By Cam Huffman
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS —
Tom Watson has known his selection for assistant Ryder Cup captain for some time. But the pro emeritus at The Greenbrier waited until a special week to make the announcement.
On Wednesday, on the eve of the start of the fourth Greenbrier Classic, Watson, the 2014 Ryder Cup captain, announced that Andy North will serve in the assistant capacity and try to help the United States win its first Ryder Cup since 2008 and just its second since 1995.
Born in Wisconsin, North played college golf at the University of Florida. He won three times on the PGA TOUR, including the 1978 and 1985 U.S. Open, both by one stroke.
Since 1993, North has been a golf analyst for ESPN.
“I’ve known him since 1967,” said Watson Wednesday, after finishing up a round of 57 in the pro-am. “He’s somebody I can rely on to tell me about the TOUR, what’s going on the TOUR, because his job is an ESPN announcer. He has worked for ESPN for the last 12 years, and he knows the players inside and out.
“He’s won a couple U.S. Opens. That means you can really play. He knows what it takes to close the deal, and that’s what we need on the Ryder Cup team. We need players who can close the deal.”
North, speaking via phone at Wednesday’s press conference, said he hesitated for a grand total of about one second before accepting Watson’s offer.
“We were sitting around at dinner and Tom said, ‘Hey, I’ve got something to ask you,’” remembered North of a meeting in Kansas City during basketball season. “’Would you want to be my assistant?’
“He didn’t even get the words out of his mouth before I was giddy, absolutely giddy, over the opportunity to not only hopefully have a role to get the cup back, but also to be able to help a dear friend. If I can take a little bit of the responsibility off of his shoulders and make it an easier week for him, that will be awesome for me.”
North believes his time covering today’s players — often following the final grouping on Sundays — will be a valuable resource to assist Watson in selecting a team.
“There’s a lot of experience of being around these players, and hopefully I can help Tom get a good grasp on some of them,” said North. “It’s nice to have four eyes looking at players versus just two. I think it’s going to be an interesting time, and I’ll do whatever the captain wants me to do.”
Watson said he’ll use this week, playing in The Greenbrier Classic, as a scouting trip to add files into his bank of information that he’ll use to make his final three selections for the 2014 team. A points system will determine the top nine players for the U.S. team, while Watson will handpick the final three.
“I’ll see a lot of players, watch them on the practice range, watch how they swing, their fundamentals, their grip, how they set up and how they hit the ball,” said Watson. “I’ve been watching a lot more PGA TOUR golf on TV, I can assure you that.
“I’m watching these players, how they’re finishing, how they’re doing on TV when the chips are down and the pressure’s high. You see a lot by looking in the player’s eyes, I think. You can tell a lot about a player. I’ll be watching their eyes a lot.”
Watson will have until next September to make his selections, but this week he’ll be focused on his own game. The 63-year-old, who has won eight Major championships, will be trying to compete with the game’s “young guns” to stay in contention.
“It’s a very tough golf course,” said Watson. “It’s a little long for old guys like me, but it’s a wonderful place to be and you see all the players here with their families.
“My games in pretty good shape right now. I played pretty well last week, so we’ll see what happens.”
Watson may be better equipped than anybody on The Greenbrier property to forecast Sunday’s champion. He’s been paying close attention to the players, he knows what it takes to win and he certainly knows The Old White TPC well.
The veteran golfer wasn’t about to make a prediction Wednesday, but he did identify one of the major traits of a golfer who will play well this week.
“The guys who hit the ball high, I like that on this golf course,” said the World Golf Hall of Famer. “The greens still, even though they’re soft, they’re hard. There’s a firmness to it. The ball will skid and bounce. Even if they’re a little bit damp, it will skid. The guys who hit the ball high can stop it.
“Unfortunately, I probably could name about 50 players that hit the ball high. I can’t pick one, because they all launch it up there like I used to be able to do. I can’t do that anymore, but that’s the element you need on this golf course — height.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.