McGinley will relish a rivalry that's been brewing for 30 years
A fearsome competitor in his own right, Watson claims he waited 20 years for the phone call from PGA of America president, Ted Bishop, to win back the Cup
Published 06/01/2014 | 02:30
A remarkable aspect of the Ryder Cup is its facility to regularly re-invent itself as one of the world's great sporting occasions. In its latest incarnation, it promises to be the golfing highlight of the year when Europe aim for a third successive triumph over the heathland terrain of Gleneagles.
The biennial showpiece prospers because of the genuinely intense nature of the competition, not unlike cricket's Ashes series. Where American players in the Presidents Cup, for instance, are enthusing about how much fun they've had, the Ryder Cup is a bit like donating to charity: if you enjoy doing so, you're not giving enough.
"I can only describe the Ryder Cup in the same way that women describe childbirth," David Feherty famously remarked. "Which is that there's no way of adequately explaining what's involved. It's unique, a lot like you imagined it to be, yet not like it at all."
This year's event, from September 26 to 28, will have three uniquely different dimensions to it from the 17 previous stagings under the European banner. Paul McGinley becomes the first Irish captain; as a 65-year-old when the matches are being played, Tom Watson will be the oldest ever skipper from either side and Henrik Stenson will return to the event as the first European winner of the FedEx Cup.
Meanwhile, there is the further fascinating prospect of having a European line-up with significant changes from that which wrought the so-called Miracle of Medinah in September 2012. Unlike other selected representative teams, these particular sides are decided largely on a qualifying basis, which virtually guarantees change.
So, in Victor Dubuisson, sparkling winner of the inaugural Turkish Airlines Open last November, we will have the return of a Frenchman for the first time since Thomas Levet played under the captaincy of Bernhard Langer at Oakland Hills in 2004. And another Continental, Thomas Bjorn, looks set to reclaim an honour he last enjoyed back in 2002, when Sam Torrance led the European side.
Torrance explained the challenge rather well when he said: "For 103 weeks [of the two-year qualifying process] you line up against European rivals with the intention of beating their brains out. Then you find yourself on a podium, wearing the same uniform, being introduced to the crowd as a team, and your heart swells with pride at being included among their number."
As might be expected, McGinley has embraced the captaincy with rare enthusiasm and considerable dignity. Though he failed in the ambition of returning to Muirfield last July to stand alongside Watson as a competitor in the Open Championship, he was still happy to meet the American there on equal terms, albeit for a dinner date.
Even while dreaming the wild dreams of an aspiring professional, he thought it unlikely he would ever cross paths with the celebrated American. "He was regularly winning Open Championships when I was getting into golf as a kid in Dublin," he said. "And I idolised him. I admired the integrity of the man, the briskness of his play and his courage down the stretch. He always seemed to have an air of authority about him."
That Muirfield meeting was their first as Ryder Cup captains. It was also the start of a lengthy 14-month build-up to the matches themselves, which creates its own pressures.
"With no team in place as yet, I'm effectively the face of the Ryder Cup as far as the commercial side of things is concerned for the European Tour," said McGinley. "There has also been considerable work behind the scenes relating to uniforms, waterproofs, golf bags, the team room and the players' bedrooms."
Typical thoroughness prompted him to inquire into an incident during the 1993 matches at The Belfry, where Watson, as US skipper, refused a request by Torrance for autographs from the American players. At this remove, it seems extraordinary that the incident should have resulted in the evocative, tabloid headline: 'Tom Watson you're a disgrace'.
Though McGinley wasn't there, he was moved instinctively to enquire into the event by way of preparing himself for possible questions from scribes with dangerously long memories. "I've spoken about it to Sam, who indicated that Tom later apologised to him," he said. "Apparently it was a misunderstanding which arose from Watson's anxiety to protect his players."
As a consequence, meetings so far between McGinley and Watson have exuded the warmth of a friendship that's been all of 30 years in the making. Yet both men are aware that no quarter will be asked or given when their teams line up for battle.
The American collapse at Medinah, from an apparently unassailable lead of 10-6 on the Saturday evening, left a deep wound in the national psyche. That's why the call went out to Watson, who was their last victorious captain in Europe back in 1993. That, incidentally, was 16 years after he had made his Ryder Cup debut as a player, when he lost his first singles to Nick Faldo at Royal Lytham.
A fearsome competitor in his own right, Watson claims he waited 20 years for the phone call from PGA of America president, Ted Bishop, to win back the Cup. By doing so, Bishop is gambling that today's players will respond to the urgings of someone they will know only by reputation. That they'll be aware of his famous victory over Jack Nicklaus in the so-called Duel in the Sun on the Scottish turf of Turnberry in 1977 for one of five Open victories. And that Watson's eight Major triumphs will have a special resonance for the current generation. If they don't, the gamble will have failed.
Shane Lowry ended last season with much work to do in his quest for a Ryder Cup debut. Which means that Ireland's only representatives at this stage are likely to be Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, who garnered three points between them at Medinah. It will be recalled that they paired up to win the opening foursomes against Brandt Snedeker and Jim Furyk; McIlroy then formed a memorable winning fourball partnership with Ian Poulter on the Saturday afternoon before successfully beating the clock for a singles win over Keegan Bradley on the final day.
When I met Watson in Savannah last April, a critical statistic from Medinah had clearly been burned into his consciousness: over the crucial 12 singles on that occasion, Europe were collectively 25-under par compared with eight-under for the Americans.
Noting my surprise at such stark figures, the American skipper gave a half-smile and blurted: "I shouldn't have said that, but I've been doing my homework." Both of us knew he hadn't let something slip unintentionally. Known to possess a cold, calculating side, Watson doesn't make those sort of mistakes. It was simply his clever way of creating a public awareness of the task he'd been given.
"Experience of captaincy gives you an advantage in terms of knowing what's going to happen, knowing how the players react and how to deal with that," he said. "But you can over-think the role. The important thing is to be prepared." Could any US captain have bridged the chasm in confidence which developed on that fateful, final day at Medinah? "No," Watson insisted. "That was the players' responsibility."
With so many details still to be finalised on both sides of the Atlantic over the next eight months, predicting the outcome at Gleneagles at this stage would seem foolhardy, at best.
But we can be certain of a keen battle of wits between the respective captains. And at the end of it all, McGinley will have discovered how much he really knows about the man he has idolised since childhood.
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