Can Love Conquer All?
Davis Love III was given a second opportunity when named Captain of Team USA for the ‘16 Ryder Cup matches, which are being held at Hazeltine National GC in Chaska, MN. It was under Love’s “leadership” - dare the word be used - when the Americans lost on the final day of the ‘12 matches on home soil at Medinah CC just outside of Chicago, after leading by a 10-6 score.
The PGA of America opted to give Love - no pun intended - a second time designation as Team USA Captain - something only bestowed previously to the likes of golf titans such as Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Jackie Burke, Jr. Sam Snead and Tom Watson.
Love announced three of his four Captain picks following the BMW Fed-Ex Cup Playoff event, and the results were baffling given the opportunity - and need - to show a clear move in a different and more compelling direction. He selected Matt Kuchar, J.B. Holmes and Rickie Fowler.
Love went with his heart in selecting Fowler. The 9th ranked player in the world has not shown much golf form in the last few months, and when presented with an opportunity to garner a Ryder Cup position after leading the first of the three Fed-Ex Cup events at The Barclays, Rickie proceeded to shipwreck his golden opportunity with faulty play in the final nine holes at Bethpage Black. It appeared Fowler would still have enough of a cushion to get to the final event of the season with The Tour Championship in Atlanta at East Lake, but once again Fowler showed poor play at the BMW event last week and was nudged out of the 30th and final spot by a margin of just .57 points.
Fowler is well liked by a broad range of people within the inner circle of golf’s establishment in America. Rickie is clearly charismatic with the fans and has struck a deep chord with young people who see his youthful charm endearing when held against the walking robot personalities that far too often dominate the men’s golf landscape.
But Rickie has had a woeful ‘16 season when held against what he accomplished in ‘15 when he won The Players Championship and Scottish Open. Fowler missed cuts this year at The Masters, The Players Championship, Memorial and US Open. He has not had a top ten finish in a major championship since ‘14 when he placed in the top five in all four key events. In two earlier Ryder Cup appearances Rickie has a collective record of 0-3-5. During Fowler’s stellar ‘15 season there was early speculation he would become the fourth member of what had been dubbed golf’s new big three with the likes of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. Such talk was clearly premature.
While Fowler is ranked as the 9th best player in the world, the bulk of those accumulated points came from early in the ‘16 season and from what he did in ‘15. Rickie’s meltdown at Bethpage just a few weeks ago has resurfaced the scuttle bug that, despite all his flair, Rickie is not able to close out key events when situations present themselves.
Love could have held Fowler out and waited to see what happens at The Tour Championship, even though Rickie is not playing, and see how the other contenders for the final Captain’s selection played that week.
Given the losing streak the Americans have endured at recent Ryder Cups - eight of the last ten - one would have thought going to other available players - who have not played in a Ryder Cup - might have been the better route. Emerging stars such as Daniel Berger and Justin Thomas come to mind, along with long time veterans Bill Haas and Kevin Na, were clear options. Ditto the likes of Jason Dufner, a former Ryder Cup member and past major championship winner. Long time USA Ryder Cup member Jim Furyk was also touted as a possibility, but given the fact Furyk has lost a record 20 matches during his extensive Ryder Cup participation, one can only say that going in another direction is clearly long overdue.
And then there is Bubba Watson. The 7th ranked player in the world has won two Masters, but his Ryder Cup record is also not one to boast about, going 3-8 and never having won a singles match in three past Ryder Cups. Is Davis sending Bubba a “tough love” message to motivate him? Bubba is clearly talented when engaged in playing, but his uncanny wherewithal to allow small things to bother him can be the kind of trait that isolates him from his teammates.
Bubba has shown a desire in past situations to march to the beat of his drum - often failing to blend in and show a desire to mesh for the greater good.
Nonetheless, Watson possesses plenty of golf talent and if Love should lose, the questions will certainly come up - did America short circuit itself by leaving Bubba on the sidelines?
Love opted to go with three-time Ryder Cup member Matt Kuchar who has a 4-5-2 record in the biennial event. Kuchar has a pleasant disposition and can be paired with just about any other player during the four-balls and foursomes competitions. But Kuchar has never won a major championship and while he has shown a propensity for consistency, he has also not been able to show a drive to close out tournaments with wins.
Holmes previously played on the ‘08 American squad - the last one to win the Ryder Cup at Valhalla in Kentucky under the Captaincy of Paul Azinger. J.B. pushed his name to the forefront with a tie for 4th at last week’s BMW event. His length will certainly bode well for him, as Hazeltine National can stretch to 7,600 yards.
The stakes for Team USA in this year’s matches is extremely high. Getting the Ryder Cup back on American soil has been a long time objective, but the results have consistently shown a USA team clearly outplayed in crucial moments. Love does not want to be the first American Captain to lose twice against Team Europe when leading the team from the helm position.
Given the top-down management style used by Tom Watson during his Captaincy in ‘14 at Gleneagles in Scotland - summarily rejected in public fashion by the likes of Phil Mickelson - the American philosophy is now more about achieving consensus and Love has embraced the hugs and cuddles approach. Whether that method works and spurs on Team USA is speculation at this moment.
The reality is that “tough love” is not something Davis is comfortable in demonstrating. Love opted to go with his “heart” in his three Captain picks thus far. There is little question the heat will clearly be on those Davis has selected to perform well during the matches. Is Love blind? No one can say for certain, but when matters are decided solely by the heart, with little guidance from the head, the likelihood for success can prove most difficult. Team USA has only to look at the recent distant past to realise how high the stakes will be at Hazeltine. Love may conquer all in the abstract - but making more timely putts at opportune moments will clearly be a requirement to turn the tide against Team Europe.
Will Love conquer all?
In romance it does, but sports at the highest level requires a steely resolve and utter clarity in seeing matters clearly without the heavy anchor of emotionalism and sentimentality fogging up the necessary vision. Team USA is favoured to win at Hazeltine, but that has been said in previous Ryder Cups and has left the Americans often bewildered and frustrated.
Team Europe will have six rookie players on its squad. The pressure has been deftly pushed by Captain Darren Clarke to the American side. Clarke knows full well he is like the gambler playing with house money. The Americans are supposed to win, but that battle cry has often gone out the window when golf balls start flying off clubs and putts begin to drop.
For Davis and his USA team, the stakes are indeed that high at Hazeltine. Acknowledging past lessons have been learned is one thing - carrying them forward with solid execution is quite another. The ‘16 Ryder Cup matches will show if love is truly in the air for the red, white and blue, or if once again the American bride is jilted and watches forlornly as another European celebration takes hold on USA soil.