ORLANDO, Fla. — Tom Watson is giving back one of his captain's picks for the Ryder Cup.
In his first big move since he was appointed U.S. captain last year, Watson said Wednesday he would take the top nine players off the Ryder Cup standings and select three players as captain's picks. For the last three matches, only eight Americans qualified for the team and the U.S. captain had four picks.
"Giving our players one more opportunity to earn a spot on merit, I believe, is the right thing to do," Watson said.
Paul Azinger was behind a major overhaul of the U.S. points system when he was captain for the 2008 matches. He based the standings on PGA Tour earnings instead of points assigned to top-10 finishes, put more emphasis on the current season the Ryder Cup was held and increased the picks from two to four.
The Americans won the Ryder Cup that year, and while Europe has won the last two times, the Ryder Cup has come down to one match late on Sunday afternoon.
The next Ryder Cup is in 2014 at Gleneagles in Scotland.
Americans can start accruing Ryder Cup points at the Masters next month. Only earnings from the majors count this year, and money from all PGA Tour events – with an emphasis on the majors – will count in the 2013-14 season that starts in October.
If nine players had qualified in recent years, Hunter Mahan would have made the team in 2012. Mahan was leading the points list in early April and then hit such a bad stretch of golf that he finished at No. 9 and was overlooked as a captain's pick.
Anthony Kim missed three months of the 2010 season and slipped to No. 9 in the standings. He would have made the team under this system of three picks.
In 2008, Steve Stricker was No. 9 in the standings, though he was such an obvious captain's pick that he was involved in choosing the other picks for Azinger's team under the captain's unique "pods" system.
Azinger said Watson called him to find out his logic behind wanting four picks in 2008.
"He was considering going to two picks," Azinger said from his home in Brandenton, Fla. "I said, `It doesn't matter if it's four or two.' In the end, it's insignificant. The overall overhaul is still intact. You're still getting the best Americans. For him to pick three players is just a preference."
Watson, who will be 65 when the matches are played in Scotland, is the oldest captain in Ryder Cup history. He says he already has started paying attention to PGA Tour players and who might be on the team.
"I've watched a lot of golf on Golf Channel and the networks," Watson said. "I know who Russell Henley is. I know Kevin ... Streelman." Henley (Sony Open) and Streelman (Tampa Bay Championship) are among five first-time winners on the PGA Tour this year.
"You're starting to see players really surge right now," he said. "Then you have the old stalwarts like Phil (Mickelson) and Tiger (Woods). They have got to step up to the plate as well and lead the team. That's my job as captain, to get the right frame of mind for the team as they approach the Ryder Cup and during the Ryder Cup."
Watson also sent a veiled message to the PGA of America during a video interview from Kansas City, Mo., that was shown on the Ryder Cup website. He said the matches played at Gleneagles would give Europe an advantage because the European Tour has had the Johnnie Walker Championship on the course the last several years.
The Ryder Cup in America tends to go to courses that had major championships that players don't see often. It was at Oakland Hills in 2004, where players had not been in eight years; at Valhalla in 2008, which previously held a PGA Championship in 2000; and at Medinah in 2012, which last held a major six years earlier.
Europe won in 2010 at Celtic Manor, where Graeme McDowell had won the Wales Open that year. McDowell won the clinching point in the Ryder Cup.
"One thing the Europeans have done – I would do it, too, if I had the chance – they play the Ryder Cup matches on courses where they play European tournaments," Watson said. "The more familiar you are with a golf course, the better you're going to play. That's a clear advantage."
Watson said one reason he nearly won the British Open at age 59 was because no one had seen Turnberry since 1994, and he knew how to play the course in the various windy conditions.