Sunday 18 August 2019

Everything points towards Harrington

Relationship with Bjorn among factors that make Dubliner ideal choice for 2020 Ryder captaincy

Padraig Harrington, in action yesterday in the Italian Open, is well positioned to succeed Thomas Bjorn as European Ryder Cup captain. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Padraig Harrington, in action yesterday in the Italian Open, is well positioned to succeed Thomas Bjorn as European Ryder Cup captain. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

As Thomas Bjorn headed for the fifth tee at Valderrama, he was confronted by what would have been the least welcome interjection at that stage of his Ryder Cup singles debut. His captain, Seve Ballesteros, saw fit to remind him that the agreed strategy of the European team was to play the course, rather than the opponent.

In that moment back in September 1997, we caught a glimpse of the stubborn resolve which would bring Bjorn a successful career in tournament golf, culminating in captaincy of the Ryder Cup team at La Golf National this September. It could be said that 21 years on, we're witnessing a coming of age for the accomplished Dane.

On that memorable exchange on the Costa de Sol, Bjorn reflected: "He was sitting on a buggy and I said to him, 'Hang on a second, Seve. I'm one over par and four down. I don't need to know if I'm playing stroke-play or match-play, I just want to get around here as good as I can'."

Then Bjorn did almost the unthinkable by telling his illustrious leader that he didn't want to see him again for the remainder of the match. Clearly stunned by this, Ballesteros delivered a pretty lame rejoinder by urging his player to relax. "I AM RELAXED," Bjorn shouted in reply, much to the amusement of onlookers, before going on to win the fifth and gain ultimately a remarkable halved match against the reigning Open champion, Justin Leonard.

In capturing the Danish Amateur stroke-play title in 1990 and the national match-play crown a year later, Bjorn acquired a fair grounding in the nature of competitive play. The most serious lesson from those formative days, however, came in late June 1991 in the European Amateur Team Championship at Puerto de Hierro, Madrid. That was where Ireland beat Denmark in an improbable battle for 11th and 12th places on the final day.

In the top foursomes, Bjorn and partner Ben Tinning lost 2&1 to Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley. Then at number three in the singles order, he was thrashed 6&5 by Garth McGimpsey.

His relationship with Harrington deepened over the ensuing years and he has seen fit to pick the Dubliner as one of his five vice-captains for Paris, the others being Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood, Robert Karlsson and Luke Donald. The 2020 European captain for the matches at Whistling Straits will then be picked by Bjorn, McGinley, Darren Clarke, European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley and a nominee from the players' Tournament Committee.

Age is clearly important; 45-year-old Westwood is 20 months younger than Harrington and, as such, more suitable for 2022 in Rome. Either way, it would be nice to think both men will be rewarded for their services to the European cause, even if Harrington ruffled quite a few feathers through absences from the BMW PGA Championship, the tour's flagship event at Wentworth, when at the peak of his powers.

Thankfully, politics seems to be less of an issue these days in choosing a Ryder Cup captain, otherwise there would be little prospect of a third successful Irish candidate in four stagings from McGinley's breakthrough in 2014.

It still rankles with me that no consideration was given to picking an Irish captain for the K Club in 2006. Mind you, it didn't surprise Tony Jacklin. Referring to the treatment of an Irishman who made a record 10 successive Ryder Cup appearances, Jacklin said: "Christy O'Connor Snr clearly deserved the honour as a great player and a great Ryder Cup representative. Why were contemporaries Bernhard Hunt and Eric Brown twice honoured and Christy not even once?

"You could also ask why Peter Alliss missed out, a fact that I think still stings him. And Sandy Lyle was another to be overlooked. There was a lot of politics tied up in these things."

He went on: "I have never been a committee person and I sure as hell don't want to be. Some strange things have happened on the European Tour that I haven't been party to. They must have been desperate when they asked me to be captain in 1983, because I'd fallen out with all of them."

McGinley's selection was something of a game-changer in that he made his case largely on organisational and man-management skills, albeit with the considerable support of Rory McIlroy as the world's number one player. One suspects that the mess Nick Faldo made of the job in 2008 prompted a radical change of thinking.

Meanwhile, with a gambler's instincts, Phil Mickelson views 18-hole match-play as something of a lottery. "It's like sitting down and playing blackjack for 20 minutes," he says. "There's a good chance you could win, but if you sit there and play for 20 hours there's a better chance you'll lose. The more holes you play, the better the chance the top player will win."

Which overlooks competitive steel as a key ingredient of match-play. That's why leadership has been so important in guiding the fortunes of European sides. And it will become all the more crucial against American players whose skill levels are prospering year on year.

All of which lends emphasis to the enduring bond between Bjorn and Harrington. The Dane gained a significant competitive edge by claiming the Rookie of the Year award for 1996, ahead of the Dubliner.

As he recalled: "For the first two years, we were very close on tour. In fact up to the end of '98, we and our wives spent a lot of time together off the golf course. Since then, our closeness has got less and less but we consider each other friends in the sense that we would never have any problem spending time together."

As one of several contemporaries eyeing a Major breakthrough, Bjorn was clearly heading in the right direction on being tied second to Tiger Woods in the 2000 Open Championship at St Andrews, and third behind the great one in the PGA at Valhalla later that year. Then he squandered a glorious chance of victory in the 2003 Open which Ben Curtis eventually backed into at Royal St George's. And he was tied second behind Mickelson in the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol.

His respect for Harrington can be gleaned from a fascinating exchange between them during the 2003 European Open at the K Club, a few weeks after Bjorn was beaten by the Dubliner in a play-off for the Deutsche Bank SAP Open in Hamburg.

"I could see the massive influence Bob Torrance had on Padraig's development," said Bjorn. "Sure, hard work had a lot to do with Padraig's success, but from the outside looking in, I could see how his golf game changed dramatically from the day he started working with Bob.

"So I approached him saying that I, too, wanted to work with Bob, just to run it past him. His reaction was that the world was big enough to have both of us sharing the same coach and that maybe something good would come out of it. It was no more than I expected."

In the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn, a lot of people have passed water under the bridge since then. Still, September in Paris looks set to become a milestone in the recent history of Ireland at the Ryder Cup. Even if McIlroy happens to be our only representative in the team.

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