Sport Golf

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Microscopic meddling is not going to give Clarke the edge in phoney war

Darren Clarke is interviewed by the media during a press conference at Baltusrol (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Darren Clarke is interviewed by the media during a press conference at Baltusrol (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Oliver Brown

Be in no doubt that Darren Clarke is mobilising for this year's Ryder Cup with a precision normally reserved for Nasa scientists plotting missions to the outer moons of Neptune.

He has made multiple visits to the BBC's Northern Ireland studios to help perfect his captain's speech. He has enlisted data analysts to furnish him with minutiae about every European golfer in contention, from their accuracy with medium-irons to how they play the par-fives. Such is his obsessive-compulsive nature, he has even started to agonise about the aesthetics of the team room, right down to the colour of the place mats.

It is a case of marginal gains gone mad. To confirm as much, Clarke announced his selection this week of a record-equalling fifth vice-captain in Sam Torrance, adding to his plethora of buggy-driving lieutenants. The intention, as ever, is that all these deputies should serve as the leader's eyes and ears, lest he miss any sign of mental weakness or a fraying dynamic in the fourballs. This autumn, Hazeltine, Minnesota, will be less a venue for a three-day golf match than for a management seminar on spikes.

Is all this microscopic meddling strictly necessary? History would suggest otherwise. In four Ryder Cups as Europe's captain, from 1983 to 1989, Tony Jacklin had only Bernard Gallacher as his leg-man, but he still helped engineer two victories and a draw. Today, the event is treated as the sporting equivalent of the Battle of Gettysburg, a quasi-military face-off where every permutation must be mapped out exhaustively in advance. At Gleneagles in 2014, Paul McGinley made great play of the fact he brought in Des Smyth as de facto babysitter for those players who had been left out for a session or two.

The miracle is that he said it with a straight face. For these are grown men we are talking about, men who, for the other 103 weeks of a Ryder Cup cycle, must manage their neuroses and bruised egos without any offer of their hands being held. And yet, when the match itself rolls around, we are forced to swallow every trite abstraction about team bonding, whether it is the Europeans promising to "do it for Seve" - a noble sentiment, but Seve Ballesteros played his first Ryder Cup before some of them were born - or the Americans blathering about their in-house table tennis matches. To be inside one of these team rooms (it would be easier infiltrating Area 51) sounds like being trapped inside the world's most inane leadership conference.

The Ryder Cup taps into a very fashionable fascination across sport with detail, and the ever more intricate ways of acquiring an edge over an opponent. Eddie Jones has channelled this to stirring effect, recasting England from World Cup laughing stocks into Wallabies whitewashers courtesy of his notorious "add-ons" in training.

Team Sky, likewise, have toasted four Tour de France triumphs in five years by analysing everything from the width of the tyre on the bike to the positioning of the cup-holder.

In golf, these variables are far more difficult to quantify. Improved athleticism only takes you so far, as the improbable rise of Andrew 'Beef' Johnston would attest. As for eking out an advantage through equipment? It is hardly an issue at a Ryder Cup, where players on either side will be using the same manufacturer. All that is left, then, for captains and their extravagant supporting casts to influence is the question of psychology. Who seems fragile? Which rookie is struggling to cope? But here, too, the picture is fraught with complications.

True, there is the Henry Cotton wisdom that golf is largely a matter of confidence, where "if you think you cannot do it, there is no chance that you will". Equally, though, it can be a game of the purest irrationality.

Richard Gillis, in his recent book 'The Captain's Myth', described Ryder Cup history as a "melting pot of half-truths, conjecture, prejudice and superstition". It should be essential reading for understanding both teams's overkill in their preparations. For what use are spreadsheets, guest speakers and report cards, truly, in the crucible of matchplay?

Clarke can pore over players's scrambling stats all he likes, but these will tell him nothing about how his men will respond when three down with five to play. So overstated is the effect of captaincy at Ryder Cups, one wonders how different the outcome would be if pairings were decided by sticking a pin on a donkey.

The contest is wonderful theatre, but the 'phoney war' that lasts for months beforehand leans strongly towards psychobabble. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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