Thursday 19 October 2017

Master and commander - Paul McGinley shares his Augusta memories

As sports fans across the globe get set for this year's Augusta showdown, Paul McGinley remembers his own time at the Masters, and tells Paul whitington why he's swapped the excitement of big tournaments for time with his family
Leader of the gang: Paul McGinley gearing up for Sky Sports' Masters coverage. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Leader of the gang: Paul McGinley gearing up for Sky Sports' Masters coverage. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Paul McGinley with wife Alison, daughters Maia and Niamh and son Killian at Gleneagles after leading Europe to Ryder Cup glory in 2014
Paul McGinley has been forced to withdraw from the BMW PGA Championship due to injury Photo: Sportsfile

On the morning I meet up with Paul McGinley, he's just spent most of a long press conference on the upcoming Masters tournament fielding questions about Rory McIlroy's infamous round with President Trump. "And I don't want to add fuel to the fire, you know," he tells me, shaking his head in exasperation, "because if I say something, it'll get reported and on it goes. I think he needs to move on from the Trump stuff, and say 'I've talked enough about that, just forget about it', and push it away. Because you know, he's on the verge of doing what so few ever get to do, which is winning five Majors."

That elusive fifth Major may just arrive next weekend, as the 81st Masters tees off on the hallowed fairways of Augusta National Golf Club. Paul will be part of Sky's analysis and commentary team, and the tournament holds a special place in his heart.

"I'd had a number of offers to go and play at Augusta in my early years as a pro and when I was an amateur," he tells me, "but I always politely refused, because I didn't want to go there till I was playing in the Masters.

"The first time was 2002, and JP Fitzgerald, who works with Rory now, caddied for me. It was his first time in Augusta as well - we were so excited. When you go to Augusta, the first thing you do is you register, and all the caddies wear a number on their overalls indicating the order in which they registered. So the defending champion is always number one, and the first guy to register is number two, and then three and it goes all the way up. That year I was number two!

Paul McGinley with wife Alison, daughters Maia and Niamh and son Killian at Gleneagles after leading Europe to Ryder Cup glory in 2014
Paul McGinley with wife Alison, daughters Maia and Niamh and son Killian at Gleneagles after leading Europe to Ryder Cup glory in 2014

"I was so excited: break of dawn, gates open, and we're in! And we hit a few balls and I couldn't wait to get on the back nine, because that was the nine that was on TV, so those were the holes that I knew. It was one of the few places where you go and it actually met your expectations - it was everything I thought it was going to be."

As he talks, his enthusiasm for the tournament is palpable. Why does he think the Masters is one of those rare sporting events that attracts so many dilettante viewers as well as fanatics?

"There's a few things," he says. "I mean there's the natural beauty of Augusta: it's turned out like a garden in the Chelsea Flower Show, it's just great to look at and the images jump out of the TV. Then the second thing is that it comes at a time of the year where we're coming out of the depths of winter, and those sunny greens in Georgia make us all look forward to the summer to come. I used to watch it as a kid, and really look forward to it. I remember watching [Jack] Nicklaus win in 1986 - that was special."

The other big golfing occasion that casual viewers tune into in their millions is the Ryder Cup, and McGinley's record in this sphere is remarkable. Between 2002 and 2006, he made three consecutive victorious appearances in the European team, was a vice-captain in 2010 and 2012, and in 2014 became the first Irishman to serve as Ryder Cup captain. His team beat the US by five points. I ask him something I've always wondered: how does winning as a captain compare with winning as a player?

"Very different," he says. "It's pure ecstasy when you play, there's that adrenaline spike when something goes right, or something goes wrong, so you're on a rollercoaster. As a captain it's a much deeper: there's a deeper sense of satisfaction, and a humbleness, to know that you were involved in orchestrating a plan that was carried out by the players and vice-captains, that people listened to you and respected your ideas.

"But the feelings are so different. I think in teams of pure enjoyment, being part of a winning team, to hole the winning putt like I did in 2002 [a ten-footer to beat Jim Furyk], words can't describe what that felt like. That's my top memory as a player. So few people get that opportunity, with the chance to win it, and then to hit as good a putt as I did."

Paul McGinley has been forced to withdraw from the BMW PGA Championship due to injury Photo: Sportsfile
Paul McGinley has been forced to withdraw from the BMW PGA Championship due to injury Photo: Sportsfile

Would it be possible to be a good Ryder Cup captain if you've never played Ryder Cup? "No. Experience is a huge part of it, having been there, and knowing how it feels. And a number of the feelings that I had as a Ryder Cup player turned into ideas when I became a captain. I remember standing over a putt from four feet playing with Darren [Clarke] at the 16th hole on a Saturday night, four-ball, in the Belfry, 2002. I had a four-foot putt, I think it was to go all-square in the match, and the crowd went quiet.

"The crowd was 15-deep, we were the last game on the course. I remember having a thought as I was reading my putt, and thinking: 'God if I hole this putt this crowd is going to go wild. Thirty thousand people around this hole are going to go wild if I hole this putt.' So as a result I felt so powerful, I felt empowered, and I hit that putt in a great mindset because I wanted to make the crowd go wild, and I holed it. Rather than, you know 'oh God I hope I don't let anybody down'. So that idea was a big part of our preparations in 2014.

