Commentary

Time to expand search for '14 captain

Updated: December 11, 2012, 5:53 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

David Toms is the safe choice, the easy choice. He is deserving of the U.S. Ryder Cup captaincy in the way that those who have come before him -- Davis Love III, Corey Pavin, Paul Azinger, etc. -- were logical picks for the position.

[+] EnlargePaul Azinger
Ross Kinnaird/Getty ImagesPaul Azinger remains the only U.S. Ryder Cup captain to lead the Americans to victory since 1999.

You win a major championship, you play in a few Ryder Cups, you remain an active PGA Tour player as you approach your 50th birthday, and -- voila! -- you are in line for the Ryder Cup captaincy.

There is nothing wrong with that approach, especially if you are of the mind that the captain's role in winning or losing the Ryder Cup is negligible. The past two competitions have been as close as it can be, a 14-13 outcome in favor of Europe each time, the players the ultimate deciders.

To say that Pavin and Love were the reason the U.S. lost those dramatic Ryder Cups gives them too much credit. It's about the players, and always has been. If Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk or Steve Stricker had managed to tie one -- only one! -- of the last two holes at Medinah in September, the Americans would not still be sniffling about a horrendous final-day collapse.

So the PGA of America can go with Toms when it names the next captain on Thursday in New York City, and the Americans might finally win the Ryder Cup when it is played at Gleneagles, Scotland in 2014. Or maybe it won't. The 13-time PGA Tour winner is next in line, but ...

Do you go on the "Today Show" to announce Toms as your next captain?

The PGA of America is trotting out its new captain on a television show and then introducing him at a news conference to be conducted at the Empire State Building.

What's wrong with introducing him at a golf tournament, as the European Tour will do with its next captain next month in Abu Dhabi?

New PGA of America president Ted Bishop has said his organization wanted to "think outside the box" on this selection, and perhaps that doesn't bode well for Toms, who won the 2001 PGA Championship, played on three (losing) U.S. Ryder Cup teams as well as four Presidents Cup teams.

Toms is not outside the box. He is clearly inside the box, the obvious candidate if you do things the way they have been done for the past 20 years. Toms turns 46 in January and is still quite competitive. He is ranked 41st in the world so he'll be competing among those who might be on his team.

Heck, he could make the team. A player ranked that high certainly has the game to go on a run over the next two years.

So if not Toms, then who?

-- Tom Watson? The eight-time major champion captained the last winning U.S. team on foreign soil. He caused a mini-controversy at the Belfry in 1993 when he refused to sign a program for European player Sam Torrance at the gala dinner, but his team prevailed 15-13 -- and the U.S. has won only twice since.

Watson, 63, said over the weekend at the Australian Open that he thought it would be "cool" to captain the team again and no doubt he'd probably be more popular than the European captain in Scotland, where Watson won four of his five British Opens. Watson is revered there, and it can't hurt to have a guy running the team who is so beloved in what is considered "enemy" territory.

Is he too far out of touch with today's players? Who cares? The captains who are in touch are seemingly having little success because of it. If there was a criticism of Love, it was that he picked his friends (Furyk, Brandt Snedeker) and he gave the players too much input, such as when he didn't play his hottest team (Mickelson and Keegan Bradley) on Saturday afternoon.

That is a bit too much quibbling, really, but if you adhere to that theory, then Watson's distance from the players would be construed as a benefit, not a negative.

If he were to get the call, Watson would become the first repeat captain since Jack Nicklaus in 1983-87.

-- Larry Nelson. This is clearly a sentimental choice, a make-good for an unfortunate error. Nelson, 65, should have been a Ryder Cup captain, whether it was 1997 or 1999, pushing Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw back.

Nelson was a Vietnam veteran who didn't take up golf until after he returned from service. And he went on to win three major championships, including the PGA's own major, twice. It is incredible to think he was passed over just on that alone. Then consider he won his first nine Ryder Cup matches and was 9-3-1 overall in three appearances.

Based on the long-time criteria, Nelson was an absolute lock. (By the way, he edged Watson on a Monday to win the 1983 U.S. Open, denying Watson a second straight Open title.) But for some reason, it never happened.

Nelson would be faced with the same "out-of-touch" arguments as Watson, but again, does it really matter?

Perhaps this is a clue: As of now, Nelson is scheduled to play in a pro-am on Thursday morning in Orlando as part of the Father-Son Challenge.

-- Fred Couples. This would be a popular choice among the players, who have enjoyed playing for him in two Presidents Cup victories. Couples is proof that you don't need to take yourself too seriously, obsess over pairings or get too carried away.

That said, he was an assistant for Love at Medinah and appeared a bit aloof, not fully engaged. Did that hurt him? Not nearly as much as the fact that he'll be the U.S. Presidents Cup captain in 2013 at Muirfield Village come October. While that seemingly shouldn't matter, it does to the PGA, which expects its captain to be a non-stop promoter of the Ryder Cup. How could Couples do that if he's handling Presidents Cup duties?

Couples, 53, certainly fits the other criteria. He won the 1992 Masters, has 15 PGA Tour titles and played on five Ryder Cup teams. His easygoing nature and familiarity with the players would make him a popular, although unlikely, choice.

-- Paul Azinger? The PGA should have considered making Azinger, who is also an ESPN golf analyst, the captain for as long as he wanted the job. Now that would have been going away from protocol, but nobody lives, breathes and loves the Ryder Cup like Zinger. Now 52, Azinger got the PGA of America to change the qualification system and the number of captain's picks and his 2008 victory is the only American win since 1999.

Azinger's passion for the event cannot be questioned, and his love for the tournament is certainly a boon for the PGA of America. But an Azinger tweet Tuesday suggesting the PGA of America use a committee of former captains and players to select its next captain suggests he is not the man.

-- Phil Mickelson? OK, this one is out there, but why not. This is clearly outside the box, as Mickelson will very likely be on the team. The U.S. has not had a playing captain since 1963, when Arnold Palmer juggled both roles. It was only Palmer's second Ryder Cup as a player and he was running the team, clearly suggesting that things were much different then.

Mickelson has played on every U.S. Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup team dating to 1995. He knows what it takes to do the job and would clearly surround himself with strong assistants. It's his job in the future if he wants it, so this is unlikely, but intriguing nonetheless.

Who else? Mark Calcavecchia? John Daly? Jack Nicklaus?

Toms is a great guy and an excellent choice -- if you go by the way the PGA of America has done it for two decades.

But this time seems different. Perhaps the organization wants to shake things up, try a new approach, give Toms his shot on American soil in 2016 or in some other year. The situation screams for something out of the ordinary.

And what does the PGA have to lose, other than another Ryder Cup?

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE