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Saturday 30 August 2014

The making of a captain

Published 20/01/2013 | 05:00

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Paul McGinley has absorbed sage advice on his ascent to the Ryder Cup captaincy, says Dermot Gilleece

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An hour and 10 minutes after the fateful meeting had started in a conference room of the St Regis Hotel in Abu Dhabi last Tuesday night, Paul McGinley passed me in a corridor. Not knowing the outcome of the committee's deliberations, if the great deed had already been done, I settled for a nod in his direction which he acknowledged with a non-committal half-smile.

He was heading for his bedroom to phone his wife, carrying notes in his pocket for what he'd say to the media if he lost. He and his rival, Colin Montgomerie, would no longer be part of proceedings when their tournament committee colleagues selected Europe's Ryder Cup captain for Gleneagles in 2014.

Over the phone, Ally McGinley informed her husband that she was sticking to a pre-arranged plan to join a female friend for dinner and a movie in London. He could text her with the outcome and they'd talk in the morning. Not even their three children were made aware of anything different going on in their father's life, though the older two could hardly have missed the media exposure.

Here we had a remarkable exercise in strategic control of the most important event that is likely to happen in the player's sporting career.

And beyond McGinley's family, there was measured, expert advice from leading Irish businessmen Dermot Desmond and Aidan Heavey on how to handle a potentially head-wrecking build-up to last week's decision. And also from his long-time friend Eddie Jordan.

Indeed McGinley has remained so much in control of his emotions that he has seen fit, in the wake of his triumph, to offer an olive branch to Darren Clarke, who might well have scuppered his captaincy bid.

Later he would talk of his great affection for the team ethos of the GAA, of his considerable admiration for Tyrone manager Mickey Harte and his plans to turn to Donegal's Jim McGuinness for some serious brain-picking in the run-up to Gleneagles.

In the meantime, there has been wide acknowledgement here in Abu Dhabi that this latest Ryder Cup selection process left much to be desired. George O'Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, was clearly delighted with the outcome when saying: "I think it speaks volumes for Paul and the Irish character that he has garnered such support among our leading players. And I can't remember a Ryder Cup press conference where the world's indisputable number one ( Rory McIlroy) made a point of appearing at the back of the room to indicate his support."

But O'Grady added pointedly: "We had a very responsible discussion on this occasion and the committee got it absolutely right. The way the pre-election process was dragged through the media, however, was far from ideal. One man should be asked to be captain and no one should lose. It seemed wrong to me that a player of Colin Montgomerie's stature in the game had to state his case. In the end, democracy won, but we'll have to reflect on this."

McGinley was unquestionably a very popular choice. Committee member Paul Casey had been assigned to report the views of the current Ryder Cup players to the meeting and the indications are that 11 of the 12 at Medinah – Lee Westwood being the only exception – were four-square behind McGinley. Among them, the trenchantly supportive stand of McIlroy was clearly a huge factor.

"I have a very strong opinion about this," he said, on the morning of the meeting. "I really think Paul deserves it. He's been a great player and a great personality for the tour over the years, and a great captain. I played under him in the Seve Trophy in 2009 and he did a great job."

Then came the tactile endorsement of a congratulatory embrace, moments after the announcement. McGinley's appreciative smile lit up the room. "He'll be vice-captain if he doesn't make the team," he announced amid a clatter of camera clicks.

Apart from a keen eye to detail, McGinley's popularity lies in a charming, self-deprecating attitude, born of solid self-confidence. This was probably best exemplified by the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in 2010 when he had a memorable exchange with Prince Charles.

"At the gala dinner," he recalled, "we were all lined up to meet the Prince. Protocol was explained, whereby you didn't address him unless spoken to and if you did respond, you called him 'Sir.' Fine, I thought. No problem. I happened to be at the end of the line of vice-captains and when my moment arrived, Monty introduced me as 'my vice-captain, Paul McGinley.' Whereupon I immediately put out my hand and said: 'Howya, I'm Paul'. Next thing I knew, Sergio Garcia beside me was doubled-up with laughter. Then I started laughing. Then Prince Charles started laughing."

From that point onwards, it became the joke of the European team room. On seeing McGinley, players would come up to him and say 'Howya', followed by 'I'm Rory' or Ross or Ian or whatever. Those sort of things are important to sportsmen in a close-knit, competitive environment.

