Sport Golf

Monday 19 February 2018

Captain can win the Ryder Cup . . . and he can lose it

Ryder Cup hero's Belfry experience has left a lasting impression, writes Oliver Brown

Time has not dimmed Paul McGinley's recollection of an image of his startled self, thrashing about in a Belfry lake after holing the putt that won Europe the 2002 Ryder Cup. But it has transformed his perspective on what such a moment meant.

McGinley, we might have believed, had been running solely on his own inspiration that Sunday. As Europe's representative in the ninth singles match, he seemed simply to have a freakish imperviousness to pressure. But as one of the continent's newly anointed Ryder Cup statesmen -- confirmed last week by Colin Montgomerie as a vice-captain for Celtic Manor in October -- he has come to view even his own defining achievements through a different prism.

He remembered the lake incident and he saw less of a personal triumph for himself than the vindication of the leadership of another. Those, and there are many, who doubt captain Montgomerie's capacity to influence his team in 10 weeks' time ought to listen carefully to the debt of gratitude that McGinley still feels he owes Sam Torrance, his leader eight years ago. Without the Scot's ability to galvanise him that day, he is adamant he could not have prevailed.

"A captain can win the Ryder Cup, no doubt," McGinley says, as he puts forward his ambition to be a future Europe captain, after Jose Maria Olazabal in 2012. "And he can lose it. But we won the Ryder Cup in 2002 because of Sam. He was the difference, in his man-management of each player.

"As much as everybody would have thought he was the rip-roaring, lionesque type of captain, Sam's meetings were very brief. We would sit in his hotel room, and they would never last more than five minutes.

"But he put so much work into me. I would never have holed that putt on the 18th green without Sam. He had prepared me mentally for it. The previous week, I was out of form, and Sam hired a car so that I could play the Belfry beforehand. All the stands were there, but the place was empty. Seagulls and crows were the only ones watching us. On the way back, we sat in the back seat of the car with a bottle of pink champagne and he told me his plan for the week. He told me my role exactly, and what my focus would be.

"On the Saturday, I found myself in the last game on the course, playing with Darren Clarke against Jim Furyk and Scott Hoch, coming down the last. Europe and America were dead level.

"In our match we were one down. I was the longest off the tee, centre of the fairway. Darren was in the bunker, 40 yards back. Sam, taps me on the shoulder and says, 'I want you to play first, smack the ball into the middle of the green, put the pressure on the Americans. Are you ready?'

"I took out a four-iron and it was one of the best shots I've ever hit. I put it to 12 feet. So we would go into the singles level. Back in the team room, everybody was on a high. Sam gave me a big bear hug and said, 'McGinley, you showed so much guts today, when I really needed you to, that I'm going to put you out tomorrow No 12. I know you can handle it.' I went off, had a shower, came back into the room and Thomas Bjorn said, 'have you seen the draw for tomorrow?' I looked at the draw and saw, No 12: Jesper Parnevik. I looked up. No 1: Monty. I was No 9. So now I thought Sam was playing games with me. He came back in the room, and I needed to have it out with him.

"He held me by the wrists and said, 'I had another think. In the history of the Ryder Cup, it has never come down to No 12. The answer is always between eight and 10. So I'm putting you right in the middle of it'. I was 10 feet tall again. So when I came over the bridge on the last hole, knowing I needed to halve the match to win the Ryder Cup, all he needed to say was, 'do this for me'.

"I understood everything else. I wanted to do it for Sam more than anybody -- more than myself, more than the team. That's the effect a captain can have."

McGinley, 43, ascribes his love of the event to his background in Gaelic football. A nine-handicapper who improved fast through ferocious hard work, McGinley wrote to every American university who could offer him a scholarship.

At first all refused, replying bluntly that he was too old and not good enough.Eventually, assisted by a grant from the sports council and a loan guaranteed by his father, he won a place at San Diego, and the all-important scholarship in his second year. But even out on Tour, the memories of his Gaelic football days stirred him to a feverish excitement each time the Ryder Cup came around.

"I've always enjoyed match play," McGinley says. "I've had more success there than I have individually. I have a higher intensity. I think it's my background playing Gaelic football as a boy. I used to love the team meetings, the fact that nobody else was allowed in your locker room, the fact everybody was wearing the same clothes."

He blanches at the suggestion that Sky could decide to film the activities in Europe's team room. Such an area is, he argues, sacrosanct, and the presence of cameras could cause the players not to behave in their normal, natural way. And McGinley has been treated to most abnormal sights in this setting: Tiger Woods playing table tennis, Ronan Keating singing in Tom Lehman's room, Phil Mickelson belting out chants of 'ole' on top of a table.

But he did, he concedes, relish similar coverage of the rugby locker room, when the British and Irish Lions last toured South Africa. By a remarkable coincidence, Paul O'Connell, the captain of that side, walks past McGinley as he heads out for his Wentworth round. The two greet warmly, captains past and future together.


Sunday Independent

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