Monday 23 October 2017

Dealing with pressure a bare necessity of Ryder Cup success

Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus "There are far more important things than the Ryder Cup coming up" Photo: Getty

Dermot Gilleece

Leading sportspeople are being forced to confront an unremitting emphasis on winning these days, largely because of the Pandora's box which was opened for them by well-intentioned psychologists. Nowhere in golf is this development more apparent, than in the Ryder Cup.

Jack Nicklaus made his contribution during the Honda Classic last weekend, as host to an elite group of American players battling for places at Hazeltine National in September. Their prospects of winning back the Ryder Cup, however, are unlikely to have been helped by his observations.

The great man talked in familiar terms about having "fun" while playing for no more than "bragging rights". "There you are, worrying about the Ryder Cup and you have four Majors coming up," he told them. "There are far more important things than the Ryder Cup coming up."

It's interesting to compare these with the words delivered by Nicklaus in a more serious Ryder Cup context 29 years ago. In the aftermath of the matches at Muirfield Village in 1987, when the Bear captained the first US team to lose on home soil, he is reported to have castigated the cream of American golf, claiming they had forgotten how to win, or had never really learned how to do so.

This is according to Curt Sampson, author of The War by the Shore, published in 2012 to coincide with Kiawah Island's staging of the PGA Championship, won by Rory McIlroy. Indeed Sampson further attributed to Nicklaus the damning comment: "You guys need to grow a pair . . ."

The 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah has since become accepted as the most important staging in the recent history of the biennial showpiece. After Europe's breakthrough in 1985, followed by events at Muirfield Village and the tied matches at The Belfry in 1989, the Americans felt compelled to take the event more seriously.

"It was the one time it got really ugly, too vicious for words," was the reaction of veteran CBS commentator Ben Wright to Kiawah. "Corey Pavin in fatigues - such bullshit." Everything had changed utterly and with so much else going on in his life, Nicklaus didn't appear to fully grasp this change.

On speaking to him in the wake of another Ryder Cup milestone at Oakland Hills in 2004, when Bernhard Langer led Europe to a record nine-point victory, he admitted to having watched only very brief snatches of the telecast over the three days. "Probably 15 minutes in all," he said. "I just stopped by the television when I was passing, to see what the score was."

Against this background, the profound transformation since his last appearance as a player in 1981, then as captain in '83 and '87, would have largely passed him by. How could he be expected to understand the enormous pressure created for modern participants by a challenge he would have taken in his stride, as the game's greatest competitor?

On confronting pressure, he once said: "Sure, you're nervous, but that's the difference between being able to win and not being able to win. And that's the fun of it. I never looked on it as pressure." There's the word 'fun' again, which always seemed strange to David Feherty, who famously remarked after winning the 1989 BMW International in Munich: "Anyone who enjoys what I had to go through out there today must be a pervert."

To use a term which he abhorred as an ageing player, Nicklaus made an ideal ceremonial captain, whereas American players would appear to need leaders with an edge. Dave Stockton in 1991 and Paul Azinger when the US last won in 2008 proved to be ideal for the job, unlike the incumbent, Davis Love, who is cast from a more benign mould.

In the course of a most enlightening book, Sampson wrote: ". . . we didn't think about thinking in 1991 as much as we do these days. We hadn't pondered the notion of emotional intelligence, for example." He went on: "Over the last two decades, behaviourists and brain scientists have learned a lot about the concept that in sports is summarised by one simple word - choke."

We know that enlightened coaches and non-playing captains can instil vital confidence into their charges, as Paul McGinley, for instance, did at Gleneagles in 2014. In terms of the development of the European team, however, the greatest influence was exerted not by a captain, but by a remarkably charismatic player, Seve Ballesteros.

Especially interesting is that the fearsome image which Ballesteros brought to the Ryder Cup was largely an American creation. It had its roots in how they cold-shouldered the Spaniard during his formative years there in the late '70s. And it was cemented at The Belfry in '85.

According to Sam Torrance, responsibility lay with a less than erudite American TV interviewer who began a piece with the Spaniard by introducing him as "Steve Balla-stareos." Turning to team-mates afterwards, the conquistador fumed: "He calls me Steve. Who is this fucking Steve?"

When talking to former Scotland rugby captain Gavin Hastings in the build-up to the 2014 Ryder Cup, I noted how impressed he was by the "quick peek" he had taken into the European team-room. He explained: "There were some nice little touches, like certain words on the walls. And an incredible photograph of Seve . . ."

On meeting Stockton at Mount Wolseley more than 10 years after Kiawah, I was left in no doubt about how he had outsmarted his European counterpart, Bernard Gallacher. Which is probably why the Americans won. The players were aware of having a shrewd skipper, someone who could protect them against the wily machinations of Ballesteros.

They had the same feeling about their 2008 leader at Valhalla, where Azinger always seemed to have a psychological edge, especially in how he duped Nick Faldo by deliberately playing off wrong tees during practice rounds.

All of which would be alien to Nicklaus, who would have frowned on such deceit. Which, of course, is all very well for the winner of 18 Major championships, who would never have contemplated letting team-mates down, or failing to deliver for his country.

Indeed in the expectation of comparable confidence within the rich talent at his disposal, the Bear saw no need to carefully analyse his pairings at Muirfield Village. Instead, prior to the pairs matches, he talked dismissively of throwing their names into the air and matching them as they landed.

Lesser beings will comprise the American leadership and line-up at Hazeltine. And they will be prepared for pressure, as severe as anything they might endure in a Major championship.

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