Tuesday 22 October 2019

Dreams of white smoke by Christmas

The way seems clear for Pádraig Harrington to be announced as Ryder Cup captain for 2020

Ryder Cup captain-in-waiting Pádraig Harrington lines up a putt during this week’s Turkish Airlines Open in Antalya, Turkey. Photo: Getty Images
Ryder Cup captain-in-waiting Pádraig Harrington lines up a putt during this week’s Turkish Airlines Open in Antalya, Turkey. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

In December 1998, Pádraig Harrington was easing into a winter break after delivering a solid third season on the European Tour and a breakthrough win in the Irish PGA Championship. Eamonn Darcy, meanwhile, was applying in writing for captaincy of the European Ryder Cup team.

It was a month before The K Club was officially announced as the venue for the 2006 matches and I knew about Darcy's letter to Ryder Cup director, Richard Hills, because he had asked for my help in drafting it. And amid a great buzz at that time in anticipation of Ireland having its first captain of the biennial showpiece, Christy O'Connor Jnr followed suit.

The other Irish candidate, Des Smyth, didn't put pen to paper. And as it happened, his two colleagues needn't have bothered. It was early in 2005 before Paul McGinley, with typical thoroughness, established how the system worked. As a member of the Tournament Committee which would be making the decision on the 2006 captaincy, he got the precise details from outgoing executive director of the PGA European Tour.

"Ken Schofield told me that you don't apply for the captaincy," said McGinley. "You're invited." In which circumstance Harrington, as the clear front-runner for the 2020 captaincy at Whistling Straits, currently awaits word from the Tour's Surrey headquarters. From my enquiries, the Tour are apparently engaged in an "internal de-briefing" involving all key elements of the triumphant recent staging at Le Golf National, Paris. This will take a few more weeks to complete and the official word on the Ryder Cup captaincy is for an announcement by next February or March at the latest.

Which leaves Harrington having to field ongoing questions on the issue. "I know no more than anybody else," he said last week. "It puts me in an awkward position. I'd prefer the clarity [of knowing]."

A formidable obstacle was removed from his path through the recent statement from Lee Westwood, the other leading candidate. "I won't be putting my name forward for this one; I'd prefer do it in Rome [2022] if possible," said the Englishman. "I think Pádraig is the ideal candidate for the captaincy in 2020."

There was further backing from Rory McIlroy, who was hugely influential in securing McGinley the position at Gleneagles. "I've always thought Pádraig would be a good captain in the United States," he said. "He's won a lot of golf tournaments over there, including a US PGA Championship."

Justin Rose said of Harrington last week: "I think he has handled his jobs as a vice-captain really well. The players respond to this and respect it, which bodes well." The ultimate endorsement, however, came from Thomas Bjorn, who surpassed all expectations in Paris. "He'd be brilliant," said the Dane. "He's got all the tools and all the knowledge."

Counting Paris, 42 Ryder Cup teams from this side of the Atlantic have been captained on 21 occasions by an Englishman, eight times by a Scot, seven by a Welshman, twice by Spaniards (Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal), twice by Irishmen (Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke), once by a German and once by a Dane. Along the way, Ireland has contributed 19 Ryder Cup players, including Christy O'Connor Snr, who set a record of 10 successive appearances from 1955 to 1973.

"I will never, never captain an American team again, because of the nine thousand deaths I suffered in the last hour": you could imagine those words coming from Jim Furyk, after the critical foursomes whitewash of Friday afternoon in Paris. But they were uttered, in fact, by Lloyd Mangrum in the wake of an uncomfortably tight US victory by one point at Wentworth in 1953.

At the other end of the tension scale are the words of Jack Nicklaus, the US captain in 1983 and 1987. "After we select our teams each day and hand in the piece of paper, all that's left is to go on course and act important," he said.

Though no established rules cover the selection of a US Ryder Cup captain, the PGA of America have an unwritten requirement of playing experience in the Ryder Cup and at least one victory in a Major championship. And as indicated in the choice of 65-year-old Tom Watson for 2014, there is no age limit.

Reflection on events in Paris, however, suggests that the problems with American displays on this side of the pond have more to do with the attitude of the players than the performance of their captains. Which brings me back to an illuminating interview given by David Duval to Golf Digest 20 years ago.

When asked why Americans were being beaten in the Ryder Cup and even in the Presidents Cup, Duval replied: "I have no answer to that. To say we should win because we're the best players is silly, because that's not fair to the other teams. The Europeans we play at the Ryder Cup are great players. Same with the Internationals in the Presidents Cup.

"I haven't figured out why we make such a big deal about it. There's way too much emphasis on those events, no question about it. The Ryder Cup is an exhibition. The whole thing has become a little overcooked, but it's probably going to stay that way until players choose not to play."

It's hard to escape the suspicion that such thinking remained alive and well among certain American players in Paris. And there was precious little that Furyk could have done about it.

Meanwhile, we have the impending European Tour announcement. In 2005, prior to the Dubai Desert Classic in early March, a 14-man Tournament Committee, which included future incumbents in Colin Montgomerie, McGinley, Clarke and Bjorn, decided to break with precedent by naming two Ryder Cup captains at the same time - Ian Woosnam for 2006 and Nick Faldo for 2008. The feeling was that since Faldo was going to be honoured at some stage, it might as well be finalised at that time.

The Tournament Committee were also entrusted with the deed in 2013, when McGinley got the nod for Gleneagles, but Schofield's successor, George O'Grady, talked afterwards of his embarrassment at Montgomerie having to make a case for himself in front of colleagues fully au fait with his accomplishments. So the selection process was changed for 2016.

Which means the fate of Harrington and Westwood resting with a panel comprising immediate past captains Bjorn, Clarke and McGinley, along with European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley and a representative of the Tournament Committee. With any luck, we could have white smoke in time for Christmas.

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