* * * * *

PAUL McGINLEY, from the comfort of a divan just outside the players' lounge in Abu Dhabi last week, laughs at the memory. Wearing an olive-green sweater and grey slacks and toying with a cushion at arm's length, he talked of his plans for Gleneagles.

"I don't know if we'll have green," he said. "All I can say is that the event will have a strong, Scottish element." And bagpipes? "Sure," he said. "I love the bagpipes." I decided not to relate the classic description of a Scottish gentleman as someone who can play the bagpipes but doesn't.

"We'll have an element of tartan in the clothing," he went on. "Everybody knows I'm a strong Celtic fan. In fact you could say that I'm passionate about Celtic. But there will be no Celtic element to what I'm doing. My objective will be to unite Scotland, not divide it."

What about the reliance on his friends in the difficult build-up to this week? "Eddie Jordan has been a great confidant. One of the best men in a political manoeuvre you'll ever come across. And a guy I've talked quite a lot to in the last few months. He's been important, yes.

"But to be honest, there are other Irish businessmen whose counsel I sought and acted upon. I won't mention names. Those guys in particular kept assuring me that my hand was very strong. And they told me that if I started trying to play another man's hand, I was taking away from my own strength which they identified as the players' voices. To be honest, it coincided with my own instincts. Sure, when I heard talk about Tom Watson as certain to be a big presence, I wanted to scream, 'No, no no. That's simply not true'. But the advice I'd been given pulled me back. And Ally was also a very steadying influence."

Incidentally, having texted her the good news on Tuesday night, he then phoned her at three in the morning, to her great delight.

Meanwhile, the identity of the businessmen he spoke with is no secret, given his well-known friendships and regular contact with Desmond and Heavey. Desmond has been a friend going back to the player's amateur days and McGinley has, in fact, a business relationship with Heavey, the head of Tullow Oil, with activities in Ghana. Another key adviser was his father, Mick. And Pádraig Harrington.

"When the Watson thing broke, it was extremely helpful the way Pádraig came out, totally unprompted, as a voice of reason," said McGinley. "He pointed out that in terms of stature in the game, we couldn't match Watson, but the Ryder Cup captaincy wasn't about that. At the time, his words were exactly what I wanted to hear.

"But I have always believed in myself. In three Ryder Cups I don't think I let anybody down. And in any team, either as a partner or as captain, I feel I have pulled my weight. If anything, I have always raised my game in team competition. I suppose an example of that, outside of the Ryder Cup, was my World Cup win with Pádraig at Kiawah Island in 1997."

The fact that two sponsors, Allianz and TaylorMade, have been with him since he turned professional in 1991 speaks for his fundamental decency.

Then he talked about the essence of team play, as manifested in the GAA. "My love of team sport stems from my experiences as a boy, playing in local GAA teams, singing Irish songs on the way back to the clubhouse and then having tea, coffee or a soft drink together," he said.

"Now, at the highest level, the GAA remains my inspiration. Through my dad, who played for Donegal and remained involved with the county board for years, I have got to know Jim McGuinness as a really good friend. Other team captains have referred to the management skills of Alex Ferguson, but the bonding in the GAA is different.

"Two years ago, my dad told me that what Jim was doing with Donegal football blew him away. He would go to the training sessions and explain to me by phone what they were doing. And he predicted Jim would win an All- Ireland with Donegal. Anyway, around Christmas 2011, I was in my parents' home in Dunfanaghy. I had captained two Seve Trophy teams by then and was thinking about the Ryder Cup. My dad arranged for Jim to come to the house one evening and I stayed up talking to him by the fire until about three in the morning. Himself, me and my dad. Even now thinking about it makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. They'd been beaten by Dublin in the semi-finals and Jim talked about how he was going to tweak what he did and come out with a slightly different strategy for the 2012 season. And I'm thinking: cutting edge. Absolutely. In man management, this guy is thinking outside the box. And as he's talking, I'm relating his philosophy to the Ryder Cup.

"He talked about a problem he had with a certain player, who had stepped out of line. How he felt obliged to marginalise him. I asked him how he was dealing with that as an ongoing situation and he explained it all. He also talked about the criticism he got for playing negatively and how the team weren't strong enough to play any other way at that time. And he predicted things would be different in 2012. How they were going to take people by surprise.

