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Mr. Popularity: Haas remakes image of Presidents Cup captain

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Feb. 23, 2015 issue of Golfweek. Haas will tee it up this week in the Champions Tour’s Conquistadores Classic at Omni Tucson (Ariz.) National.

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NAPLES, FLA. – Shortly after he and his U.S. teammates were thrashed at the 2004 Ryder Cup, Davis Love III sidled up to PGA of America president M.G. Orender and told him the next captain already was a member of the team. His curiosity raised, Orender took the bait and asked whom Love had in mind.

“Jay Haas,” Love said. “We went to bat for him but the PGA ended up saying, Well, he hasn’t won a major and this and that.”

With the U.S. losing seven of the nine subsequent Ryder Cups, it’s clear how that prerequisite has worked out. “I’m trying to think of how many Super Bowls Bill Belichick played in,” Brad Faxon said. “Seriously, what difference does that make?”

At last, Haas, 61, is set to be a pioneer of sorts, the first captain of an American team without major championship pedigree, when he leads Team USA at the Presidents Cup on Oct. 8-11 in South Korea.

It is an inspired choice of a man liked and respected by his peers. His credibility stems not just from how he has golfed his ball but how he has lived his life. Haas has won the trifecta of “good guy awards” – the USGA’s Bob Jones Award, the GWAA’s Jim Murray Award and the PGA Tour’s Payne Stewart Award. “There’s not a person I know on the planet who doesn’t think Jay’s a great person,” Faxon said.

The captaincy isn’t his gold watch for nearly 40 years of being a good company man. Haas knows the drill, having served as assistant captain to Fred Couples at the past three Presidents Cups. Haas was the worker bee to whom some referred as co-captain but never complained about playing second fiddle to his best buddy. Couples placed so much confidence in Haas that he never once wore his earpiece as captain. Love, who was the third member of Couples’ brain trust, joked he was “the assistant to the assistant captain.”

Couples could have continued as captain and no one would’ve complained. He is the ultimate players captain. But after winning three times in that role, he has aspirations to lead the next Ryder Cup. Couples texted Haas a congratulatory message that ended with “Don’t forget about me.”

“I texted back, ‘You are definitely going.’ I don’t think I ever officially asked him. I just said, ‘You are going,’ ” Haas said.

So is Love. Same trio, same drill. “We just have a different person giving the speeches, I guess, at the opening and closing ceremonies,” Haas said.

Couples and Haas became fast friends during Couples’ rookie year, 1981. They shared an agent and began sharing a place on the road. Trying to explain how they hit it off, Haas said, “He laughed at all my jokes.”

It could be said that Haas represents all the things Couples wished he had in his life: the happy marriage, a brood of children, and as of May, eight grandchildren. For a taste of how the other half lived, Couples often bunked at the Haas house. One time, he came for a pro-am and stayed nine days. There are family videos of young Bill being bucked off the back of Couples as they played horse.

“I feel like Fred’s my child,” Jan Haas said.

Her husband, in contrast, projects a cool, calm demeanor and has been a steady influence in the team room. If Haas has a boiling point, no one has seen him reach it. Bill Harmon began caddieing for Haas in 1978 and remembers how even then Haas behaved like the consummate pro.

“He told me, ‘I figured it out a long time ago. If you can’t play, keep your mouth shut, and if you can play, you don’t need to say anything,’ ” Harmon said.

Haas won nine Tour titles but never finished better than a share of third in a major. He competed in three Ryder Cups and two Presidents Cups, including the first, in 1994, and he compiled a 5.3.1 record in those two events against the Internationals. More recently, he has won 17 Champions Tour titles. It’s hard to decipher Haas humility from an inferiority complex when he speaks about his new role.

“I think back to who my captains were, and I think they were all better players than me,” he said during the recent Ace Group Classic. “No one will be intimidated by me. Hopefully none of them think any less of me because I haven’t won a major.”

There won’t be any question if son, Bill, makes the team for a third consecutive time. In 2011 and ’13, Haas didn’t spend a second more with Bill than any other member of the team, and there won’t be any favoritism this time either.

“Bill (sixth in the standings; 10 automatically qualify) knows he needs to make the team,” Haas said.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and Bill’s top goal.

“Jay Haas is Bill’s hero in every way, shape and form,” Harmon said. “He looks up to his dad with unbelievable admiration. They are not real expressive people. Bill might not tell you that.”

Meanwhile, Jay Haas Jr. Could be caddieing for the International side if South Africa’s Tim Clark, currently 11th, makes the team. The family affair would be a good problem to have, Haas said. That’s a long way off. For now, the captain has mapped out trips to seven Tour events to meet with players, and already went to Phoenix, where Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas learned they are on the captain’s radar. Few doubt that Haas will get the most out of his troops. Harmon credits his brother Dick with having the perfect expression to describe Haas. He said, ‘I’ve never met anybody who wears on you better than Jay.’ I guarantee they are going to like him more on Sunday than they did on Monday.”

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