Saturday 14 December 2019

Paul McGinley: The making of a Ryder Cup captain

Paul McGinley may not have Tom Watson's Major titles but when it comes to knowing what makes his players tick in the heat of battle, this little general is second to none

Paul McGinley flies the flag for Ireland as he celebrates Ryder Cup victory at the Belfry in 2002. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Paul McGinley flies the flag for Ireland as he celebrates Ryder Cup victory at the Belfry in 2002. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Karl McGinty

Himself, Christy O'Connor, was so thrilled with Paul McGinley's appointment as Ryder Cup captain, he immediately tried, through a friend, to contact the Dubliner to offer his congratulations.

Unsurprisingly, McGinley's phone was busy that January evening 20 months ago but Senior soon got his chance to tell McGinley in person how profoundly happy he was to see the Dubliner's destiny fulfilled and that Ireland's long wait for a first Ryder Cup captain was over.

That's because one of the first calls the new skipper made the following morning was to O'Connor, just to share this moment in history with a man whose career included 10 successive Ryder Cup appearances from 1955 to 1973, and whose sage advice helped inspire him and countless other Irish golfers.

Typical McGinley!

"I told Paul it was about time an Irishman had been chosen; that I was delighted it was him and how sure I was that everything would work out for him," says O'Connor, 90 in December. "Paul's a very nice guy," he adds, "Very able too. He has everything a successful Ryder Cup captain would need."

At every turn in Gleneagles, you hear anecdotes of the European skipper. More often than not, they're followed by the same epithet ... typical McGinley!

Like the one told by Eddie Jordan of how, at McGinley's behest, he arranged dinner on a yacht in Monaco for his fellow Dub, their wives Maria and Alliey, French Ryder Cup rookie Victor Dubuisson and a few others.

"I'd not met Victor before but there wasn't anything he could not tell me about Jordan," the Grand Prix guru said. "He's a motor racing fanatic. He has real style. He brought with him one of the most expensive Bordeaux wines money can buy, which will tell you it was a Rothschild. Let me tell you, he'll be a big thing in this Ryder Cup. He's very much his own man, a fantastic character and won't be overawed."

That relaxing soiree with someone Dubuisson plainly has long admired. His pairing with Graeme McDowell on the couple of occasions they played in the same European Tour events this year. The warm welcome this gifted lone-wolf received in the team room at the EurAsia Cup in the spring … all are typical of exhaustive efforts by McGinley to make every one of Europe's 12 players feel at home this week.

His opposite number, Tom Watson, 65, with eight Major titles, enjoys legendary status and, as captain of the last US team to win in Europe (at The Belfry in 1993) exudes authority.

Legend has it that Watson, at one of their early meetings, asked McGinley how many Majors he'd won, to which the Dubliner supposedly retorted, 'none, but I've won three Ryder Cups, Tom, how many did you?" (FYI: the American icon also won three as a player, plus one as skipper).

Despite an avuncular exterior, Watson's as hard as they come but McGinley insisted: "He never said that! In a way, it'd probably be good if he did but Watson's not stupid."

Though McGinley cannot match Watson's iconic status, equally, his opposite number doesn't "know his fellas as well as I know mine".

European Tour officials have been astonished by the lengths to which McGinley has gone from Day 1 to involve himself in every decision relating to his players, from the clothes on their backs at Gleneagles to the set-up of the PGA Centenary Course or the decor in the team room.

Throughout it all, he's shown keen interest in and rare understanding of the Ryder Cup's importance to the financial well-being of European golf. Having studied at the College of Marketing in Dublin followed by two years at the US International University in San Diego, McGinley has a keen business sense and is as comfortable speaking to senior corporate executives as fellow golfers.

"I was a guest at a private function hosted by Ernst and Young, one of our partners," explains Richard Hills, who has worked closely with 10 captains as European Tour Ryder Cup Director. "There was a discussion with some pretty high-powered people from Ernst and Young's team about the commonality between leadership in business, politics and sport.

"There was a lot of bouncing off of ideas and I think they learned as much from Paul as he did from them. They were very pleased. He was excellent."

McGinley's loyalty to the system which helped Europe win seven of nine Ryder Cups has impressed Hills most. "Paul would say 'there is a template for this which has evolved. I looked at it and adjusted certain things because I want to leave something which is slightly better'."

