There was an element of shock and bemusement after the Ryder Cup finished at Gleneagles in 2014.
Phil Mickelson decided to use the American press conference as an opportunity to throw his captain, Tom Watson, under the proverbial bus. In thinly veiled criticism, Mickelson said: “We had a great formula in ’08. I don’t know why we strayed. I don’t know why we don’t go back. What Zinger did was great.”
The blame game had begun. The USA had a superior team — at least on paper — how could they have lost again?
A special ‘task force’ was set up to analyse what had gone wrong and what was needed to ensure the USA would not lose for a fourth straight time when the Ryder Cup came to Hazeltine in 2016.
But look back at every sporting loss and you’ll find post-match excuses. Ryder Cup teams don’t have the luxury of targeting a poor referee so, in today’s ultra-competitive game, blame constantly lands on the captain’s shoulders.
Faldo was a terrible leader according to the golfing world when Europe lost at Valhalla, in 2008. Certainly, some of his attempts at humour were in poor taste (Pádraig Harrington and ‘potato-gate’ being the most obvious) but it was his strategic errors in the final day singles which were criticised most strongly.
Other captains have been too hands-off (Sam Snead, in 1969) or too hands-on (Seve micro-managed everything at Valderrama in 1997, and his constant whizzing around in his golf cart proved an irritation to the American team). Lee Trevino was more interested in cracking jokes while Mark James was accused of having no strategy whatsoever.
This year’s Ryder Cup has thrown things into even sharper focus. The blame game began in the run-up to the event. Things kicked off when Lee Westwood made negative comments about Tiger Woods, and how his selection as vice captain might have a negative impact in the US team room.
The media pounced and said that Westwood’s comments would help the USA team to gel.
Then Davis Love III claimed his team was the best group of golfers ever assembled. Popular wisdom indicated such a statement would fire up the Europeans. If the USA lost again, Davis’s arrogance would be at fault.
Davis Love III pulled another surprise out of the bag by picking the unpopular Bubba Watson as a late call-up to the backroom team.
At number seven in the world it was more likely he would be picked to play… but scorn was heaped upon his selection as Vice Captain. Social Media decided this was an obvious attempt by the USA to ensure they lost again.
But things were only warming up. Phil Mickelson piled in again with disparaging comments about the former captain, Hal Sutton, who insisted on pairing Woods and Mickelson together in 2004 when they lost both opening day matches. The feeling was Mickelson’s remarks would hardly put his teammates and captain at ease. The underlying suggestion being that if Love III lost, Mickelson wouldn’t have to look far for a scapegoat.
No doubt there are sighs of relief in the Love household today. This all pales in comparison to Pete Willett’s comments in National Club Golfer magazine.
As Danny Willett’s brother, he should have known (and behaved) better when preparing his article. Everybody knows the American fans are — to put it politely — raucous and enthusiastic, but Peter thought it best to go straight for the throat: American fans, he said, were “pudgy, basement-dwelling irritants, stuffed on cookie dough and beer, pausing between mouthfuls of hotdog so they can scream ‘Baba booey’ until their jelly faces turn red”.
Now that’s a red rag to a bull. And those are the least offensive comments he made. The entire American golfing fanbase received a giant slap in the face and those attending the Ryder Cup who were already prone to shouting ‘Baba booey’ and ‘mashed potato’ found many more choice phrases to yell out at key moments.
Yes, before a ball had even been struck at Hazeltine, Peter Willett was being lined up as the fall guy if Europe lost. Surely his comments would only fire up team USA and fans alike.
But could his tirade really have engineered the USA’s 4-0 whitewash in the opening day Foursomes? And the final 17-11 result? Based on the sort of trolling that happens on social media these days, don’t expect Pete to be online for the next few weeks. There’s a very large target on his back.
Following their impressive Sunday victory, Team USA can joyfully remove a particularly tenacious monkey from their back, while the European team, and the golfing media in particular, now have to analyse what went wrong and who is responsible.
Lee Westwood, who got the ball rolling with his comments about Tiger, will shoulder much of the blame. As a wildcard pick, his performance was extremely poor, losing all three of his matches and displaying his renowned inability on short putts. Lee’s wildcard selection, ahead of the in-form Russell Knox, will therefore be heavily criticised. The argument that Lee would bring experience (nine previous appearances) to a European team possessing six rookies proved pointless. Another wildcard pick and experienced Ryder Cup player — Martin Kaymer — also struggled, winning just one from four.
Captain Darren Clarke can expect to be blamed for poor wildcard choices even though his third pick, Pieters, proved a revelation and delivered Europe’s best return of four points from five matches.
American fans will also be criticised — and rightly so — but looking for scapegoats is akin to a bad workman blaming his tools.
You can blame all the people you want, you can search for all the possible excuses, invent the rationale to help you sleep better at night but at the end of the day, it’s down to the 24 golfers who compete in the event.
The captain has his part to play in the pairings he selects, the singles order and the wildcard picks, but ultimately it is the guys playing who have to deliver.
What people seem to overlook is the simple fact that the most obvious reason for losing is that the opposition played better and smarter than you.