Wednesday 20 February 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'No better man for the job'

Pádraig Harrington has all the attributes needed to be a successful Ryder Cup captain for Europe

Padraig Harrington poses with the Ryder Cup after being appointed as the European Ryder Cup Captain for The 2020 Ryder Cup. Photo: Reuters
Padraig Harrington poses with the Ryder Cup after being appointed as the European Ryder Cup Captain for The 2020 Ryder Cup. Photo: Reuters

Dermot Gilleece

If Pádraig Harrington manages to avoid talking himself into trouble during a challenging week at Whistling Straits next year, he can join a select group of victorious European Ryder Cup captains in the US. In key areas, it's hard to imagine anyone better equipped for the job.

Indeed Harrington's qualifications to become Ireland's third skipper in four stagings of the biennial showpiece cover a broader spectrum than most of his predecessors from either continent. He is among the very few to have earned establishment approval on both sides of the fairway ropes.

On receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree from St Andrews University during Open Championship week in 2010, Harrington noted it as recognition "not only for what I did on the golf course but for my behaviour off it". This, he felt, made it "a nice remembrance of my dad on his five-year anniversary."

He added: "That [off-course behaviour] would have come from him, and I'm proud of the fact that he would be happy today."

In the Harrington citation, Professor Andrew Mackenzie, school of physics and astronomy, included the glowing tribute: "As an amateur, he combined golf with higher education, studying accountancy. His comments on the self-discipline and time-management skills that his academic work brought to his life are music to the ears of any university professor like me. I think they should be inscribed in the clubhouse of any student's sports team." Or even a Ryder Cup team-room!

The professor was reacting to the player's comment: "Accountancy gave me the discipline to manage my time properly. Having the organisational discipline to manage these things and to commit to something, and see it through to a satisfactory conclusion, was one of the most rewarding things I got from the process."

By comparison, the impending challenge should be no more demanding than guiding the fortunes of Stackstown GC in the Jimmy Bruen Shield, as his late father did. Except that transatlantic battles tend to fall victim to unimagined banana skins.

The blatantly obvious ones call to mind the occasion when Angela Rippon, as the queen bee of her craft, was asked by Terry Wogan on BBC television how you could tell if somebody was a good newsreader. Her disarmingly simple reply was: "When you hear someone reading the news badly."

European Ryder Cup captains fitting comfortably into that category include Bernard Gallacher, who was thoroughly outsmarted by his American counterpart, Dave Stockton, at Kiawah Island in 1991, especially over the injury to Steve Pate. And Gallacher's redemption at Oak Hill four years later could be attributed to the remarkable good fortune of taking 2.5 points from the top-four of an ill-conceived singles order.

Then came Mark James who, in 1999 at Brookline, attempted the impossible by trying to win the Ryder Cup in two days. However, even with his appalling treatment of the three wild-cards who didn't play until the Sunday's singles, the trophy might have remained in Europe but for an outrageous half-point from Justin Leonard, courtesy of a 45-foot birdie putt on the 17th against Jose Maria Olazabal.

The 2008 matches at Valhalla had echoes of Kiawah Island 17 years previously. On this occasion, Nick Faldo was the European skipper outmanoeuvred by Paul Azinger, who will be remembered for creating the pod-system of preparation for the American players and for duping the Europeans into practising off incorrect tees.

It would be fanciful to imagine a template for winning the Ryder Cup away from home, but as Gallacher, James and Faldo demonstrated, there is certainly one for losing it. Then there is the matter of luck. While Paul McGinley minimised luck as a significant element through painstaking preparation for Gleneagles in 2014, Harrington alluded to Darren Clarke's misfortune on being hit by the fallout from Danny Willett's mischievous brother two years later at Hazeltine National.

In accepting the position, Harrington made a point of emphasising the importance of the challenge, especially as a tailpiece to a distinguished playing career. He talked about "putting something on the line going out there," before adding: "It is a different element to your career. We know a successful captain is great, and a losing captain, you know, it's his fault."

Which, as Faldo has since discovered, has little lasting impact in the grand scheme of things. The Englishman is sufficiently self-confident, even arrogant, to compartmentalise the Valhalla debacle in a mental area reserved for unhappy experiences. It certainly hasn't affected his status as a six-time Major champion.

I imagine what Harrington will relish most is the prospect of applying innate pragmatism to a shared sporting experience with the fans, the players and his vice-captains. Handling the various official duties of the captaincy won't be an issue, as was confirmed at St Andrews University nine years ago.

Earlier duties as the reigning 'Champion Golfer of the Year' earned him serious regard from Royal and Ancient officials who couldn't have been happier with his willingness to promote their cause, most notably in having golf restored to the Olympics for the 2016 Games in Rio.

The R and A would have had previous knowledge of Harrington as a three-time Walker Cup player. His integrity was demonstrated to them in a far more meaningful way, however, by the events at The Belfry in May 2000. On the Sunday morning of the Benson and Hedges Tournament, he held a 54-hole lead of five strokes, only to be dramatically disqualified for failing to sign for his opening round.

The game's legislators at St Andrews positively glowed about the Dubliner's dignity and sportsmanship. "We've talked about the matter here and I don't think it would be inaccurate to say that everybody was incredibly impressed," said Grant Moir, of the Rules of Golf committee. "I don't think he can be praised highly enough for the way he handled what must have been a very difficult situation. He has come out of it with great credit, especially in not attempting to ascribe blame to anybody else."

So to the talking. I remember being in Harrington's house for a photo-shoot when the photographer seemed excessively busy. Noting my impatience, our host called me aside and said gently: "He's only trying to do the best job he can." Suitably chastened, I was immediately aware of how we scribes had benefited from the player's indulgence in such matters.

In which context, the captain's conferences at Whistling Straits are going to be a fascinating experience, not least for how they may challenge the organisers to keep the afternoon play to schedule on the Friday and Saturday. Then again, Harrington could surprise us all by reducing his contributions to some pithy comments, though somehow I think not.

We remember how hapless Hal Sutton fell into the trap of being baited by the media at Oakland Hills in 2004. Harrington could find himself being similarly indulgent, simply because of how much he relishes such interaction.

Either way, as he talked the talk, there were clear pointers in last Tuesday's announcement to a captaincy very different from the European model pioneered so brilliantly by Tony Jacklin three decades ago.

And we are left with an eager wait, wondering how Harrington and his team will go about walking the walk.

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