'I rely on my own intuition'
Paul McGinley wants his experience to define his captaincy, says Dermot Gilleece
During the run-up to Christmas, a familiar figure, resplendent in a Ryder Cup blazer and tie, attempted to dodge his way as unobtrusively as possible through scurrying shoppers at the top of Grafton Street. That was when a rich Dublin accent assailed him from the open window of a passing bus.
"Fair play to yeh, McGinley," shouted the mobile voice. "Yeh look like the dog's bollox."
As Ireland's first Ryder Cup skipper, Paul McGinley half-expected to be brought down to earth in such a manner, given the way he was attired for a commercial assignment in the Convention Centre, followed by a visit to Standard Life's offices in Stephen's Green. And your basic Dubliner hadn't disappointed him.
It's now almost a year since he was formally elected by his peers in Abu Dhabi. And while much has gone precisely to plan, other viewpoints appear to have undergone significant revision. Like his thinking on the likely input of leading GAA county managers, Jim McGuinness of Donegal and Tyrone's Mickey Harte.
"There was never any suggestion from me that Jim McGuinness would be part of my backroom team," he said. "That was purely people putting one and one together and getting three. Jim has been a family friend for a long number of years. He's very close to my dad, which has meant the two of us being privy to a lot of information from Jim. Which obviously remains confidential.
"I admire what he has achieved in Donegal and I've learned a lot from him. How he has dealt with things. There have been a number of people in my life that I've learned a lot from and Jim is certainly among them, when it comes to managing players. If there's something in particular that I feel he can help me with, of course I will ask him. But I don't see that happening, to be honest."
And what about Harte? "I'm reluctant to be involved with any other GAA managers, because I don't want to be accused of having a foot in too many camps. People with a background in golf are more likely to be the ones I'll be targeting, rather than someone who is not involved in golf."
Which contrasts markedly with views he expressed to me in Abu Dhabi, like ". . . at the highest level, the GAA remains my inspiration." And ". . . other team captains have referred to the management skills of Alex Ferguson, but the bonding in the GAA is different." And there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it would be a shock if his thinking hadn't been influenced by events over the last 12 months. As he put it: "I'm trying to educate myself throughout this whole process and I still have a lot to learn."
Miguel Angel Jimenez has been mentioned as a backroom candidate. Either way, McGinley is aiming for four vice-captains who will probably be named in early summer when "the team has an obvious shape to it". "There's no rush," he added. "My requirements will be dictated by the way things evolve."
Meanwhile, one imagines much of the past year being dominated by the prospect of Tom Watson as his opposing captain. McGinley doesn't buy into the notion that the captain's role is often exaggerated; that his impact on the final outcome is minimal.
He is aware of how the 2008 US skipper, Paul Azinger, pulled a fast one on Nick Faldo at Valhalla by having a few tees moved forward in certain matches. These were tees that the Americans had practised off but the Europeans hadn't. As a consequence, Europe's backroom team wasted quite an amount of time at Medinah four years later, watching the tees the Americans were playing off during the week.
Then there was the guile and confidence with which Dave Stockton totally outmanoeuvred a rather naive Bernard Gallacher at Kiawah Island in 1991. In both these instances, the captain played a significant role in America's success. And Watson would hardly have been so anxious to answer the call, if he didn't believe he could make a difference.
"I'd like to think there's respect between Tom and I," said McGinley. "What I like about him is that he comes to the table as Mr Competitor. And I relish going up against him. I think it's a real challenge, not just for me but for the team and for the European Tour to be going against the might of the Americans and the might of Tom Watson.
"Though I may not have the playing record of past captains, what I'm bringing to the table more than a number of my predecessors is a lot of experience. I have been involved in quite a few Ryder Cups, both on the golf course and as part of the backroom team, and I intend to use that experience in an appropriate and decisive way."
