Tuesday 23 October 2018

How captains can lose the Ryder Cup

 

Former Ireland rugby star Brian O’Driscoll makes his way to the first tee during the Celebrity Matches prior to the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Paris. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Former Ireland rugby star Brian O’Driscoll makes his way to the first tee during the Celebrity Matches prior to the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Paris. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Paul Hayward

Captaining Europe's Ryder Cup team is said to be worth €2-3 million in subsequent commercial tie-ups. But making a hash of it can impoverish a reputation in ways money cannot rectify.

Nick Faldo, Tom Watson and Darren Clarke all carry the wounds from defeats ascribed in part to them: their pairings, man-management or choice of fish for the team-room tank. The Ryder Cup captaincy is one of the more inflated roles in modern sport.

Thomas Bjorn: ‘You’d like to think that even if I was a bad captain, they’ll still get together and give it a shot. Photo: Getty Images
Thomas Bjorn: ‘You’d like to think that even if I was a bad captain, they’ll still get together and give it a shot. Photo: Getty Images

Here in Paris, images of Jim Furyk and Thomas Bjorn are plastered across the stands with pop star prominence. A bad captain can cost a team a Ryder Cup, but a good one is unlikely to be the deciding factor.

"The Good and Bad Captain myths are hard-wired into how we watch sport and are based on attributing too much of the success or failure of the team to the actions, personality and decisions of the captain," wrote Richard Gillis in his influential book 'The Captain Myth', which addressed our tendency to look at an outcome and work backwards in the search for someone to blame.

At Hazeltine two years ago, when a run of eight European wins in 10 was broken by a task force-assisted American resurgence, Clarke changed his pairings on the back of a satirical article by Danny Willett's brother casting American golf fans as "pudgy, basement-dwelling irritants, stuffed on cookie dough and pissy beer, pausing between mouthfuls of hot dog so they can scream 'Baba booey' until their jelly faces turn red."

Of all the complications you would expect in the final hours, the brother of a Ryder Cup debutant eviscerating the host nation and calling its people "brainless" is a lot less likely than, say, wardrobe malfunctions or a shortage of ping-pong balls for the table tennis.

Struck by this missile, Clarke tried to protect Willett from the early pressure and found himself rewriting his order of play and began the Friday session with a diplomatic cloud over Europe.

Like Faldo in Kentucky, Clarke left Minnesota as a captain who had let slip European dominance and, while the commercial spin-offs come in handy, there is no mistaking the captain's exposure to reputation damage when the inquests begin and fingers are pointed at the buggy-riders.

In racing, they say a trainer with the best horse in the Derby field has one clear task: not to ruin the horse's chance. That feeling pervades the long build-up to a Ryder Cup, when the twitchier captain can pester his players and over-think the job.

The Ryder Cup general's robes are not worn lightly. But with the prestige and the profile comes the knowledge that players who go down in flames have a ready-made scapegoat (the post-Ryder Cup whispering is always entertaining).

Not that Phil Mickelson's take-down of Watson four years ago was muttered in the shadows. Big Phil took revenge right away, at the post-match press conference, with everyone present.

"Nobody here was in [on] any decision," Mickelson said, while Watson listened a few seats along. "Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the past three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best." He was lamenting the death of Paul Azinger's "pods".

A few days later ESPN's golf division traced the fallout to a meeting on the Saturday night: "Four sources who witnessed the proceedings in the US team room at the Gleneagles Hotel said Watson took no responsibility for any shortcomings, scoffed at a gift that the US team members gave him, ridiculed several European team players and started the proceedings by denigrating the Americans' play that afternoon. "You could have heard a pin drop in that room," one of those in attendance said. "He was pissed. It all went from there."

Protocol conceals these tensions. At Le Golf National, I asked Bjorn whether a bad captain can lose a Ryder Cup and a good one win one. "Well, you can be a really bad one and then there might be a chance," he said.

"But you've got to remember that those 12 want to go out there - and they aren't doing it for me. I hope they aren't doing it for me. I hope they're doing it for themselves. I hope they're doing it for their countries and I hope they're doing it for their continent and I hope they're doing it for each other. If they're only playing for me, then we have problems.

"You'd like to think that even if I was a bad captain, they will still get together and give it a shot and not want to give up because the captain is poor. Can you lose it as a captain? Well, you've got the final decisions on certain things, and obviously you can mess that up. But I don't think the captain is the one thing that makes a big difference."

There is another factor that supports this view. The captain is the captain because he is no longer good enough to be a starter. The world's best pros are unlikely to defer to someone diminished in this way. The skill, togetherness and passion come from within the 12 who are out there. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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