Ryder Cup captains - how key are they?

The skippers have little influence on victory or defeat, argues Paul Mahoney

Golfmagic Staff's picture
Paul Mahoney
Fri, 27 Feb 2015
Ryder Cup captains - how key are they?

Human Resources Departments. Everyone seems to think they are essential to the successful running of a team, but no one has a clue what they actually do.

And so it is with Ryder Cup captains. They are sport’s HR managers.

World number one Rory McIlroy summed up the role perfectly: “It’s not rocket science.”

He was referring to the USA’s Task Force created after humiliation at Gleneagles in which 11 (that’s 11) players and suits locked themselves in a room for hours to come up with a plan to pick the next captain who could reverse the trend of seven defeats in the last eight matches. They came up with Davis Love.

You know, the captain whose team chucked (choked?) away a 10-6 lead in Sunday’s singles in 2012? But that wasn’t Love’s fault. He didn’t hit any drivers into the rough or miss putts. But he knew the drill in taking on his HR responsibilities. “Win - you’re a hero. Lose - you’re a goat. Said that from day one,” he said. 

Forgetting that they are not constructing a rocket, Love’s statement after being handed the poisoned chalice again read like a corporate HR press release. “It’s a new business model, a new team-building model, that comes from being given an opportunity by the PGA of America to come together and use all our veteran experience to build a new team culture and a consistent plan for the future.” Erm, what?

He paused before delivering what it’s really all about. “Simply, we want to win.” Well, yes, there it is. There’s the great Task Force plan. But they really shouldn’t have let that slip out to the Europeans. Their HR manager Darren Clarke said he was going to change nothing from Paul McGinley’s winning team and that “the match will be about the players and not me”.

Fred Couples said if he were captain it would be all about the players, too. Plus he’d cancel the eternal dinners and meetings. Which is why he didn’t get picked as captain. It’s a corporate figurehead they want. Someone who says the right things and looks good in a blazer.

Picking the captain is also as much about whose turn it is as much as who is the right person. Such a strategy gave Europe Nick Faldo, who forgot the names of his players in the opening ceremony and picked DJ Spoony as one of his team room assistants.

Europe lost, but it had nothing to do with Faldo’s failure to bond with his players or Paul Azinger’s fabled pods system. Wow, he split his 12 into three fours and that’s why USA won? Podswallop. They won because they holed more putts.

Love revealed his secret for success ahead of the 2012 match. “It doesn’t matter if you’re charging the hill or waiting for the other guys to come to you, what’s important is to have a plan,” he said. So far, so good. “We need to shoot at the pins, gotta make birdies, get the crowd into it, show some emotion,” he said. Genius. They lost. 

Not because of Love, but because Ian Poulter’s eyes popped out of his head on Saturday afternoon and momentum changed to Europe at just the right time. After all, victory had little to do with Jose Maria Olazabal either. Unless stitching Seve’s silhouette onto the bags and shirts gave the Europeans superpowers.

The first person Olazabal called when he was appointed captain was his old partner and pal Seve. "We joked about a couple of things he did in 1997 [at Valderrama], like separating the beds [of those sharing rooms with partners]," Olazabal said.

Yep, that’s why Europe won in 1997. Seve and Ollie played 15 matches together and lost only two. That’s why Europe kept winning. They had the best players. Points on the board. Nothing to do with the captain. 

Further proof, if it were needed, that it’s all about the players and that putting out your best players doesn’t always work, can be summarized in two words – "Hal" and "Sutton". The 2004 cowboy-hat-wearing Texan paired Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. It worked with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. But not with Tiger and Phil. Played two, lost two, cowboy hat in the bin, players’ fault, not Hapless Hal’s, as he was dubbed.

McGinley was praised for his attention to detail and leadership qualities in victory at Gleneagles. But it was probably this tactic that scuppered the Americans: “I’m going to have a strong Scottish theme, whether it’s with the uniforms or the bags, I don’t know yet,” he said on becoming captain.

And which revolutionary, game-changing tactics worked best in the three Ryder Cups he played in? “Bernhard Langer telling us to sign as many autographs as possible at Detroit in 2004 to take down that hostility off the home crowd.” Of course.

Perhaps the only captain to lay claim to having an influence on victory is Tony Jacklin. “I took the captain’s job in 1983 on conditions: I wanted to fly on Concorde because the American team always flew first-class and we sat at the back of the bus in bloody economy,’’ Jacklin said.

“We weren’t allowed to take caddies; we had neither team room nor a team uniform. One year they even gave us plastic shoes. The Americans had everything. All that had to change.” Jacklin made it a level mental playing field but he knew the real reason for success was not him but the players. He got lucky. “Timing is everything,” he said.

“European golfers were about to have a fantastic era with Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam. And then they asked me to be captain!”

Sam Torrance knew what Jacklin meant. History would have us believe that the Scot rallied his team to victory at the Belfry in 2002 with his Churchill-inspired speech: “Out of the shadows come heroes.”

But Torrance knew otherwise. What makes a great captain?

“Winning,” he said.