His decision to nominate five vice-captains is a case in point. It will allow one, Des Smyth I understand, to oversee team operations at the practice range while his four colleagues, Sam Torrance, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Jose Maria Olazabal and Padraig Harrington observe the four games on the golf course.

This fills a void which existed at previous Ryder Cups, when the four players not in action on the course often were left at a loose end, occasionally even having to send even their wife or girlfriend to ask when or if they'd be in action in the next session. More glaringly, nobody noticed Rory McIlroy wasn't warming up on the range on Sunday morning at Medinah … with potentially disastrous consequences.

Ludicrously misinterpreted by 2006 skipper Ian Woosnam as a sign of weakness, appointing five assistants is one of several subtle innovations by McGinley to the European operation.

The source of McGinley's love for team sports is well documented. His sporting instincts and appetite for perfection were passed down from father Michael, a native of Co Donegal whose own talent for Gaelic football and golf were tempered by five years at sea as a radio officer. "You learn so much from playing GAA, it's such a great character-builder," says Mick. His son needed to be extra-cute and mentally agile to compete in an arena with so many bigger opponents bigger than him.

Not that he was a pushover. In his first senior match with Ballyboden-St Enda's, for example, McGinley was sent off when he caught his opposite number with a nicely-timed shoulder charge and the defender when careening head-first into the bumper of a nearby Ford Capri.

"The guy was spark out. He'd spent much of the match bumping and shoving me off the ball and standing on my feet," McGinley explained. "He was a lot bigger than me but I caught him off balance. I got sent off and was going out of the ground in a car as my dad was coming in to watch the game."

Mick McGinley identifies retired teacher Fintan Walsh, Paul's first football coach at St Mary's Primary School in Rathfarnham, as the man who sparked a passion for football, further nurtured at Colaiste Eanna and Ballyboden before a career-shattering knee injury in McGinley's late teens.

Laois native Walsh, a two-time Railway Cup winner, says he remembers Paul as a small boy "always giving it his all. As I saw it, he did bring others with him in the process. Even then, he was good at getting people motivated".

McGinley was transformed from a fairly decent amateur at The Grange into a potentially great one during his time at college San Diego.

Yet it took an amusing twist of fate to get him there. Needing $6000, quite a sum in 1989, to fund his California dream, McGinley and his dad sought a bank loan.

Granted an appointment by a senior Bank of Ireland executive, they noticed a club and a few golf balls in the corner when they entered the office. "Paul, I'm having terrible trouble with my pitching wedge, I'm duffing all my chips, can you help," said the official. A quick lesson did the trick and an assistant was told: "give these guys what they want!"

Of the late Gordon Severson, his coach at San Diego, McGinley says: "He took me from a shabby amateur to a golf pro. Later I worked with Bob Torrance and he took me from shabby professional to good professional."

With South of Ireland, Irish Close and Home International victories under his belt and buoyed by a Walker Cup appearance at Portmarnock in 1991, McGinley headed for Tour Q-School, beefing up his chances by going early to San Roque to reconnoitre and hiring a professional caddie. Again, typical!

His Ryder Cup love affair began at The Belfry in 2002, where McGinley struck a hugely significant blow in his bid for the European captaincy by sinking that famous 10-foot putt on Sunday for a match-clinching half against Jim Furyk.

Ireland has toasted a series of Ryder Cup match-clinchers, from Eamonn Darcy at Muirfield Village in 1987, through Christy O'Connor at The Belfry in '89, to Philip Walton at Oak Hill in '95 and Graeme McDowell in Wales four years ago.

Looking back at the profound effect of beating Ben Crenshaw to seal Europe's first win on US soil, Darcy says the confidence McGinley gained that Sunday in 2002 was a baptism of sorts. "I had played with the giants of golf at Muirfield Village.

Walking out of there knowing I'd actually contributed to winning the Ryder Cup made me feel ready to take on any challenge," said Darcy, currently taking a year-out from the Senior Tour to recover from shoulder surgery.

"Paul's been in the thick of it and has come out on top," he added. "It makes a big difference when you've gone in there and holed the big putts. He has all the experience and knows the pitfalls of the Ryder Cup.

"He's so well grounded in the game, so highly organised and was the players choice, especially after being such a success at the Seve Trophy. I believe Paul will go down in history as a fantastic Ryder Cup captain."

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