7 Questions to keep the captain up at night
In the hours after the 2012 Ryder Cup, the American Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III wrote a note to an American magazine publisher.
Love, who is captain for the second time at Hazeltine this year, was searching for answers that would help explain the extraordinary turnaround in his team’s fortunes, as Europe came back from an unprecedented four point deficit to take the Samuel Ryder Trophy back across the Atlantic; an event that will be known forever as the Miracle at Medinah.
“I should be tired but I’m not’ wrote Love. ‘We lost the Ryder Cup about six hours ago, and now I’m at the team hotel, a Westin in suburban Chicago, trying to make sense of what just happened. Tiger just texted me on the way to the airport. There were wrong turns, construction traffic, I’m not sure what all exactly, but it wasn’t a smooth trip. He wrote: ‘A perfect ending to a perfect day’.
I’m going to carry this defeat with me for the rest of my life wrote Love: “The biggest part of the captain’s job is to win, and I lost’. In this he was wrestling with a question that faces every captain, and every leader of any team, from the sports field to the corridors of business and political power. What could I have done that would have made any difference to the outcome?
When it comes to providing answers, Ryder Cup history isn’t helpful. In fact, the more you look in to the past, the more questions are posed. Every two years, more theories are put forward as to how to win the Ryder Cup. Some of these combine traditional golfing nous with cutting-edge sports psychology. Others are red herrings that have led captains down any number of blind alleys.
“The biggest part of the captain’s job is to win, and I lost’.
As the golf season gears up on both sides of the Atlantic, Davis Love and his European counterpart Darren Clarke enter the most intense period of their captaincy so far. From here to Hazeltine, every day will bring new questions to be answered. Here’s just a few of them.
1. Who’s in, who needs to win soon?
Danny Willett’s victory at The Masters, the first major championship of the season, has cemented his place in Team Europe ensuring the 28 year old Yorkshireman will make his debut under Darren Clarke’s captaincy.
Likewise, the extraordinary recent record of young superstar Jordan Spieth makes him a certainty for Davis Love’s team. But who else is accumulating all important Ryder Cup points this spring? And who will come out of the pack with a late run come August?
2. What makes a good wildcard?
Each team is made up of two types of player: the automatic picks who played their way in to the team via the official points lists, and the wildcard picks, determined by the captain. Few things reveal the personality of the captain than the men he chooses as his wildcard. Who do they want to see in the team room on that first morning: gnarled veterans or youthful exuberance? Low risk grinders or birdie machines?
3. How will you choose your partners?
The first two days of Ryder Cup golf are played in pairs, putting a large emphasis on the captain’s choice of partners. This is a mix of art and science, and received wisdom has shifted over the years.
One option is to choose pairings based on performance factors – matching a long hitter with a good putter for example, or a creative player with a steady Eddie-type who puts consistency above flair. More recently, some captains have matched long hitters together in the hope of generating lots of birdie opportunities.
4. Are friends electric?
Darren Clarke’s stellar Ryder Cup career has been spent mostly in the company of his old friend Lee Westwood. So will this affect his decision making process when it comes to picking pairs? Paul Azinger won in 2008 based on an elaborately prepared pod system, which matched players on the basis of their personality type. At the other end of the spectrum, Jack Nicklaus advised Curtis Strange to ‘just throw twelve balls in the air and see where they land’.
5. Will you fly the flag?
The Ryder Cup is a rare moment when golfers play for national pride and a good captain taps in to this motivational reservoir. For Darren Clarke, this may shape his wildcard and partnership selections. The greatest pairing in the history of the Ryder Cup were fellow Spaniards Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal who won more points than any other pairing on either side.
Likewise, American captains have played the patriotism card many times over the years, encouraging the crowds to wave the Stars and Stripes and to fill the course with chants of U-S-A! U-S-A!
6. Does team culture exist?
Many people reference team spirit when it comes to Team Europe. They say that compared to America, Europe’s players seem to play better as a unit, citing a more harmonious team room. But how much of this is real, and how much are we making up a story to fit the facts. Do Europe win because they are happier, or are they happier because they won? Look back to the days of American dominance and the faces in the pictures tell their own story. When they were winning regularly, Team USA seemed to get along fine.
7. Do you believe in luck?
For the first 58 years of Ryder Cup history, America were dominant. Then, in 1985, Europe won the match at The Belfry and since then, have been in the ascendancy. European victory at Hazeltine will make it four in a row. But statistics are misleading. Two of the last four victories have been by a single point – at Celtic Manor in 2010 and Medinah in 2012 – so a few putts here and there would paint a very different picture, altering the balance of power as we head for Minnesota this Autumn.
These and hundreds more questions are what make the Ryder Cup one of the greatest sports events in the world.