Playing experience prepares him for tough task
By Mike Blum
Since 1995, the United States team has won just two of the past eight Ryder Cups.
Sea Island’s Davis Love was a either a player or assistant captain on five of those six American teams that lost to their European counterparts, and has been afforded the opportunity to improve both his personal record and that of the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Love was recently named captain for the 2012 U.S. squad, which will have a home match when the event is next played. The host course will be Medinah in suburban Chicago, the site of two recent PGA Championships (1999 and 2006) and three U.S. Opens (1949, ’75 and ’90).
The selection of Love came as no surprise to anyone. He is a former PGA champion (Winged Foot, 1997), a member of six straight Ryder Cup teams from 1993-2004), has 20 career PGA Tour victories and is the son of a PGA professional.
Love will be 48 when the 2012 matches are played September 28-30, and while he remains a competitive player on the PGA Tour, he has not qualified for the last three Ryder Cup teams and seems unlikely to do so in his captaincy year.
The European captain will be Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal, one of the most successful players in Ryder Cup history. Olazabal competed in seven matches and was part of the first two European teams to win on American soil (1987 and ’95).
However, Europe was only 3-4 in the seven matches in which Olazabal competed, among them the final round comeback by the U.S. at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1999, in which Olazabal was a major participant.
Olazabal’s career Ryder Cup record is a sterling 18-8-5, 16-4-4 in team matches, a number of them against Love. Love’s overall record is not nearly as gaudy (9-12-5), but is significantly better than Olazabal’s career mark in one area. Love is 3-1-2 in singles in the Ryder Cup, with Olazabal 2-4-1.
Love and Olazabal have a shared history in golf, and Love reflected on it during the recent announcement of his selection as the U.S. captain.
“Jose Maria and I go way back. We have competed against each other. We have shared a lot of trials and tribulations through our careers together. He has been a good friend for someone that plays the European Tour and that I don’t see that much.
“It’s interesting that we both came out on our respective tours at the same time; that my first three Ryder Cup matches were against Jose Maria and Seve Ballesteros, which is quite an introduction to the Ryder Cup.”
U.S. captain Tom Watson had told Love and playing partner Tom Kite that they were going to play all four matches, but after drawing Olazabal and Ballesteros in the first sessions, Watson altered his plan.
“He said, ‘You’re going to get an afternoon off’,” Love recalls. “No matter what happens, you guys are getting beat up pretty bad.”
Love and Kite won their first encounter with the two Spaniards, but that proved to be the only time Love was victorious against Olazabal in Ryder Cup play, going 1-4 against him, including a 5&4 loss with long time partner Fred Couples at the hands of Olazabal and Costantino Rocca in 1999, the last time they faced each other.
Earlier that year, Olazabal had edged out Love to win his second Masters title, and Love recounted a story from the next year’s Masters. Olazabal had brought some special Spanish wine for the past champions’ dinner and had some left over, which he presented to Love.
“I’ll always remember his generosity, his remembering that he holed a couple of putts coming down the stretch that knocked me out of winning a Masters. I know Thursday at the opening ceremonies we’ll be friends, and Sunday night when we get done we’ll still be friends. He’s a great competitor and a great friend and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
For the next year-and-a-half, Love will be spending his time as Ryder Cup captain promoting the event and performing the behind-the-scenes duties required of captains. Then will come the toughest decision a captain has to make – the selection of players to fill out the squad after the automatic qualifiers have been determined.
Thanks to 2008 captain Paul Azinger, the number of captain’s picks for the U.S. team has doubled from two to four, with the automatic qualifiers reduced from 10 to 8. Corey Pavin, the 2010 captain, kept that system.
“I would rather not have to make four captain’s picks,” Love said. “I watched Corey do it, was an advisor on that. It was hard to just give advice to a captain on making four picks.
“The hardest thing to do is going to be to tell those guys that didn’t get picked that they didn’t get picked.”
Love has no problem with the two additional captain’s picks.
“I think the system is fine. We identified eight great players and we had four great picks last time. All four picks played very well. I’ll go back and ask Corey how he got to that point, and all of the former captains I played for and get help with making those picks.
“Ultimately, we just want the 12 players that are the most confident and playing the best when we get back here to Medinah in 2012.”
As a six-time Ryder Cup player (the U.S. was 2-4 with Love on the squad), Love is fully aware of the blame game played by the media in the aftermath of a defeat.
“I’ll never forget sitting besides Lanny Wadkins when they had a closing dinner and we all had to sit down and watch the other team celebrate. He didn’t eat. He had his head hanging down and I thought. I watched Lanny do an incredible job as captain. He put more passion and energy into it. It was the thrill of his life. And then to lose, and he didn’t do one thing wrong.”
As a player, Love knows where the responsibility lies, and it isn’t who the captain picks as his wild cards or what order he sends his players out in singles the final day.
“It all comes down to golf, and we know that golf is a fickle game. It’s not a fair game. You can play your best and still not win. You get bad bounces and it ultimately comes down to a putt here or a putt there, or a shot here or a shot there.”
Love points to the lopsided U.S. loss in 2004 at Oakland Hills outside Detroit. He was playing in the second match of the opening session with Chad Campbell.
“I hit a bad iron shot on the second hole and I think it cost us the Ryder Cup. Didn’t have anything to do with Tiger and Phil. Didn’t have anything to do with what happened on Sunday. I hit a crappy iron shot on the second hole of the competition, and we got behind and we never had a chance after that. It just seemed we were behind the eight ball.
“Everybody that has played a Ryder Cup says, ‘If it was only for my half a point, we would have won’. And I think that’s what it comes down to, just one guy making one putt or hitting one good shot and grabbing the momentum.”
Each captain has his own leadership style, and Love has a little while to work on his.
“I think the players have known me for a long time. There’s a lot of players that will be on this 2012 team that I have competed with for a long time and we have played on a lot of teams together. I think that’s what I realized watching, starting with Tom Watson as my first captain. He had Raymond Floyd and Curtis Strange and Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins, players like that he knew and trusted.
“I think they know that I’m very traditional in my views of golf and of life, and that I’m going to be very supportive and easy going but a very focused captain. I’m a players’ captain if you can term it that way. I’m going to give them what they need to be successful. I’m going to stay out of their way and let them show their talents.
“I think a good leader knows he’s got a great team and just gets them prepared and let’s them go play.”