Sunday 11 December 2016

Captain's call can't be overstated

Getting the best from the European rookies will be vital to the cause

Dermot Gilleece

Published 25/09/2016 | 17:00

Rory McIlroy: ‘I was really uncomfortable in 2010, I was just uncomfortable in 2012, and I was somewhat comfortable in 2014’
Rory McIlroy: ‘I was really uncomfortable in 2010, I was just uncomfortable in 2012, and I was somewhat comfortable in 2014’

On a fateful Sunday afternoon in September 1995, Philip Walton headed for the 18th tee at Oak Hill, one up against Jay Haas. Suddenly, the Dubliner found himself muttering: "Jesus! I can't believe this. Everything is down to me." That's what it can feel like to be a rookie in the Ryder Cup. And among the six European debutants heading for Hazeltine National and the greatest test of their golfing lives next weekend, it can be taken that not all will match Walton's iron resolve.

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This, the 41st staging of a biennial rite of autumn, is absorbing for other key elements. Like the examination it presents for the leadership of Darren Clarke, who will be attempting to match the success of Paul McGinley at Gleneagles two years ago.

In idle moments, it's been suggested that captains don't really matter; that it's the players who decide the outcome. Yet Davis Love will be acutely aware of the consequences of getting things wrong, which has been the fate of most of his American predecessors of recent years.

Indeed some failures have been spectacular, notably the decision of the 2004 US skipper, Hal Sutton, to pair Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, morning and afternoon on the opening day. Sceptical scribes wondered, quite reasonably, why previous captains of Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams, hadn't hit on such a splendid ruse.

To which Sutton made the memorable response: "I can't answer that. You know, you've got to look a guy like that in the eye when he says 'thank you', and you can tell if it's sincere. They [Woods and Mickelson] boiled with the sincerity in their eyes. It wasn't lukewarm over the edges. It was boiling." Twenty-four hours later, Sutton had been proved disastrously misguided.

Interestingly, we're told that in Woods' current capacity as a vice-captain, these one-time implacable rivals have recently been on the phone to each other making team plans for Hazeltine. In fact, the American players are being given unprecedented say in team matters.

All of which can be attributed to a much-vaunted task-force established by the PGA of America in the wake of Gleneagles, when it was decreed that their team would not be completed until after the final round of the Tour Championship tonight. They were reacting to the fact that the 2014 winner of the FedEx Cup, Billy Horschel, had bloomed too late for inclusion.

So we're left wondering if Daniel Berger will join Brooks Koepka as a second newcomer in the US line-up. Or if there'll be a call-up for veteran Jim Furyk. Or a reprieve for Bubba Watson, who seems less than enamoured with team golf.

Koepka is especially interesting here for having the 1995 Irish boys international, Ricky Elliott, as his caddie. Which Dave Musgrove considers a rather curious decision by the Portrush native, despite having been on the bag for the last three years.

"When I had been a few years caddying for Lee Janzen, he wondered what my position would be if he happened to be picked for the Ryder Cup," said the Englishman last week. "My response was that given it's a team game, it might be better if he had an American on his bag."

The man who caddied for Sandy Lyle in the Ryder Cup went on: "It meant that we both knew where we stood when Tom Kite gave him a wild-card in 1997. Bruce Edwards, Tom Watson's caddie, went with him to Valderrama and got soaked, and I stayed happily in England where we had beautiful sunshine."

For his part, Elliott is prepared for a tricky week. "I've been getting plenty of needle, but it's all in good fun," he said. "Though I'm still a European, I'm working for the American team. It's all about getting the cup back to this [American] side of the pond."

Mind you, caddying has been a relatively recent issue, in that early American teams were happy to settle for local bagmen when they travelled to Ryder Cup matches in Britain. And it's not the only thing that has changed.

Given the amount of loot in the modern game, it's an interesting concept, having high-ranking professionals beat each other's brains out for no monetary reward. In which context, it is fascinating to note the development of the Ryder Cup from its earliest days, nine decades ago.

Leading into the 1989 matches, 91-year-old Channel Islander, Aubrey Boomer, was the oldest surviving member from either side, prompting Michael McDonnell to produce a delightful interview in the Daily Mail. And as if to emphasise the immediacy of such reflections, Boomer died only eight days after Europe had retained the trophy.

