Today’s formula, consisting of a designated, non-playing captain and as many as five assistants is far removed from when Arnold Palmer was the last to double up as both captain and player (with no assistants) in the Ryder Cup matches at East Lake, Atlanta in 1963.
Even Arnold at his fittest found it difficult to cope because in 1963, tedious 36-hole matches were done away for the first time and an expected birdie-fest of fourball matches, created with TV in mind, were added as the Ryder Cup Match became a three-day affair instead of two.
With so many extra points available, many believed it would widen the score between two ill-matched sides. The gap in standard between Team USA and Great Britain & Ireland, in those days, made the result a foregone conclusion even if individual matches were often keenly fought.
Captaincy tactics hardly mattered. After yet another mauling of GB&I at Lytham in 1977, Jack Nicklaus’s watershed suggestion to John Jacobs, the European Tour Commissioner and Ryder Cup Captain (1979 and 1981) that it might be a good idea if the USA would henceforth face a team that included the best Continental European players, as well the British and Irish, was adopted.
Nicklaus’s suggestion did not achieve much at first. Who would have envisaged the results since 1985 seeing Europe winning twice as often as the USA (10-5 with one halved match)? Nor would anyone have thought that in the fullness of time, so many European Captains would prove to be such outstanding Masters of Psychology, tactics and motivation.
Nowadays the matches are so tightly contested that the slightest edge can create unstoppable momentum, which can be impossible to reverse. Astute planning and wildcard selection, strong emotional commitment, intelligence gathering, and organisational ability have become the tools of captaincy and with so much going on behind the scenes, it would be ‘impossible’ to tend to all the chores, especially speechmaking, alone, as well as being a player as Palmer had to do.
Possibly the greatest contrast in styles between modern day captains was at Gleneagles in 2014 between the meticulous Paul McGinley and ‘laissez faire’ attitude of Tom Watson, whose over-confidence and lack of empathy and communication skills had a damaging effect on Team USA’s morale.
A captain can only be deemed a success or failure with the benefit of hindsight. Inferior players cannot be turned into a superior team by any captain, while a poor captain can de-motivate good players to perform below their potential. McGinley seemed born for the task and he did it magnificently.
The addition of Continentals in 1979 did not get off to a good start. Seve Ballesteros was at ‘war’ with John Jacobs over appearance money and he was a half-heated team member who contributed a measly one point from five matches. For all his undoubted wisdom and leadership qualities, John Jacobs had created a stick for Europe’s two best players, Tony Jacklin and Seve, to beat him.
The tension caused undermined the Jacobs captaincy. Failing to select Seve and Jacklin in 1981 was a misjudgement that would cost Jacobs his job as Commissioner (as well as captain).
In the wake of the Walton Heath debacle in 1981 when Jacklin and Ballesteros were not selected there was a mini revolution in the European ranks. John Jacobs was ousted. Tony Jacklin was invited back into the fold and offered the team captaincy for the 1983 matches at the PGA National Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Further spice was added when a ‘complacent’ Nicklaus was appointed captain of the American team. Almost unbelievably, the bear rolled over and had his tummy tickled only to be saved by a Lanny Wadkins ‘miracle shot’ in the gathering dusk.
On arrival at Palm Beach Gardens, probably less than half of Jacklin’s young team – Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam genuinely felt that they could win. Clueless preparations by the British PGA provided only one pair of golf shoes for the entire week and one shirt per day to cope with the heat, humidity, and dampness of Florida.
European No. 1, Faldo, led his teammates to the pro shop to purchase their own matching gear. A galvanising and begrudging attitude that had nothing to do with the Americans erupted out of ‘nowhere’. The team spirit Jacklin craved was born and he managed it to perfection. Jacklin’s masterstroke was getting a reluctant Seve fully ‘on board’ with a public declaration of complete confidence in him and bringing him into his confidences as a tactical advisor and partnerships selector.
Jacklin’s style of captaincy was inclusive, and it was a complete change from his predecessors. One of whom, Brian Huggett, was reported to have never spoken to some of his team members – apart from barking instructions from a distance.
However, when it was his turn to lead at Valderrama in 1997, Seve was a caricature of a manic captain. He irritated his players to the point that some of them told him to “eff off and stay the ‘eff’ away from me”. All was forgiven as soon as Europe won.
