PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — In the past, PGA presidents have often given their incoming Ryder Cup captains a two-point agenda: Represent the PGA of America well, and win the Ryder Cup for the U.S.
“It’s not really a sophisticated way of looking at it,” Pete Bevacqua, the CEO of the PGA said Tuesday afternoon, after Davis Love was named as the Ryder Cup captain for the 2016 matches. In his first executive action of his second stint as captain, Love named Tom Lehman, a native Minnesotan, as one of his four vice captains for the matches, which will be played in Minnesota.
“At this level, of course they want to win,” the CEO, a rising power in the game, said. “Of course winning is the goal. But what you have to do is to put yourself in position so that you can win.”
In his first stint as U.S. captain, Love’s team had a four-point lead heading into the Sunday finale at Medinah in 2012 but lost. Tom Lehman’s team was shellacked, 18.5-9.5, at the K Club in 2006. On that basis, you might wonder: Why were those fine, reverent golfing gents the first two people named to the roster for the ’16 team?
The answer is that the PGA did not want to do again what it has done so often in the past, reinvent the wheel, and a team’s management structure, every two years in an effort to find a winning formula. If the PGA wanted business as usual, it would have selected David Toms or Larry Nelson or the winner of the people’s choice award, Fred Couples, as the 2016 captain. But that was the old way of doing things, a throwback to find a new guy, tell him to win.
The new model is to create was Love is calling a “Ryder Cup family.” He is the circle of trust, as is Lehman. They have both been captains and assistant captains. They have been on winning and losing Ryder Cup teams as players. They have institutional knowledge about what has worked and not worked in the past. In the future, you will hear less about the experience of the players and more about the experience of the managers, regardless of what that experience is.
The main purpose of the widely mocked Ryder Cup Task Force was to come up with a new system by which the captain, the four vice captains and the 12 players would be selected. Future captains will have served as vice captains on a previous team. Two of the four vice captains will be former captains and two will be experienced Ryder Cup players.
When the 11-man Task Force was established, the four players on it — Love, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker — were all pushing for Fred Couples to be named as the ’16 Ryder Cup captain. Now it is unclear whether he will be even named as an assistant.
Love was asked about his interest in naming Couples as a vice captain at a news conference at the PGA of America headquarters on Tuesday. “Obviously Fred’s got a lot of Ryder Cup experience and we’re going to look at that,” Love said. It was not a ringing endorsement.
One of the issues with Couples, who has gone 3-0 as a Presidents Cup captain, is that members of the Task Force wonder if he fits with the new “Ryder Cup family” philosophy. The PGA is looking for analytic captains who can articulate what worked and didn’t work and can contribute to a playbook that would be handed down to the next Ryder Cup captain. Questions were raised as to whether Couples had that ability. Part of his popularity, with both players and fans, is that his skills, as a player and as a Presidents Cup captain, seem to be an innate gift that defy analysis. Couples can barely describe his backswing.
Of course, all this discussion of Ryder Cup captains and all the new conversation about vice captains is a distraction from the real factor that determines which team wins the Ryder Cup matches, which the Europeans have done in eight of the last 10 meetings. And that is the quality of the players and their ability to play team golf. In ’16, each of the four vice captains will be in charge of three players, in keeping with Paul Azinger’s successful pod system in 2008. Tom Watson, at last year’s Ryder Cup in Scotland, noted that “it takes 12 players to win. It’s not pods. It’s 12 players.”
On Tuesday, there was a different message from PGA headquarters: the pod system had a glorious past, it’s now in the Team USA Ryder Cup playbook that will be handed down generation to generation like a family bible, and it will be used again.