"I watched the final in a pub in Chicago on the morning of the final day of the Ryder Cup at Medinah. The tactics my dad was explaining to me were being employed before my eyes. It was a very emotional thing for me watching it unfold, because of the bonding I felt with McGuinness. I don't want to give away too many things. I've so many ideas about the players and what needs to work and what doesn't. Let's just say that everybody's not the same. What I learned from Jim is that taking care of small things can make big things happen. He really struck a chord with me. I just love his passion. In regular contacts, I've picked his brain for the last year and I will continue to do so between now and Gleneagles."

McGinley was reluctant, initially, to comment on whether he had any input into McGuinness's appointment as a coach at Celtic, but given his other connections it seemed pointless to deny the obvious.

Meanwhile, he went on to talk about Mickey Harte. "Yeah, I'm a big fan. Though I've never met the man, I've read everything he's written."

Then he hesitated before continuing: "The problem here is that if I was to approach him, given my attachment to Donegal, I could be accused of having a foot in both camps. And the truth is that I'm essentially a Dub, through and through. Dublin has got to be my first love. As for colleagues, though we disagree 90 per cent of the time, Pádraig has been very supportive of me through this whole process. His counsel, his take on things, has been a treat to listen to."

As a teenager, McGinley idolised Watson at a time when he was regularly winning Open Championships. He admired the integrity of the man, the briskness of his play and his courage in the heat of battle. "His permanent air of authority," was how the Dubliner described it.

While at college in San Diego, he would walk every hole with Watson if he happened to be playing in the San Diego Open. "I met him for the first time in the 2001 PGA Championship in Atlanta. I had arrived at the course at 6.30am for a practice round, jet-lagged. As JP (Fitzgerald, now McIlroy's caddie) and I headed in an early-morning mist to the first tee, who should I see there only Watson and his caddie Bruce Edwards. Wondering what to do, I eventually plucked up the courage to identify myself and ask if I could join them. After what seemed an eternity, he looked me straight in the face, extended his hand and said: 'Paul, Irishmen are always welcome in my company.'

"On the first par-three, we both hit the green with six irons. It's wet and gooey. Watson's telling me a story when we reach my pitch mark. I bend down and do a quick repair, one, two, three, and walk off. Continuing with the story, Watson suddenly stopped, walked back a few paces and, talking all the while, re-repaired my pitchmark like a surgeon. And tapped it down with his putter. He said nothing, but it was a lesson I've never forgotten. Since then we've had a very cordial relationship. I can't say I know the man very well but we've played practice rounds together and I'm looking forward to getting to know him over the next two years."

It's known that US skipper Paul Azinger pulled a fast one on Nick Faldo at Valhalla by moving a few tees forward in certain matches. These were tees that the Americans had practised off but the Europeans hadn't. As a consequence, Europe's back-room team wasted quite an amount of time at Medinah, watching the tees the Americans were playing off during the week. As it happened, there was no repeat of Valhalla, but McGinley is determined there won't be any such sharp practice at Gleneagles.

"I have very strong views on the agreement between captains and home advantage," he said. "For that reason, I would prefer more independence to the staging here where, for instance, a tour official would indicate that, subject to weather conditions, the only tees which may be moved forward are on holes 2, 5, 7, 11 or whatever. As for the course set-up, much will depend on the weather, though the sub-air system at Gleneagles should give us fairly firm greens."

With that, he looked at the 150th text and noted that 243 still remained to be viewed. As it happened, this one was from Des Smyth, who, ironically, might have preceded McGinley as an Irish captain at The K Club in 2006. 'Congrats. Go play golf now and enjoy. Des, Vicki and family.'

Finally, I wondered what the future held for his relationship with Clarke. "That's for another day," he said. There was long pause.

"You've asked me about Darren," he resumed. "Let me say this. Darren has played five Ryder Cups and won a Major championship 18 months ago. I would obviously love to see somebody with that kind of experience on the Ryder Cup team. And I can assure you that if Darren doesn't make the team but is close to making the team, he will be very much in my thoughts regarding a pick."

With that, he indicated there was nothing more to say. Like an accomplished actor who has graduated to all the classic roles, McGinley can look forward to re-applying his formidable skills to off-stage direction, this time at the highest level.

And in the long wait for this particular honour, Ireland could hardly hope for a more worthy debutant.

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