Commentary

Tom Watson will feel at home in '14

Updated: December 13, 2012, 4:24 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

They put a likeness of Jack Nicklaus on a 5-pound note to honor the Golden Bear, so it says something about Tom Watson that, to the Scots, he is likely revered even more than Nicklaus.

Perhaps it is the way he adjusted his thinking and accepted the way the game is played in Scotland rather than fight it. No doubt, it has something to do with taking four of his five Claret Jugs from the Open Championship north of the border.

Watson, 63, was named U.S. Ryder Cup captain on Thursday and will take on the task of beating Europe in 2014 when the biennial event is played at Gleneagles where, in some eyes, the Americans will already be 1-up.

Such is the stature of the eight-time major champion in that part of the world, where golf is often viewed as much more than a leisure activity. More than a few have said, and written, over the years that Watson is a Scot in everything but nationality, his determination and grit embodying the very personalities they often possess.

"Any professional golfer who doesn't feel a kindred spirit here in Scotland probably doesn't have an understanding of the game," Watson said at the 2009 Open -- where he lost in a playoff at age 59. "If you're a professional golfer and you play the game for a living, it's the fabric of your life. It's the fabric of life over here. People understand the game, even if they don't play it. And that's the beauty of it here. That's why I love it here."

Words such as those show why Watson is held in such high esteem. European golf fans might serenade and otherwise ridicule the Americans when they step onto the first tee in September 2014, but not Watson.

Whether that helps the American cause remains to be seen, but it is interesting to note that Watson will likely be more popular at the Scottish resort than will be either of the potential captains from Europe whom he will face -- Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke or Ireland's Paul McGinley.

More likely is that Watson will bring a different approach to the job than his predecessors, captains who did everything in their power to please the players -- along with their wives, girlfriends and caddies -- while setting up an atmosphere meant to make sure that all was just right.

And how has that worked out?

The U.S. has won just two Ryder Cups since Watson's team prevailed at The Belfry in England in 1993. That happens to be the last Yank victory on foreign soil. It would be unfair to blame the captains for all of those losses. At some point, the players have to play, and there is no better example than what happened to Davis Love III a couple of months ago at Medinah.

Say all you want about the captain's decision to sit Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley on Saturday afternoon despite their 3-0 record as a team. Both players lost their singles matches on Sunday. But the Americans were up 10-6 on Saturday, and any captain would kill for that advantage heading into singles. The Americans simply did not come through on Sunday, managing just three singles victories. How is that Love's fault?

Still, when you lose, those in charge look for answers, and the general consensus now is that the U.S. captains have been too chummy with their players, making decisions by committee and not being tough enough.

That won't be the case with Watson, who is expected to make the decisions, hardened in his resolve.

Watson's good friend, two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN golf analyst Andy North, chuckled at the notion. "He's going to do things his way," North said.

A stubborn streak has always been a part of Watson's makeup, but he famously changed his ways to learn how to play golf on the links of Scotland. Amazingly, Watson won the Open in his first attempt, winning a playoff over Jack Newton at Carnoustie in 1975. It was Watson's first major triumph and set in motion a nine-year run as one of the top players in the game.

[+] EnlargeTom Watson
Chris Cole/Allsport/Getty ImagesTom Watson stands as the last American captain to lead the U.S. to a Ryder Cup victory on foreign soil. Watson's squad defeated the Europeans in 1993 at The Belfry.

Two years later came the famous "Duel in the Sun" at Turnberry, where Nicklaus shot 65-66 on the weekend -- only to be outdone by Watson's 65-65 finish.

And yet, all the while, Watson loathed the type of golf played in the Open, the along-the-ground game that is essential to links golf.

"I didn't like it," Watson said. "I think a lot of it had to do with we didn't have the conditions of wind at Carnoustie, and Turnberry the same way. We didn't have the strong wind to deal with. In fact, each afternoon the wind died down. It was a glorious Scottish day each afternoon on Saturday and Sunday.

"There was really a mental turning point. I was criticizing the golf course rather than playing the golf course. I didn't like that attitude. That was a lousy attitude to have if you're going to try and win a golf tournament. I finally had a good talk with myself, and I started playing the golf course the way it should be played. Attitude there has a lot to do with playing good golf.

"But I won two Open Championships the first four years I played over there not particularly liking links style golf."

Watson added two more Open victories in Scotland -- at Muirfield in 1980 (where the Open returns in 2013) and at Royal Troon in 1982. His fifth and final Open title came at England's Royal Birkdale in 1983. A third straight -- and sixth overall -- was denied him at the home of golf, St. Andrews, in 1984, where Seve Ballesteros edged him by two strokes.

"As you get closer to the Ryder Cup, all of the Scots will react to Tom being captain," North said. "He's such a hero there. He has been adopted as one of theirs. His being named captain will bring a total different feel to the event. Maybe that was part of the thinking of the PGA. ... I am thrilled for Tom. I know he's wanted to do this again. I'm sure he's beside himself."

It should be noted that, sadly, the Ryder Cup will not be played on a links course. The Centenary Course at Gleneagles is inland and was designed by ... Nicklaus.

But the success Watson has had in a small country of 5 million people, along with the admiration he is shown, ought to count for something. If anything, it should engender the respect of his players, who might learn a thing or two from one of the game's legends.

"If you just look at Tom's history and legacy there, I guess you could say that if they wanted to pick a winner in Scotland to lead them in Scotland, they have done that," Nicklaus said. "The love and embrace Tom will receive in Scotland as a Ryder Cup captain will likely be the most anybody could ever hope for when leading a team on foreign soil."

Unlike Nicklaus, Watson has yet to find his way onto any "fivers," as they say. But he's built up plenty of currency in Scotland, nonetheless.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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