Friday 26 December 2014

'I'll never forget how badly my hands were shaking when I got to that first tee'

Ryder Cup vice-captain Des Smyth tells Karl MacGinty about the beginning of love affair with exceptional event

Karl MacGinty

Published 05/05/2014 | 02:30

Des Smyth, gearing up at Carton House, will be one of Paul McGinley’s vice-captains at this year’s Ryder Cup

Quietly, tirelessly, meticulously, European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley has been building the framework for victory at Gleneagles.

Absolutely nothing's left to chance.

When the opening shots are fired amid bedlam and butterflies on Ryder Cup Friday in 143 days, McGinley's team will be perfectly primed and prepared for action.

Des Smyth knows Dubliner McGinley long enough to say with confidence: "Paul won't make any errors in the build-up to this event."

Barely two months have passed since Smyth and Scot Sam Torrance were introduced as Ryder Cup vice-captains by McGinley in a ceremony broadcast 'live' on TV from Government Buildings in Dublin.

Within weeks, Bettystown native Smyth found himself back at the coal face of team golf in Kuala Lumpur, assisting Miguel Angel Jimenez, playing-captain of the visiting side at the EurAsia Cup.

Smyth's appointment and this rapid return to the European locker room was choreographed by McGinley to give the 61-year-old, two-time Ryder Cup veteran a precious chance to break the ice with several of the young contenders for the team at Gleneagles.

Naturally, Smyth knows the likes of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Jamie Donaldson and Stephen Gallacher; he's played with Justin Rose and other well-established European performers and, of course, figured on Ian Woosnam's backroom team at the 2006 Ryder Cup.

"But I didn't know Victor Dubuisson, Joost Luiten, Thorbjorn Olesen or Pablo Larrazabal," he explains. "So the idea was to get out there to Kuala Lumpur, let them see your face so if and when some of these guys make it, we won't be meeting for the first time (at Gleneagles)."

After a lengthy absence from the European Tour, Malaysia also gave Smyth a chance to gently settle back into the brotherhood.

"It's not easy to walk straight into a position like that," he agreed. "I'm not an in-your-face type and I'm not going to come on strong, because I've never been that type of guy.

"But as the week went on in Kuala Lumpur, familiarity grew," Smyth adds. "All of a sudden, you and the players start to be friendly and become comfortable with each other. So, basically, it worked!"

Torrance, an extrovert, was afforded a similar opportunity when he led Great Britain and Ireland into last October's Seve Trophy, yet another example of the extensive strategic planning which captain McGinley has applied right across the board.

* * *

DES SMYTH first met Paul McGinley 31 years ago, when the Dubliner, then just 17 and a promising amateur, was a regular visitor to Baltray.

He became such a trusted mentor and "sounding board" for McGinley that the skipper describes Smyth as "a very natural choice in so many ways" for the vice-captaincy.

A distinguished playing career, during which Smyth won 25 professional events in five consecutive decades since the seventies, continues on the European Senior Tour.

Along with knowledge and experience, Smyth brings discretion to the equation, making him an almost perfect foil to the ever gregarious, often hilarious and sometimes truculent Torrance. However, a hard realist lies behind his affable exterior, as McGinley attests: "People who don't know Des don't realise how tough he is. There is a lot of tough love with Des. He won't suffer fools. He won't give you the blah, blah, blah.

"He'll tell you the way it is," the captain adds. "I won't be having a 'yes' man. I'll be encouraging opinions. If the vice-captains have different views, that's a positive rather than a negative."

Two Ryder Cup appearances at the dawn of the European era (1979 at Greenbrier and 1981 in Walton Heath) marked the true beginning of Smyth's love affair with this exceptional event.

"I don't cry a lot but I remember crying watching Sam hole his putt for victory at The Belfry in 1985 and when Paul held his winning putt in 2002," he recalls. I'll never forget the first time I played, how badly my hands were shaking when I got to that first tee in 1979."

Smyth first met US captain Tom Watson in 1981, explaining: "I was a huge fan of Watson and Nicklaus and played against the two of them at Walton Heath." (After he and Jose Maria Canizares won both their matches on day one, they fell 3 and 2 against the two US legends in a Saturday morning fourball).

"I've become friendly with Tom as a consequence of playing with him on the Champions Tour," adds Smyth, who enjoyed a wonderfully lucrative 'mulligan' on the US seniors circuit in his early 50s.

He and Watson went all the way to sudden death in the Senior Open at Royal Aberdeen in 2005, Smyth losing on the first tie hole. That was a stellar year for the dapper Irishman as he won twice on the Champions Tour.

Four years later, the ageless Watson very nearly pulled off the greatest golfing sensation of all time in the 2009 Open at Turnberry, only succumbing to Stewart Cink in a play-off after getting within one shot of his sixth Claret Jug... and a record fifth in Scotland.

Few know better than Smyth what Watson (64) will bring to Gleneagles.

Throughout his career, the American legend's strongest asset has been "his total self-belief," according to Smyth.

"With Tom it's all about simplicity and self-belief. He doesn't complicate the game and he delivers."

