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Ryder Cup 2014: Why the psychology of golf’s greatest team event brings out the best – and worst – in Team USA

No Tiger, no home advantage but no hope? It would be very wrong to dismiss Tom Watson & Co at Gleneagles.

by Lawrence Donegan | September 22, 2014

Remember Boo Weekley, Southern gent, duck-hunting enthusiast and moderately successful professional golfer? If you don’t then you certainly won’t recall he won a Ryder Cup with Paul Azinger’s USA team in 2008.

Since then, Boo has hoovered up some more cash on the PGA Tour while gently descending back into obscurity from whence he came, a rotund and loveable reminder than when it comes to the greatest team event – perhaps even the greatest event in golf – anything is possible.

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Tom Watson, captain of this year’s USA team in Scotland, is too straight-laced to invoke Weekley’s name in any of his inspirational team talks

‘Look guys, if Boo can do it so can you’ – but it is safe to assume there will plenty of chat in the American team room this week about what went on in Kentucky back in 2008.

That year, like this year, the Americans were fairly hefty underdogs. A team without its star, Tiger Woods, who had headed off to the surgeon’s table for repairs after winning that year’s US Open on a broken leg. A team featuring six – six – rookies, including Boo, as well as the likes of JB Holmes and Kenny Perry.

Ryder Cup 2014 Team USA

That year’s USA captain Paul Azinger was never in Watson’s class as a player. But he was unmatched as a wind-up merchant, particularly  in his (non) relationship with the British press which he loathed, and Europe’s captain Nick Faldo, who he described as a “prick”.

Again, Watson would never used such ungentlemanly language but like Azinger he is far from shy when it comes to seeking an edge whenever he can.

Captain America

The last time he captained the Americans back in 1993 he caused something of a diplomatic incident by refusing to sign an autograph for Sam Torrance at the pre-tournament gala dinner. In retrospect these things look daft but at the time it really bugged the Europeans. In the end Watson’s team – anchored by Azinger, then at the peak of his powers as a player – prevailed by two points at the Belfry.

I’m not sure if odds are being offered on the eventuality of some kind of “incident” during the build-up to Friday’s opening round of matches but don’t be surprised if Watson manufactures some kind of “row”, just to rile the Europeans and motivate his own team. He has already talked about his desire to “take down the top dogs” – a clear reference to Rory McIlroy and Europe’s Ryder Cup totem Ian Poulter.

This is a technique straight from Azinger’s 2008 playbook. Expect more plagiarism this week.

Ryder Cup 2014 Team Europe

Famously, Azinger introduced a “pod” set-up to his team, breaking up his 12-man team into “little gangs” of four. The gangs comprised those players who were closest friends with each other, the idea being that this would foster even greater camaraderie. All the pairings over the first two days came from within each gang. It worked.

Wrecking me buzz

Davis Love used the same method at Medinah two years ago and it worked then, too. Unfortunately for Love, he and his merry band of men ran into a Ian Poulter-inspired buzzsaw in the Sunday singles that ended with a famous European victory.

There is no way to contain the kind of individual heroics served up by Poulter (below) a couple of years ago but there is a way to counter them.

Foster a strong team spirit, embrace the notion of being the underdog, use it to fuel the professional pride of the American players, and you never know where it could take you.

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There was a Miracle in Medinah, no doubt. But how often do miracles take place?

Much was expected of the young Tom Watson when he joined the professional ranks – he had been a star in college golf.

But for a long time he was seen as an underachiever, someone who couldn’t handle the pressure of the big moment. The experience instilled in him a cussedness that has endured to this day.

He might have an avuncular public image but on the golf circuit he has a reputation being brusque and cold. There is a chippiness about Watson that makes him pretty hard to warm to and extremely hard to beat.

If he can somehow instill that chippiness in his USA team then he, and they, could surprise this week, and walk off with Samuel Ryder’s little cup.

You can follow our favourite golf expert, author & Twitter enrepreneur Lawrence Donegan on Twitter here

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