hope you hate to lose more than I hate to lose.”

The Ryder Cup, of course, has transformed from a competition the Americans were supposed to win to one they hope to win. Wadkins, for one, says Watson will employ a style that can help change that mindset.

“Tom is very much in control,” said Wadkins, inducted into the Hall in 2009. “It would behoove the team to get on board right away. It won’t be a buddyfest. Tom is about winning. If I were these guys, I would sit there and listen and pay attention. You might not get an opportunity again to spend a week with a living legend.”

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