Love finds a way: Inside the Ryder Cup war room
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
When Davis Love III revealed his four Ryder Cup captain’s picks Sept. 4 at the Nasdaq market site in Times Square, there were no real surprises. But it was the end of a long deliberation process.
Oddly, Love spent more time than any other captain in the history of the Ryder Cup trying to fill the gaps on a team for which most players wouldn’t be selected until after the PGA Championship.
“We’ve been talking about it since really the British (Open),” Love said of deliberations for his four picks. “But definitely since Bridgestone (in early August). After Jim (Furyk)’s week there, obviously Keegan (Bradley), that locked him into the team, and Brandt (Snedeker) playing well there kind got us started on the serious discussions.”
With a third-place finish at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Snedeker – who lives in Nashville, Tenn., but keeps a residence in Sea Island, Ga., where his teacher, Todd Anderson, and Love reside – got on the captain’s short list for the Sept. 28-30 matches against the Europeans at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club.
Snedeker had missed a month on Tour after withdrawing in early June from the Memorial Tournament with a strained rib. His return to the Open Championship was only his second week back after a pedestrian T-38 at The Greenbrier Classic.
Love looked at Snedeker’s performance in England as a positive but wondered whether a player with no Ryder Cup experience could keep it going.
Dustin Johnson, who missed nearly three months midseason with a back injury, also was a question mark. In his second week back, he won the FedEx St. Jude Classic, elevating one of the Tour’s best athletes onto Love’s list of potential picks.
Love acknowledged his main concern regarding Snedeker and Johnson: “Are they going to keep this going?”
Furyk and Steve Stricker were in different situations. Both were very familiar to Love: friends as well as competitors. The question wasn’t were they going to be on the team, but how?
Going into the PGA Championship, the main focus was on Phil Mickelson and Hunter Mahan fighting for the last of eight automatic qualifying spots. Stricker entered the PGA Championship at 10th in the points table, with Furyk 11th, and both had a successful final major of the year. But in the end, the top eight did not change, and Nos. 9-12 were Mahan, Stricker, Furyk and Rickie Fowler, respectively.
With Stricker 10th and Furyk 11th in the points standings, both would have a successful final major of the year. But in the end, the top eight did not change, and Nos. 9-12 were Mahan, Stricker, Furyk and Rickie Fowler, respectively.
Love played in the first two rounds of the PGA at Kiawah (S.C.) Island’s Ocean Course but missed the weekend. When he left for the 193-mile trip home to Sea Island, he had settled on two of his picks.
“I was pretty confident that we were going to go with Stricker and Furyk, just because of the experience factor,” Love said after he made his selections in New York.
Chats with former captains Paul Azinger and Corey Pavin and former Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples left Love with an underlying piece of advice.
“ ’Zinger, Corey and Freddie all said, ultimately you’re going to have to go with your gut. I try to go with my gut, but still thinking about what kind of a message does it send to our other eight guys when you pick a guy. What does it say to them?”
Love added Stricker and Furyk to the eight automatic qualifiers, without further deliberation.
That ultimately left two spots for four players: Fowler, Johnson, Mahan and Snedeker.
After the PGA, Love relied on a lifelong habit of his late father’s. Davis Love Jr., a teaching professional who died in a 1988 plane crash, was noted for writing his thoughts on a yellow legal pad. So Love III wrote the contenders’ names in a column on a legal pad, plus the eight qualifiers’ and his four assistant captains’: Couples, Mike Hulbert, Jeff Sluman and Scott Verplank. Love also included his brother, Mark, and son, Dru, on the list.
In late August, Love asked each one on the list to offer his picks during the week of The Barclays and then early in the next week’s Deutsche Bank.
“I made my little chart,” Love said of the voters’ suggestions. “That gave me some clarity that we had guys really, really agreeing from two to three players pretty consistently.”
Some of the players seemed swayed by one event.
Matt Kuchar flew with Love to New York for the first playoff event, The Barclays at Bethpage Black. On the plane, Love asked Kuchar for his picks. Kuchar had one group before the tournament and then another group after.
Nick Watney’s victory made an impression on some of those on Love’s list, but it didn’t convince the captain himself.
“I haven’t spoken to him,” Watney said Wednesday of the Deutsche Bank Championship. “I’m trying to play it down. I’m not expecting to get the call.”
Watney did receive a congratulatory text from Couples two days after the victory, but it could be considered perfunctory, at best.
“It’s a best‑case scenario for me having not made the team and having started the week in the position I was,” Watney said. “If I made it a little tougher on him, that’s good.”
When the PGA ended, Love leaned on players Furyk, Zach Johnson, Mickelson, Stricker and Woods and assistants Couples and Hulbert.
Stricker conceded that his role as confidant felt odd.
“You know, Davis, I’m not on the team yet,” Stricker said in recalling one of his phone conversations with Love.
