GLENEAGLES, Scotland (AP) — Had he looked around him during his long and lonesome walk toward the 14th hole, Bubba Watson could have immersed himself in one of the finest vistas in Scotland. Shimmering in the distance behind him, come-hither valleys cut by long-gone glaciers begged to be rambled over. In the lemony sunlight, under pale blue skies tickled by scudding clouds, the home of golf glittered like a palace.
But all this beauty was lost on Watson. Hands shoved deep into his pockets, he stared despondently down at the stars and stripes on his shoes — searching, perhaps, for answers to what is fast becoming one of the most perplexing of Ryder Cup riddles: Why can’t the two-time Masters champion translate his awesome talents into more victories on team golf’s biggest stage, when his nation needs him most?
Watson’s own explanation after his second comprehensive defeat at this Ryder Cup: “I guess I’m too nice.”
That, surely, is part of it. If Watson set his mind to bullying his European opponents with the same ferocity that he strikes the ball, perhaps his Ryder Cup record wouldn’t read: Played 10, lost seven, won three. Watson drove so viciously off tees at the PGA Centenary course that his ball hissed like a firework as it tore through the crisp morning air. But Watson is also such a softie that he would probably apologize, if he could, to any Scottish midges taken out by his balls’ nigh-on supersonic trajectories.
Even locked in what turned out to be the most titanic fourballs battle in 87 years of Ryder Cup, Watson doled out compliments and kindnesses like candy.
“Good putt, bud,” he said to Justin Rose after the Englishman’s uphill, six-foot birdie at the second hole entranced crowds so silent you could hear songbirds cheep.
“Europe! Europe!” home fans chanted after it dropped, cancelling out Matt Kuchar’s 10-foot birdie putt on the first hole.
Back and forth, like heavyweight boxers, the dueling pairs traded blows. They treated the crowds to birdies at 15 of the 18 holes. The two pairs’ 21-under total was a Ryder Cup record in fourballs. So, too, was the 12 under for Rose and partner Henrik Stenson.
Michael Jordan, cigar wedged between fingers that sank a million basketballs, pursed his lips in disappointment as he watched Stenson drain a 20-foot birdie on 12 that turned the tide for the Europeans, hoisting them to 1-up for the first time, when they’d been 2-down six holes earlier. Rose got his sixth and then seventh birdies on 13 and 16 to cement the 3-and-2 victory, the third for the new European pairing at this Ryder Cup. Two of those wins were against Watson.
Even in the aftermath of defeat, walking through the crowds with Angie, his wife who gave him a consoling pat on the backside, Watson remembered to toss his ball to a fan, a grown man who kissed it. Watson also pulled a white glove from his back pocket and handed that to another fan, too.
“I’m never going to be mean to anybody,” an introspective Watson said later. “I don’t want to play golf if I have to be mean to somebody. I’ve got no reason to be mean. You know, these are good friends of mine. If they beat me, they beat me. Today I got beat. I didn’t make bogeys. I didn’t make doubles. I made birdies and just not enough of them. So no reason to get mad.”
Tom Watson won’t see it that way if he becomes the eighth losing U.S. captain in 10 Ryder Cups after the final round of singles on Sunday. He played Watson in the first matches on Friday and Saturday morning because he was counting on his big-hitter not just to bag points but to kick-start winning momentum.
In a defeat, captain Watson will be left pondering, as his predecessors will have done, why it is that some of the United States’ stellar golfers, so impressive when playing for themselves, struggle to rise to the occasion of the Ryder Cup — when so much national pride, but no money, is at stake.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, for example, have 18 major championships between them but have lost more Ryder Cup matches than they’ve won. Woods isn’t playing this time. Mickelson is. But the U.S. captain didn’t play him at all on Saturday after he won his Friday morning fourballs but lost afternoon foursomes. The captain also didn’t put Watson out again on Saturday afternoon.
Lack of Ryder Cup passion isn’t one of Watson’s shortcomings. As has become his trademark, he motioned to the first tee galleries to make as much noise as possible when he swung his puce-pink driver. The crowds love him for this breach of golfing etiquette. He pumped fists when putts dropped, laughed at his own wisecracks, and kept up a lively banter as he walked from hole to hole, the picture of a golfer relishing this very special tournament.
But walking up the 14th, with Kuchar striding off ahead of him and the match slipping away, the spring in Watson’s step was gone.
“Maybe I make it too comfortable for the other guys,” he said. “I’m not going to be mean to anybody. I’m just going to play golf. Right now, the guys keep beating me. It’s one of those things.”
In Ryder Cup, it seems, nice guys do finish last.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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