Eubanks: Pick of Watson for Ryder Cup captain part of Huber's legacy

By Steve Eubanks
Published on

It could end up being our late colleague Jim Huber's most lasting legacy.

While introducing Tom Watson, the surprise pick to captain the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup team, PGA of America President Ted Bishop told the story of how Watson, who at age 63 is the oldest Ryder Cup captain and the first repeat captain since Jack Nicklaus in 1987, first came onto the radar.

"My whole thought process was triggered as I was flying back from Bermuda to Indianapolis after the 2011 Grand Slam, and it was Jim Huber's last Grand Slam," Bishop said. "Jim had presented everybody with a copy of his book, Four Days in July, which commemorated Tom's time at Turnberry, but it was also a great portrayal of Tom as a man."

In public and private, Jim couldn't speak highly enough of Watson, taking every opportunity to praise his humility and character.

"I think it's no accident that Tom and Byron Nelson were close," Jim told me during a round of golf at Atlanta Athletic Club when he was putting the finishing touches on his book. "They both value being gentlemen more than champions."

Bishop called Jim with what he called an "off-the-wall" idea of having Watson back at the helm in 2014. Jim, Bishop said, told him he thought the idea was "absolutely brilliant." He gave Bishop Watson's cell phone number and the process was off and running.

"When he called me to start the process, and he called me over a year ago to start the process of thinking about being the captain, I said, 'Boy, I've been waiting for this call for a long time,'" Watson said. "I really wanted the challenge to do it again."

From there Bishop began an all-out lobbying effort on Watson's behalf. 

"I kind of wore my fellow PGA officers out, (because) I took the liberty to put together an 85-page document on all of the reasons I felt like Tom Watson should be our next Ryder Cup Captain," he said. "I spent a lot of time talking to former Ryder Cup Captains. I spent time talking to players who had played for Tom in 1993. I talked to some people that I know that play on current Ryder Cup teams and the feedback was overwhelmingly favorable for making that move. So, you know, I had great support from my fellow PGA officers, and at the time."

It was one of the best-kept secrets in sports, a 13-month out-of-the-box odyssey that culminated in Watson's appearance at the Empire State Building on Thursday morning.

"This responsibility is a challenge, but I've been there before and I welcome it," said Watson, who has never tasted defeat in golf's grandest event either as a player (3-0-1) or as captain (1-0). "The idea of being captain for a team of youngsters will be questioned: Why is Watson, being the old guy, the captain? I deflect that very simply by saying: We play the same game. I play against these kids at the Masters. I play against them at the Open Championship, (and) the Greenbrier Classic. We play the same game. They understand that. I understand that."

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. For decades, the criteria for selecting an American Ryder Cup captain has been the same -- player in his late 40s who still connects with the youngsters of the game; at least one major and enough Ryder Cup experience to be credible in the team room; and enough time, political savvy, and energy to promote the event for two years. But the results have been the same as well. Team USA has lost 10 of the last 14 Ryder Cups, five of the last six, and seven of the last nine.

They lost in 2004 and 2006 by record margins, and lost in 2012 in Chicago by the greatest final-day comeback in Ryder Cup history on foreign soil. They lost with hard-nosed captains, and player-friendly captains, soft-spoken and gregarious captains. But they lost.

In fact, the only time Team USA won this century is when Captain Paul Azinger completely changed the qualifying and selection process, weighing the points to reward players who were hot during Ryder Cup years and giving the captain a chance to choose even hotter players in the weeks immediately leading up to the event.

So maybe another shakeup in the system was in order. Bishop saw it. Jim Huber believed in it before he passed. And others who have come across Watson during the course of his career believe in it as well.

Jeff Paton, PGA professional and general manager at the Golf Club of Georgia, recalled a story from the Champions Tour event his club hosted.

"I was sitting in my office early in the week and there was a knock on my door," Paton said. "I looked up and it was Tom Watson. Before I could stand up and say anything, he was extending his hand and saying, 'Hi, I'm Tom Watson, I want to thank you for hosting us this week.' Then he sat down and asked me about my job and my family; we talked about the golf course and what the week would be like. He was one of the biggest legends in the game, the biggest draw in our field, for sure, and the only person who sought me out to thank me. That's why Tom Watson is a legend, and that's why this is a great pick."

It was a bold pick, one nobody saw coming. But it is being universally hailed as a great pick, one that could change the way Ryder Cup captains are thought about and selected for years to come.

Somewhere, Jim Huber is smiling.