The verities and fallacies of feted Ryder Cup captaincy

Mark McGowan

Zach Johnson and Luke Donald in Rome (Photo by Ciro De Luca/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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It’s as predictable as it is pervasive; the aftermath of almost every Ryder Cup sees the winning captain branded a genius, as making all the right decisions, outfoxing his opposite number and creating an environment where victory was inevitable.

The losing captain? Well, he’s a buffoon, to team leading what Inspector Clouseau was to logical investigation, and the primary reason why a dozen of the best golfers on the planet lose to another dozen who can stake similar claims.

This time, it’s Zach Johnson donning the Clouseau trilby while Luke Donald is adorned with the deerstalker of Sherlock Holmes. It’s not entirely without merit, of course. Some of Johnson’s decisions over the course of the week in Rome were head-scratch worthy, but others, which seemed logically sound, ended up spectacularly backfiring.

The decision to play Rickie Fowler in the opening foursomes session when we subsequently learned that Fowler was battling illness and hadn’t been up to attending the gala dinner the night before falls into the former category, as does playing Jordan Spieth in Saturday’s foursomes when for his ball spent most of its time in his pocket on the back nine of Friday’s fourball matches.

Statistics and course setup are important – of course they are – and in this day and age, not taking the opportunity to tweak a course to gain the edge would be gross mismanagement, but I don’t quite buy the argument that there was any major advantage garnered from the way Marco Simone played.

Who could have predicted that Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka, two of the game’s supreme ball strikers, would struggle to keep the ball on the planet on Saturday morning, that Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, previously 5-0-0 in foursomes, would lose both their matches, and that Justin Rose’s putter would almost singlehandedly take one-and-a-half points off Max Homa and Wyndham Clark, and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.

Sending Sam Burns out alongside Scottie Scheffler in the opening foursomes match was questioned by many, with their close friendship thought to be the primary factor, but Burns is one of the best putters in the game and Scheffler’s approach play has been the stuff of dreams, so there was logic to this pairing, much in the same way that pairing Ludvig Aberg and Viktor Hovland made sense.

Statistically, approach play was Aberg’s biggest weakness so putting him alongside Viktor Hovland in foursomes seemed to make sense. Aberg would only hit half of the approach shots he’d hit in fourballs, and Hovland would have the benefit of Aberg’s accuracy off the tee on the other holes.

Ironically, Burns and Aberg would compile eerily similar stats for that opening session. Burns putted well, with only one of the 16 players, ironically Aberg, putting marginally better. Burns’ short game was better, Aberg’s approach play marginally better, and again, the Swede just shaded it off the tee.

However, unfortunately for Johnson and the USA, inexplicably, Scheffler’s was in minus figures in Strokes-Gained-Approach and Off-The-Tee, and Hovland was well into the green in both categories. Hovland and Aberg beat Max Homa and Brian Harman 4&3 and Scheffler and Burns fell to Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton 4&3. Essentially, it was Hovland outperforming Scheffler, with the latter also having Jon Rahm, statistically Europe’s best player on the day and the week to contend with, that saw the Hovland-Aberg pairing lauded and the Scheffler-Burns pairing derided.

Donald opted to put three rookies out in succession in the middle of the singles order was a risk, and the US side won all three matches, and had the final pendulum swung the other way in the bottom third – and it easily could’ve – would we now be throwing Donald to the wolves?

Again, this isn’t to say that mistakes weren’t made by Zach Johnson – they clearly were – but the American preparations that saw all barring Koepka, Homa and Thomas not play a competitive round in five weeks was a mistake that I’m not sure can be parked at Johnson’s door. Each player is in control of their own schedule and is responsible for maintaining their own competitive edge.

Call it ‘complacency,’ call it ‘arrogance,’ call it ‘apathy,’ call it what you will, but there is no way any of the US players would prepare for a major with a five-week break. The hectic end to the PGA Tour season – and the vast finances on offer in those tournaments – mean that teeing it up at the Fortinet Championship or a trip to Europe to play for comparative pittances was obviously not too appealing, but, and again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, it clearly wasn’t ideal preparation with the rust on display in the opening day. Maybe Johnson was appealing for them to get competitive reps, maybe he wasn’t, but either way, the decision ultimately lay with the players themselves and the players themselves is ultimately where the criticism for subpar performances should land.

We saw it at Whistling Straits two years ago, as well. Nobody in their right mind could accuse Padraig Harrington of being under prepared, of not thinking things through to the minutest detail.

Was it Harrington’s fault that Rory McIlroy, who of course had qualified outright, arrived in Wisconsin with his C- game? Or that Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton, again, outright qualifiers, would perform so abjectly? That Mr. Ryder Cup himself, Ian Poulter, would only contribute to the scoreboard in the singles when the destination of the trophy was already beyond doubt?

What about Jim Furyk at Le Golf National? How could Furyk not pick Tiger Woods? For all the praise Thomas Bjorn received for the course set up, there’s not a golf course in the world that Tiger can’t play well on, and if Woods goes 4-0 instead of 0-4, then guess what; the USA win the Ryder Cup.

There are countless variables in each and every Ryder Cup, and only a select few of these are in the captains’ hands. But either way, over-the-top pillorying or showering piety are both well off the mark.

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