He went on: "There's a hugely exciting challenge ahead of everybody associated with the European team. I know what Tom Watson is going to deliver and I like to think he's aware of what he's going to get from us. You're looking at two teams like heavyweight contenders, slugging toe to toe for three days with a very small margin separating them. So it's important for me to keep my ears and my ideas open, even if at the back of my mind I have a good idea of what is required."
Though McGinley had a busy schedule last year, balancing personal commitments with his duties as Ryder Cup captain, demands are bound to heighten during the months ahead. Yet he is approaching it all with a calm assurance which will not surprise those of us who know him for being bright, capable and articulate -- attributes which have been hugely reassuring for European Tour officials.
In this context, he is careful not to dig holes for himself. Like when I wondered how he would characterise his ideal Ryder Cup player. "It wouldn't be right to form such a view because there are so many ways in which a player can contribute to the team's success," he replied. "Different cogs in the wheel, all contributing towards overall effectiveness."
After a pause for thought, he continued: "Putting is obviously a huge part of any team success, whether it's the Solheim Cup, Walker Cup or the Ryder Cup. In fact, it's generally the determining factor, pretty much. Looking back at our successes, we obviously putted very well at the right time. The same holds true of Major championships or regular golf tournaments.
"Putts are the cherry on the top. People are drawn to the fellow who scores the winning goal in the FA Cup final, even though he might not have been the most important player in achieving success that particular week. I was the guy who scored the Cup-final goal at the Belfry in '02, but I certainly wasn't the best player in the team. I didn't shoulder the work-load that week of Colin Montgomerie, for instance. So it's necessary to keep a sense of perspective about these things, especially when events are remembered in a certain way."
Though McGinley has slipped from the higher echelons of tour rankings, a two-year contract with Sky Television, based on Ryder Cup captaincy, will see him at most of the top events this year. As a pundit, he cut his teeth last year and is now set for five events in the US, starting with the Masters.
"The idea is that I will be in America when most of the top Ryder Cup candidates are there," he said. "This gives me opportunities that I don't have as a player right now, and I welcome the involvement because I wouldn't want to be there simply hanging around, waiting to talk to the players. The Players Championship is next on the list but I still plan to play 14 events on the European Tour, including the Irish Open."
Then there is his corporate work involving long-term sponsors such as Allianz, TaylorMade, Rolex and BMW, along with golf-course design which will take him to Ghana and Portugal's Quinta do Lago. And there's family commitments with his wife and three children to consider. "The biggest challenge for me is scheduling and timing, because I've got a number of hats to wear," he acknowledged.
"This is a very exciting time in my life and, so far, it's been manageable. I don't have a manager so I'm effectively doing this on my own, though I have a very capable PA who's been with me 11 years. With an objective of filling the role in a very open way, I can't afford to worry about shooting myself in the foot. So I try not to complicate things. Simplicity has become something of a by-word for me. I rely on my own intuition, behaving as I see fit.
"In that way, I want everybody involved with the Ryder Cup, myself included, to ease our way towards the end of September when it all happens. Based on experience, I expect my ideas to begin to harden as we get closer to the time. That's when I'll share things with my vice-captains; bounce ideas off people I trust."
And what will he do, for instance, if Shane Lowry happens to finish on the fringe of qualification and is consequently in line for a wild-card pick? "I can assure you that I am going to act purely in a European way, not in an Irish way," he insisted. "It's important that I make my decisions in such a manner. And like I've done in all aspects of my life, there are people I can confide in, whether the issue happens to be business, or the Ryder Cup captaincy. Key ideas will be shared with people that I trust."
All the while, there is an acute consciousness of the matches themselves. And the pressure on him to deliver a third successive European triumph. "I know that the package America is going to produce will be extremely strong," he acknowledged. "I've seen what Monty went through . I saw what Ollie [Jose Maria Olazabal] went through. I spoke a lot to both of them, not just during the week of the Ryder Cup."
McGinley concluded: "Hopefully I can use my experience to make good decisions and do the job as best I can."
Which should complement his prized blazer as a worthy objective during decidedly interesting months ahead.