But not before he had talked poignantly about those eventful early days. "I played Tommy Armour at Wentworth in 1926, a year before the official match was started," he recalled. "I beat him mentally. The fact is he had a couple of extra drinks and that was no good at all."

Boomer went on: "As for Abe Mitchell [whose image adorns the lid of the Ryder Cup trophy], he was an awful putter. I never gave him a thing. Not even a short one." He went on to claim that it was perhaps unfair to blame Ted Ray's enormous size as the sole reason why the 1929 British Ryder Cup side had to do without a uniform. "We were lucky to find a pair of shoes," he said.

"You've got to remember that a lot of our players were just caddie boys. They felt lost and uncomfortable in hotels and didn't know what to do. I mean I had lived in Paris and was more self-assured and sophisticated. But there was a bond of friendship that existed between us all and it touched even the greatest players."

He concluded: "The Americans took it [Ryder Cup] much more seriously. They went into it in a much better way. We simply didn't think big enough - until this current generation came along."

Which must be the most infuriating thought from an American standpoint. Even since the emergence of the European side, they know they've generally had the better players, individually. And their determination cannot be questioned, especially in recent times. Remember the special fact-finding flight to The K Club a month in advance of the 2006 matches?

The missing ingredient seems to be the passion which Seve Ballesteros first instilled into the side and which was so ably reproduced by Ian Poulter at Medinah. And it seems to be the preserve of the underdog. The only comparable passion I observed from American participants in recent times was in Mickelson's ill-judged off-course slating of Tom Watson's leadership two years ago.

Though added to the backroom team as a vice-captain, the injured Poulter is a great loss. Indeed it is difficult to see an obvious replacement in the European line-up, given that he managed to complement an extraordinary commitment to the cause with some truly remarkable performances.

Though cut from very different cloth, Lee Westwood can be viewed as an influential figure anxious to justify a wild-card pick from his close friend, Clarke. As it happens, this is a highly significant occasion for the Englishman, who is making his 10th Ryder Cup appearance.

More importantly, with 20 wins and six halves from battles spanning three decades, a further 2.5 points next weekend would see him beat Nick Faldo's record of 25 points secured at the Ryder Cup - the most of any player in the history of the event. Westwood is also bidding to overtake second-placed Bernhard Langer, on 24, and third-placed Colin Montgomerie, on 23.5.

"It's the highlight of every two years," he said. "I think that anybody who has played in the Ryder Cup wants to keep going back, because the atmosphere is very special. I grew up watching people like Nick [Faldo] and all the European legends and I actually partnered Nick, who had won all those Masters Tournaments and Open Championships I had watched on TV."

Just like Clarke was at Valderrama in 1997, Rory McIlroy is the lone Irishman in the European line-up. And he will be aiming at a third successive singles win to add to a halved match against Stewart Cink on his debut at Celtic Manor in 2010.

"I was really uncomfortable in 2010, I was just uncomfortable in 2012, and I was somewhat comfortable in 2014," said the Holywood star. "It's a tournament where you get feelings you've never had before."

He went on: "Like I'm going to say to Danny Willett, who has won the Masters, 'Look Danny, that final round at Augusta was great, but you were playing with Lee Westwood who is a buddy of yours. You weren't really in contention until the last sort of five or six holes. Your first match in the Ryder Cup is going to be playing a final round of a Major for all 18 holes. That's what it's like.'

"So the rookies are going to experience things that they have probably never experienced before on a golf course. They have to be made aware of that, while trying to help them embrace it in some way. I think that's the thing."

Hazeltine National has been changed from the 1991 US Open and the 2009 PGA Championship. As part of significant re-routing, the seventh, eighth and ninth - 572-yard par-five, 176-yard par-three and 432-yard par-four - are now the three finishing holes, having been switched with the 16th, 17th and 18th for improved crowd control. Yet whatever the configuration, we know that the tension will be almost unbearable as the event surges to a climax.

That's the Ryder Cup. As McIlroy indicated, there's nothing quite like it. Which is why American golf feels bereft in its absence. And why their team will probably win it back this time around.

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