No doubt the week in New York City surrounding the selection of Tom Watson as the 2014 Ryder Cup Captain goes down as one of the most memorable in my time as a PGA Officer. It was special to me because of the relationship that I have formed with Tom over the past year. Sometimes when you meet special people, the impression is different than what you anticipate. In Watson’s case, he has exceeded my every expectation.
One thing that leaves a lasting impression about the next Ryder Cup captain is the genuine interest he shows in people when he is engaged in a conversation. Watson has that innate ability to make people feel important and he truly is a very humble guy for all that he has accomplished.
The selection of the Ryder Cup captain is now pretty well documented. Most are aware of the fact that Watson was my choice and the process took place over a 13-month timeframe. Given the fact that 2014 Ryder Cup will be played in Scotland meant that the moon and the stars lined up perfectly for the guy who had won seven major championships in that country. Watson will be the oldest American Ryder Cup captain ever, but his ability to relate with today’s players won’t be in question because he can still compete at the highest level.
The selection process was interesting given the fact that many in the media had thoughts on who should be the next captain. Most thought it would be David Toms. Some were touting Larry Nelson. Let me tell you a little about both men.
Toms won the 1991 PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club. He had a hole in one on Saturday’s third round and held off a charging Phil Mickelson. Toms, himself, was a three-time former Ryder Cup player and he fit the past profile of Ryder Cup captains- a former major champion and multiple Ryder Cup team member in his late 40’s.
I had to call David early on Tuesday of that week and notify him that he would not be the 2014 captain. He was in a duck blind in Arkansas hunting with his son. It was a tough call to make, but he handled it with the grace and dignity that has marked his professional golf career.
A day later, I spoke with Larry Nelson. There had been a ground swell of support for Nelson in the past few weeks from many media outlets. His story is compelling. Nelson, a native of Georgia, was a two-time PGA Champion and former U.S. Open Champ. He had a 9-3-1 career Ryder Cup record as a player. Quite honestly, the 67-year old Nelson should have been named a Ryder Cup captain back in the mid-1990’s. He was passed over for the likes of Watson, Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins and Ben Crenshaw.
People should understand more about Nelson. He didn’t play golf as a child. In high school he focused on basketball and baseball. Larry took up golf at the age of 21 after he returned from serving in the infantry in Vietnam. He was a 20-year old newlywed when he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Nelson was first introduced to golf by Ken Hummel, a soldier and friend in his infantry unit, and Nelson carefully studied Ben Hogan’s book The Five Fundamentals of Golf while learning how to play the game. He soon found that he had a talent for the game, breaking 100 the first time he played and 70 within nine months.
He went on to graduate from Kennesaw Junior College in 1970 and turned professional the following year. His breakthrough year came in 1979 when he won twice and finished second on the money list to Tom Watson.
The 5’9” Nelson won 10 times on the PGA Tour, including his three major championships. His victory at the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont saw him come from seven shots behind at the halfway point to defeat Watson by a single shot. Nelson scored a U.S. Open record 65-67 over the last 36 holes, which broke a 51 year Open record established by Gene Sarazen. Nelson has won 19 times on the Champions Tour.
Larry Nelson has been a survivor and tough competitor his entire life. He was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in April 2006. In 2011, he received the PGA Distinguished Service Award from the PGA of America. The award honors outstanding individuals who display leadership and humanitarian qualities, including integrity, sportsmanship and enthusiasm for the game of golf.
My phone call to Nelson was a tough one. It gave him the chance to voice his frustration for 20 years of snubs by the PGA of America as Ryder Cup captain. The disappointment was no doubt compounded by the fact that he had lost to Watson again. It’s hard to say if future PGA Officers will give Nelson the nod that he deserves. But, as I told Larry, with the selection of the 63-year old Watson, the door was probably as open as it ever had been.
The Larry Nelson situation was a tough one to deal with. Watson was clearly the right choice for 2014. Our task was to pick the captain who can put our U.S. team in the best position to win. Tom does that.
I spoke with John Hopkins this week. He is a legendary golf writer from England.
“You Americans smacked us right between the Ryder Cup chops last week with that Watson announcement. Our European officials are re-grouping trying to decide the best choice to counter Tom Watson. That was a brilliant move on your part,” concluded Hopkins.
Let the games begin.