NEW YORK — Weary of two decades of defeat in Europe, the Americans are breaking from precedent with a captain uniquely suited for the 2014 Ryder Cup in Scotland.
Tom Watson will be by far the oldest man to fill the role and the first repeat captain for the U.S. since 1987. But he’s also the last American to lead the team to victory on the road, and he knows how to win in the blustery Scottish weather.
“We are just really tired of losing the Ryder Cup,” PGA of America President Ted Bishop said Thursday during a news conference at the Empire State Building.
It won’t be easy.
The Americans have lost seven of the last nine Ryder Cups and have not won away from home since 1993, when Watson was the captain at The Belfry in England. They are coming off a staggering loss this year at Medinah, where Europe strung together a remarkable rally from a 10-6 deficit going into the final day to win by one point.
Watson is the first repeat U.S. captain since Jack Nicklaus in 1987, when the Ryder Cup was played on his home course of Muirfield Village in Ohio. Watson becomes the seventh American to get more than one shot.
“Tom Watson will do a fine job,” Nicklaus said. “Tom always has been a wonderful golfer and he remains one, but Tom is also a good leader.”
His selection received an immediate endorsement from Tiger Woods. The Stanford alums have never been particularly close, and Watson has criticized Woods for not showing respect for the game with his demeanor on the course.
“I think he’s a really good choice,” Woods said in a statement. “Tom knows what it takes to win, and that’s our ultimate goal. I hope I have the privilege of joining him on the 2014 United States team.”
Watson went out of his way Thursday to praise Woods as “the best player maybe in the history of the game.”
“My relationship with Tiger is fine,” he said. “Whatever has been said before is water under the bridge. No issues.”
Watson breaks the PGA of America’s prototype in a big way. The eight-time major champion will be 65 when the Ryder Cup is played at Gleneagles. Sam Snead was 57 when he was captain in 1969, and the oldest European captain was John Jacobs (56) in 1981.
Watson predicted that some would say: “Why is Watson, being the old guy, being the captain?”
“I deflect that very simply by saying: ‘We play the same game,'” he said. “I play against these kids at the Masters. I play against them at the British Open.”
He does hope to play more PGA Tour events in the next two years to spend more time around his future team.
Watson has not been back to the Ryder Cup since that ’93 victory at The Belfry. But since then, he had been pining for another chance to serve as captain.
With that familiar gap-tooth grin, Watson recalled his reaction when the PGA of America first contacted him more than a year ago: “Boy, I’ve been waiting for this call for a long time.”
As much as Watson is beloved around the world for his timeless game, epic duels with Nicklaus and graciousness in any outcome, the Scots consider him one of their own. Watson won his first major at Carnoustie in 1975 when he quickly understood how to play links golf. He won five British Open titles, the most of any American, with four of those in Scotland.
He nearly made it six claret jugs three years ago. At age 59, he came within an 8-foot par putt on the last hole from winning at Turnberry. Watson missed the putt, and then lost to Stewart Cink in a playoff.
The ovation he heard that week in Turnberry might be different at Gleneagles. His job will be to help the players handle the pressure of the hostile crowd and the enormity of the moment.
The PGA of America broke from its model of taking former major champions in their late 40s who still play on the PGA Tour and are in touch with the players. Watson last played a full schedule in 1998, though the PGA of America had to wonder if perhaps the young captains were too close to the players.
Bishop first thought of Watson while flying back from Bermuda after the 2011 PGA Grand Slam of Golf, when he read a book about that near-miss at the British. When he first called, Watson was in a field in South Dakota pheasant hunting.
A few blocks from Broadway on Thursday, Watson compared himself to a stage manager with the job of putting his actors in best position to succeed. He mentioned the importance of luck in winning the Ryder Cup.
But he acknowledged that the good karma of his victories overseas — and especially in Scotland — might be that little nudge that returns the Americans to victory.
“It may give them a sense: ‘This guy has been there before and he’s been successful before and we’re going to be a success because he’s there leading us,'” Watson said.
He expects he’ll help out in the most mundane of areas, such as advice on how to adjust to the time change. At the 1981 Ryder Cup at Walton Heath, Watson recalled, he cautioned Tom Kite not to tweak his swing just because he felt lousy the first few days there. Kite was glad he listened.
Watson dismissed talk that the Europeans were more motivated than the Americans in recent years. What he heard from Davis Love III, the captain at Medinah, was a team devastated by defeat.
“This responsibility is a challenge,” Watson said. “But I’ve been there before, and I welcome it.”