Saturday 7 December 2019

How the Ryder Cup was won

Captain-in-waiting Paul McGinley gives Dermot Gilleece an insight into how Europe conquered Celtic Manor

A running joke in the European team room last weekend concerned Paul McGinley, Prince Charles and the proper protocol on being introduced to royalty. As an unintended contribution by the Irish vice-captain, it reflected the general good mood which delivered a stunning Ryder Cup victory on Monday.

McGinley, who is virtually certain to be Ireland's first Ryder Cup captain on the event's return to this part of the world at Gleneagles in 2014, detailed the strategy behind Europe's triumph when we talked on Friday. But first, there was what became his memorable exchange with HRH.

"At Wednesday's gala dinner, we were all lined up to meet Prince Charles," said the Dubliner. "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, Colin Montgomerie 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 Lee" or Ross or Ian or whatever.

Though there was no question of breaking the confidentiality of the team room, it became clear that McGinley exerted a significant influence on skipper Montgomerie's decisions. A typical case was the choice of Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell at 11 and 12 in the singles order, just as Harrington and McGinley had been placed at Oakland Hills in 2004 when both won.

"The reason was the same as in Detroit," said McGinley. "They were together so that the Irish crowd following the matches would become as noisy as possible. We also took the view that if it came to a dogfight at the bottom of the order, we wanted the two best dogfighters in our team. And they were Pádraig and Graeme. They would be able to handle things.

"There's always the chance in matchplay that someone is going to play fantastically well and blitz you out of the game, but we thought it unlikely it would happen to both of them. The way things turned out, everything came down to Graeme and I wasn't in the least surprised by the way he responded.

"As captain in last year's Vivendi Trophy, I learned so much about him. All the talk back then was about how well Rory (McIlroy) had played. It was Rory, Rory, Rory. And he did do well. But my view was that he wouldn't have done anything at the Vivendi without Graeme, whom he has huge respect for, not just as a person but as a golfer. And Graeme enjoyed that responsibility. They're like brothers, they're so close.

"When I needed Graeme to come through for me in the Vivendi, he really did it. At Celtic Manor, we had to think a lot on our feet in the team room, especially when the three sessions were re-formatted into two which meant everybody would be playing. I made sure that Graeme would have a big role in each session."

I suggested it must be tremendously enriching for a tournament professional to see a colleague at the very top of his form in a pressure situation. "Yes it was," he acknowledged. "Going to Celtic Manor, Graeme had three or four wonderful experiences under pressure, like the building blocks of a house. The more blocks you lay, the stronger the structure gets.

"As a consequence, he now has an image of himself as someone who can handle any kind of pressure situation. At number 12 last Monday, he believed he would be able to handle whatever came his way. That's how confident he was."

Meanwhile, McGinley claimed that when the decision was made to complete the pairs and then the singles on the Sunday, it was done with the approval of both captains. And he emphasised the determination of the European management team that in the event of a further weather delay, the singles would all start on Monday.

"There could be no question of guys having an overnight lead of two up with four to play and completing the match on Monday morning," he said. "Monty made this very clear. We were all conscious of the importance of sending out the team one to 12 off the first tee."

When the time eventually came to finalise the playing order, the European captain was equally adamant that there would be unanimity between himself and his vice-captains, McGinley, Darren Clarke, Thomas Bjorn, Sergio Garcia and Jose Maria Olazabal. All aspects were thoroughly discussed and it was decided nobody would leave the room until everybody was happy.

"Even with a three-point lead, there wasn't going to be a gung-ho approach," said McGinley. "Lee, Darren and Sergio talked about Brookline and we all agreed on a measured response to an anticipated American onslaught." In the infamous 1999 match, Europe opened up a 10-6 lead, only to have the Americans take control by winning the top six singles on the Sunday.

The survivors of Brookline reminded the current crop of how three rookies, who hadn't played up to that point, were asked to fulfil a crucial role near the top. "Conscious of the devastating ripple effect of losing momentum early on, as happened on that occasion, we spread our strength throughout the order. We knew the only way they would win the Ryder Cup was if the first five or six games really went for them and we were determined not to allow that to happen."

In this context, it was crucial that Lee Westwood had an extended battle against Steve Stricker at number one. As McGinley pointed out, the last thing a player wants to see is that a colleague has been hammered. "That's why Rory's match was so important," said the Dubliner. "It was huge, huge, huge. His half with Stewart Cink meant that the red at the top of the scoreboard became limited to one match. In a way, he provided a priceless hint of blue.

"There was no way Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were hidden (at five and 10). In fact, I thought it quite clever of the Americans to put their men in form up at the top, rather than in order of world ranking. Pavin's hope was that having gained momentum, he would then be able to keep it, which is equally important. That's where Woods and Mickelson were supposed to come in. As things turned out, the strategy worked very well. Their ultimate problem, however, was in not having sufficient quality players to spread right through the order from top to tail. We, on the other hand, had strong players all the way through."

A particularly difficult challenge for both captains was maintaining team focus in a seriously fragmented competitive environment, caused by the wretched weather. Monty apparently worked extremely hard in this area, keeping his players occupied with the help of the vice-captains. Garcia was a livewire, mischievously distracting. Clarke also played his part. Bjorn, too, was hugely energetic.

When Olazabal was drafted in on the Saturday, McGinley found a real ally, someone very much on his wavelength. He had heard how Harrington and other team members at Valhalla two years ago were reduced to tears by the Spaniard's rousing if unavailing speech on the Saturday night. The sort of performance which has made him a unanimous choice for the next staging at Medinah in 2012, health permitting.

And what of Harrington at Celtic Manor? "He spoke quite a lot at the team meetings, playing the senior role that we wanted of him," said McGinley. "And his experience was huge where Ross Fisher's performances were concerned. On Monday, he came up against a strong opponent in Zach Johnson, playing at the top of his form. Had the match gone the other way, Pádraig would have contributed three points out of four and we'd be talking about the great Ryder Cup he had."

McGinley then made the fascinating point: "As I said, he was down at number 11 for a reason. If roles had been reversed and Johnson had played Graeme and beaten him comfortably, I would have been happy to take my chances on Pádraig against Hunter Mahan coming down the stretch with the Ryder Cup on the line. That's how important he was to our team."

We then talked about the exemplary sportsmanship which characterised the occasion and was attributable on the American side to Pavin and his back-room assistants. "You couldn't meet nicer or fairer guys than Tom Lehman, Jeff Sluman, Paul Goydos and Davis Love," he said. "We were always conscious of a very sporting attitude from them.

"I know things were said about Lehman after Brookline (where he was accused of leading the charge onto the 17th green). But that was an isolated incident. I've always found him to be a classy guy. I wasn't involved in the controversial stagings of 1999 or Kiawah Island and I've nothing but respect for the guys I played against in three Ryder Cups."

Many of us have misgivings about aspects of this remarkable event, especially the European emphasis on money. But McGinley makes no apology for being a totally committed devotee. "I try to see the big picture," he said. "I see its commercial importance to the European Tour and its future role in the development of golf, not just in Europe but throughout the world. Because we're a world tour now."

A prospective captain couldn't have put it better.

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