Watson’s faith in his rookies pays dividend

You can’t say that Tom Watson doesn’t change with the times.

Refer to his two Ryder Cup captaincies for proof.

Back in 1993, an era when grizzled veterans rarely put a warm embrace around young golfers, Watson saw nothing on the landscape to make him smile. So when it came time for his two captain’s picks to round out the 12-man Ryder Cup team he’d take to The Belfry, Watson turned to 51-year-old Raymond Floyd and 43-year-old Lanny Wadkins.

Floyd had mostly played on the older circuit, the Champions Tour. Wadkins had finished third a few times, but had a bevy of missed cuts. And that was good enough to get them on the Ryder Cup?

Watson said it was and when the Americans won — with Floyd supplying a massive singles win over Jose Maria Olazabal and Wadkins winning two team points — a healthy line of critics had to concede the five-time British Open champion had proved them wrong.

If the Americans are to win for the first time on European soil since that Watson-led triumph 21 years ago, it might just be owed to some more unconventional thinking. Only this time, he has travelled to the other end of the age spectrum. He’s put his arms around the youngsters, 21-year-old Jordan Spieth and 24-year-old Patrick Reed.

Go young, old man? Watson agreed.

But together? In four-balls? A pair of Ryder Cup rookies going out on foreign soil? In the first session, no less? That a good idea? Watson said it was and the critics can line up once again to offer apologies to the eight-time Major champion because Spieth and Reed were dominating in a four-ball win over Stephen Gallacher and Ian Poulter.

In winning 5&4, Spieth and Reed made six birdies, led the entire way and totally derailed the home crowd’s enthusiasm for the only Scotsman in the field, Gallacher. That Poulter had his hands in his pockets and his head down for most of the way was a testament to the powerful haymakers that Spieth and Reed delivered. So swift was their work that the two Americans had plenty of time to eat, warm up, and get rested for the foursomes match they’d surely play in the afternoon.

Right? Wrong.

“I know they’re mad at me. They want to be out there this afternoon, but they’re not,” Watson said.

Instead, the American captain played his four players who sat out the morning session (Jim Furyk and Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson and Hunter Mahan) and two strong teams from the morning (Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker). Clearly disappointed, Spieth and Reed knew better than to make a scene, especially since they know they’ll go right back this morning in four-balls.

Besides, Spieth and Reed had succeeded in half their battle.

“We kind of convinced the captain that we were a great four-ball team. That was our strong format,” Spieth said.

In Spieth, Watson always believed. There was never a question that the kid from Texas was going to make the team and Watson got a good look at the young man when they were paired at the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head Island in April. But Reed? That was a different story. Watson was never quite sure of the young man’s passion for the Ryder Cup, especially when he turned down a summer chance to play Gleneagles.

It was no secret that had Reed fallen out of the automatic qualifying territory, he would not likely have been a captain’s pick.

Reed doesn’t deny that he doesn’t jump out at you as the sort of rah-rah team guy that Ryder Cup captains love. “Golf is an individual sport. I pop in my headphones just to kind of get myself focused, tunnel-visioned onto what I’m trying to do while I’m out there.”

Until his wife, Justine, gave birth to the couple’s first child in May, she had caddied for her husband and, in many ways, she still helps steer much of his golf. A curious personality, Reed never fit in at the University of Georgia, a golf power in the US which has developed PGA Tour stars such as Harris English, Chris Kirk, Brian Harman, Brendon Todd, Erik Compton, and, before them, Bubba Watson.

So he went to Augusta State, played well out of the spotlight, and developed his game. And guess what? Augusta State won back-to-back NCAA titles. Reed offered that little reminder Thursday afternoon, in answer to questions about what it felt like to be an underdog, to be a young rookie tossed into the furnace of a Ryder Cup on foreign soil. Against Ian Poulter, no less! Pretty good answer, though the one he delivered in cold, windy Scottish weather yesterday was even better.

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