Bernard Gallacher served an ‘educational’ apprenticeship under Tony Jacklin as a player and assistant that stood him in good stead during a baptism of fire at Kiawah. He fully deserves to be regarded as one of Europe’s best captains having done the job three times and winning at Oak Hill in 1995.
All Europe’s captains have not been perfect. Mark James, a fearsome competitor, who was fined and dropped from the 1979 team for an apparent ‘contempt of authority’, made bizarre and costly decisions at Brookline in 1999 that saw Europe lose a seemingly impregnable lead. His opposite number, Ben Crenshaw, became ‘the luckiest’ American captain as a result.
Sam Torrance clearly ‘outplayed and outthought’ Curtis Strange in 2002. Why any captain would place the best player in the world (Tiger) at the tail of the field is still a mystery. It gave the Europeans the incentive to make the 12th singles match irrelevant, which they did.
Bernhard Langer’s captaincy in 2004 at Oakland Hills was highly praised for its attention to detail but Langer was also greatly assisted by the ‘odd actions’ of his opposite number, Hal Sutton, the least damaging of which was strutting around in a large Stetson hat and fancy cowboy boots; the worst was pairing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in a partnership that was made in Hell.
Tom Lehman was saddled with the least impressive American team ever (on paper) at the K Club in 2006. The weather also co-operated and wasn’t to the Americans’ liking. Ian Woosnam accepted these ‘gifts’ with alacrity. Europe won hands down both on the course and during the after-match party.
Paul Azinger was famous for his sand play. Then, at Muirfield in 1987, he flubbed a bunker shot on the final hole, resulting in a clumsy double bogey that ‘allowed’ Nick Faldo to sneak past him to win his first major. The memory haunted Azinger but, when Faldo said: “Hard luck, old boy!” afterwards, it grated so painfully that he could not wait “to repay the compliment”. As often happens, Karma lent a hand and Azinger fired-up his troops with the passion of his personal vendetta, willing them to victory at Valhalla in 2008. Faldo was a famously ruthless loner as a player. Loners make disastrous captains.
Corey Pavin seemed to be all at sea as a Captain in 2010. He made a mess of ordering suitable rain gear (essential for playing golf in Wales) while Colin Montgomerie led the Europeans with the same swagger and confidence he displayed when going unbeaten in eight Ryder Cup singles matches.
Jose Maria Olazabal was the luckiest of generals at Medinah in 2012, who leant on inspiring assistance from Heaven (following Seve’s untimely passing). His opposite number, Davis Love III learned the hard way from his experiences to outsmart Darren Clarke at Hazeltine in 2016. The boorishness of an alcohol-fuelled Minnesota crowd did not help matters from a European perspective, either.
Team USA captains have not often made the effort to understand the psychological requirements of playing a series of 18-hole sprints in which anybody could beat anybody, especially in team matches where more points are ‘up for grabs’ than in the singles play. Azinger may have been the first American captain to deal “full on” with this truism. His recruitment of two, experienced former captains, Dave Stockton, and Raymond Floyd to act as his assistants was the beginning of the ‘team of advisors’ that every captain employs today.
When rating captains, arguably the ‘greatest golfer of all time’, Jack Nicklaus, comes nearer to the bottom of the list than the top. Jack thought a good way of selecting pairings was to throw darts blindfolded at names pinned to a wallboard. He was also a gentleman who did not seem to mind losing unlike the aggressive, ‘win-at-all-costs’, Dave Stockton, who gloried in the nastiness of the ill-conceived ‘War on the Shore’ at Kiawah in 1991.
Having lost in 1985 and 1987 and halving at the Belfry in 1989, Team USA was determined to win the cup back. “I disturbed a hornet’s nest, but I didn’t care. Americans need to be angry (hornets) otherwise we become complacent, and the event loses its edge,” he boasted later but some of the tactics Stockton employed were disgraceful. How a Charleston Radio Station somehow found the European Team’s hotel room telephone numbers and organised a campaign of street noise and middle-of-the-night telephone calls to disturb their sleep was the dirtiest of tricks.
That 1991 episode still rankles in European psyches. I still haven’t forgotten, and I wasn’t even there! Grudges of any sort are terrific motivators in any sporting context, even 30-years on. Padraig should not forget to play that card at Whistling Straits in 2021.