"One of the challenges at Gleneagles was playing home advantage: we didn't want the crowd turning against us and wanted to get them working for us. And one of the images I had was this huge picture of Justin Rose with his hands out flat like this, and we superimposed thousands of people behind him and smoke coming out of his hands. Basically, you've got 50,000 people in the palm of your hand, every shot you hit. When you get to the first tee you look down the fairway, rather than thinking 'oh my god I hope I make contact, I just want to get it off the tee, I don't want to make a fool of myself', you say 'no, I hit this down the fairway, there's 25,000 people here that are going to scream.'"

Does he feel that crowd vociferousness and rowdiness at the Ryder Cup - which was the subject of much debate after European players were on the receiving end of hostile jeers from a small cohort of well-lubricated American fans last October - is becoming a serious problem? Could we see a repeat of that behaviour at Augusta?

"Not really. I think at the Ryder Cup there were a couple of comments that weren't ideal, and that maybe some people had consumed a little too much alcohol, but we're talking about a very small minority of people here. The Ryder Cup wouldn't be anything without the crowds - the crowds make it, that intensity, that passion. When you align yourself with your country, like the American crowds do at the Ryder Cup, it creates a brilliant atmosphere. It wouldn't be anything without them."

Now a trim and sprightly 50, Paul combines his Sky Sports commentary with corporate work and also sits on the board of the European Tour. But he hasn't stopped playing entirely, and last month made his debut on the Seniors Tour.

"I played one in Florida two weeks ago. I really enjoyed it, there were 80 players, I came 40th, shot six under par, and was pleased with how I played," he says. "The scoring was phenomenally good. I could have putted better, but I learned a lot about where my game is in relation to the other guys, and I'm not that far off the pace."

So his distinguished playing career continues - but if not for a teenage sporting injury he might never have become a golfer at all.

As a boy, Paul McGinley was a very keen Gaelic footballer. He played with Ballyboden and "was lucky to play all the way up in fantastic teams". He played schools for Dublin at Under 12 and Under 14, where one of his team-mates was legendary Aussie Rules star Jim Stynes. "We stayed friends. I used to go and see him every time I went to Australia, it was really sad what happened in the end," he says of Stynes, who died of cancer at age 45 in 2012.

Young Paul had his eyes on a place in the Dublin senior team when he broke his patella training at the age of 19. "It was absolutely devastating," he recalls. "I was on crutches for six months, it was a big recovery, lots of physio. I was very fortunate in that one of the best knee surgeons in Ireland and I think Europe at the time was a fellow called Jimmy Sheehan in Blackrock Clinic. He steel-plated my knee and put it back together again, and I remember him saying to me as I came around the following day that it was unlikely I'd be able to twist and turn the way I had. His first question was, do you play any other sports? And I said I played a little bit of golf…"

He had "messed about a bit", as he puts it, on summer holidays in his father's home county, Donegal. "I was decent, I was probably six handicap, five maybe. But I was nowhere near decent from an international level; I didn't play underage for Ireland or anything like that, I wasn't even close."

A college scholarship to San Diego helped him develop his game, and when he returned to Ireland he excelled on the amateur circuit, made the 1991 Walker Cup team and decided to turn pro.

Twenty-six years later he still loves the game, and is looking forward to another busy season.

"I'd like to play seven or eight events in the Senior Tour this year," he says, "maybe two or three in the main tour here in Europe, the Irish Open obviously, and Wentworth, and also play maybe a little bit in the Seniors over here, so maybe 12 events. But they all sit behind the family."

Paul lives near London with his wife Alison, a very accomplished golfer herself, and their three children.

"Our eldest daughter Niamh is doing her Leaving this year… I mean her A-levels! She's 18, and has all the dilemmas and stresses of doing her exams and deciding where she's going to go to university. Then we've got Killian, our boy who's 16 and his doing his O-levels - so there's a lot of stuff going on with that. And my wife is at home and our younger girl, Maia, too. So that's number one - everything else depends on that.

"This is a crucial time for our family in the next four or five years, and I'm not at a place where I can go off and play 25 weeks in America. I'm past that stage; I've been there, done that, and now it's about getting a balance. We have a place in America so maybe it's about trying to balance it out, and when we're out there as a family I can play events."

And finally, does Paul have a word of advice for creaky amateurs emerging from hibernation and suffering with their game?

"Establish your DNA as a golfer," he says. "We all have a DNA. Some people fade it, some people draw it, some people hook it, slice it, and when you find what comes easier to you, what shot comes easier to you, harness it, work it, understand it, keep playing that one-dimensional game.

"Keep it simple, as much as you can. And if it's a big ugly 20-yard fade, and you know how to do it though, just keep doing it, because this game is about plotting your way around a golf course. And the best feeling in the world is standing on a tee, and knowing what the ball is going to do."

Paul McGinley leads Sky Sports' coverage of the US Masters 2017. Live tournament action will tee off on Thursday April 6, from 7pm

Irish Independent

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