Watson's reputation as a steel-eyed competitor and his track record as the last US captain to win on European soil in 1993, suggests 'captaincy by consensus' will no longer be applied in the American camp.

After Europe's astonishing comeback at Medinah in 2012, Davis Love admitted that in deciding the order for Sunday, he and his players "looked at who wanted to go where."

Meanwhile, great debate centred on his decision to rest the unbeatable pairing of Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley on Saturday afternoon.

That certainly took Smyth by surprise. "If you've got your foot on the neck, you don't take it off," he says. "You go for every point because points win Ryder Cups.

"If you've got an invincible pair, you never rest them. Like when we had Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. They kept playing until they beat those guys to death. They had a thing about being one-up against anyone mentally because they were such tigers."

Would Watson give any such quarter? One suspects not and Smyth believes McGinley wouldn't either. "Paul brings such a tenacious attitude to almost everything he does, he doesn't leave anything behind," he says. "He puts it all on the table."

* * *

THE choice of Miguel Angel Jimenez to lead Europe into action in Malaysia suggests the hugely charismatic Spaniard is destined one day for Ryder Cup captaincy.

Yet after closely observing the golfer behind the cigar smoke in Kuala Lumpur, Smyth would not be surprised or perturbed should Jimenez qualify to play his fifth Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and, at 50 years and eight months, replace Ted Ray (1927) as the oldest European in the event's history.

"Miguel was the player that week in Malaysia; he was Europe's leading performer at the Masters and won his first Champions Tour event the following Sunday," says Smyth.

"He's a wonderful guy, full of personality and a very, very impressive player. He knows his own game and has huge inner-confidence. Anything he needed to do in Kuala Lumpur, he did it. Any time the pressure came on, he produced. What more can you ask?

"I'd have no fears of him making the Ryder Cup team," adds Smyth, who knew Jimenez on Tour. "He was good, but he was 11 years behind me and the past 11 years have been the best of his career. He's played the best golf of his life in his 40s."

The Mechanic won seven times on Tour before turning 40 and 13 times since, replacing Smyth as Europe's oldest winner with victory at the Hong Kong Open in December 2012 before retaining that title 12 months later for good measure.

After clocking-up his ninth top-10 finish at the Majors with that splendid share of fourth place in Augusta, Jimenez is one spot outside the top nine in the Ryder Cup points list.

While many these days seem entranced by his intricate stretching routine, Smyth was struck in Kuala Lumpur by the innate ability of Jimenez to work his ball and shape shots on the practice range.

Meanwhile, the entire European contingent enjoyed the wit and wisdom of Jimenez. "The guys all like him and that's important," Smyth explains. "He's exactly as you see him, straight up. There also was a bit of a laugh because of his broken English. He makes it sound very funny and I was amused.

"He's a top-class man, no doubt about it. He's fun and is very, very good at what he does. I think the US Open and The Open will suit Miguel better than Augusta, so who knows what he can achieve this summer. He's in such great shape, I wouldn't put anything past him."

Much interest in Malaysia focused on Dubuisson (23), the enigmatic Frenchman, who seems assured of his berth at Gleneagles after following up last year's Turkish Open victory with an eye-opening performance at the Accenture Match Play Championship.

Showing Seve-like flair and defiance around the green as he repeatedly recovered from impossible positions before succumbing to Jason Day in the Accenture final, Dubuisson deeply impressed Smyth at the EurAsia Cup.

"Victor has oceans of talent and a beautiful personality for golf," says Smyth. "He seems so calm all the time and confident."

So how did Dubuisson, a solitary soul, fare in the team environment? "He was fine in the team room. He and partner Joost Luiten got on excellently and they played well.

"Victor wouldn't look for any attention, but if you asked him anything, he'd say, 'yeah, no problem'. He's obviously quiet but one heck of a player."

* * *

ASIA went very close performing a Medinah-style miracle of their own in Kuala Lumpur. After a fabulous Sunday fightback by the home side, Europe just about held on for a 10-10 tie.

"Afterwards we all went, 'jeepers, we were lucky. Everything that happened on 18 that afternoon was in our favour and we only got a draw," Smyth says.

"Going out in the morning they needed to win the singles 7-3 to get a tie and that's exactly what they did. It was crazy stuff. Still, it proves it's never over 'til it's over and, hopefully, the experience will stand to us.

Explaining how 'Medinah Syndrome' occurs, he said: "They guys who are behind come out and go for their shots, while those who are leading get into defensive mode. It's a mindset you've seen hundreds of times in football.

"Once a team gets going like that and seizes the initiative, the others can't switch the mojo back on because it's simply too hard to do.

"Paul, our captain, was there watching it all. When it comes to the crunch at Gleneagles, he'll be the first to remind everybody what can happen," he says. "So, it's a big thank you to Asia."

* Guinness will give one lucky person who checks in using the Guinness Plus App, and three of their friends the chance to meet Des Smyth, who will share his tips, tricks and expertise. The exclusive prize also includes two nights' accommodation in a luxury five star golf resort, chauffeur transfers and dinner. To enter, fans simply need to 'check-in' with Guinness Plus to their local participating pub by May 18.

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