When the final putt dropped Sept. 3 in Boston, Love already had convened his war room in the Vivid Lounge of the Renaissance Times Square. At 4 p.m., he had Hulbert in New York and Couples, Sluman and Verplank on the phone.
Love had talked to the eight qualifiers before the meeting, but after weeks and months of preparation he was still not completely sure about the final two picks.
“Right before we went into that phone conference with the other assistants, I asked him, How are you feeling?” Hulbert said. “He looked at me and said, I’m still 50-50.”
The list seemed to grow during the week of Deutsche Bank, with Bo Van Pelt improving his position. Ultimately, the play of Johnson (T-4) and Snedeker (sixth) at TPC Boston – Hulbert called it “a dress rehearsal” – set them apart.
The meeting broke up at 11:20, after all of the calls – to winners and losers – had been made.
Stricker got his call at about 7, before boarding his private plane from Pawtucket, R.I., to Indianapolis, for the BMW Championship.
Stricker then called his wife, Nicki, at their home in Madison, Wis., and confirmed what he knew weeks earlier: he was on the team.
Furyk got a congratulatory text message as he was racing to the airport with Zach Johnson to catch a plane. The two Ryder Cup team members jumped on a plane from Pawtucket to Indy, neither knowing the rest of the team makeup.
“I knew Strick was on, me, and I thought the way Dustin and Sneds played that that would be good,” Furyk said. “But I didn’t know if Hunter would be on; I didn’t know if Bo (was picked). I didn’t know until I landed for sure.”
Upon receiving a text from Love, Johnson confirmed the two other picks to Furyk.
When Snedeker embarked on his flight at 7:15 with long-time caddie Scott Vail, he didn’t know the final decision. He had talked with his agent Mac Barnhardt, who also manages Love, earlier in the day but concedes he “had no clue what was going to happen.”
Back in the war room, Barnhardt suggested to Love that he should contact Snedeker before he flies. Love tried but got Snedeker's voicemail.
“I didn’t tell him he was on the team,” Love said of the message left on Snedeker’s voice mail. “I just said, Hey, Brandt, I’m calling to talk to you about the Ryder Cup, and I have not been watching a whole lot of golf, but I just wondered if you’re putting good. Call me when you get a chance.”
Hulbert and Barnhardt tracked Snedeker’s plane on the Internet, guessing how long it would take for him to call upon receiving the message.
Not long, apparently.
“Literally got off the plane and called him straight away,” Snedeker said, recalling his Monday arrival in Indianapolis. “I was obviously through the moon – just trying to control my emotions, I was so excited. He was pretty excited, too. It was a great phone call to get. I told him how lucky I was and how excited I was to be there.”
The other calls were not so joyous.
Love remembered when he got his first call from Dave Stockton, the U.S. captain, in 1991. Cellphones weren’t in vogue then, so Love figures he sat by the phone in his hotel waiting for the call.
“You have to suck it up and do the other ones,” Love said. “It was like a lot of things; if you want to win golf tournaments, you’ve got to deal with the ones you blow. To get the good, you have to do the bad, and that was tough.”
Oklahoma State alums stick together on Tour. When Love found out that Fowler, Mahan and Van Pelt were flying together, it made his task more difficult.
The plane ride for the three Cowboys and Mahan’s recent bride, Kandi, lacked any discussion on Ryder Cup talk, Mahan said. He and Van Pelt talked about “guy things” while Fowler watched the Bill Murray comedy “Stripes.”
“I hadn’t seen the whole movie,” Fowler said. “I played with Phil (Mickelson) Tuesday of last week at Liberty National, and somehow it came up, and I was like, All right; I’ll rent it. So a recommendation of Phil.”
Van Pelt got word at about 6:30, after the plane had landed.
“It was what I expected,” Van Pelt said. “I knew that finishing where I did and never being on the team, I would have had to do something pretty special the first two weeks to probably get in.”
For Mahan, his 7 o’clock call might have been the most difficult for Love. Mahan had won twice early in the year, and after his victory at the Shell Houston Open actually led the standings. However, he had missed two consecutive cuts (PGA and Barclays) and played poorly at TPC Boston, tying for 39th. He found himself ninth on the points list and going in the wrong direction.
“I guess it was pretty matter-of-fact,” Mahan said of Love’s call. “It wasn’t much of a conversation.”
At 8:30, Fowler’s phone rang. Fowler, who made his Ryder Cup debut in 2010, was returning from supper and took the call in the Sheraton Hotel lobby.
“Davis expressed he wants the best for me,” Fowler said. “Obviously, he would have liked to have picked me if I was playing well. Unfortunately, I haven’t played so great the last few weeks and throughout the summer, which I can understand makes it tough to go out on somewhat of a limb, taking a chance.”
So it was done. What started at the Open Championship ended on Labor Day evening.
Now, Love’s focus shifts to his next big decision: pairings.