Heroes & Villains
Success and failure in The Ryder Cup is a binary affair: There are winners and losers and very little grey area in between.
This is the brutal reality of world-class sport and it extends to history’s judgement of the two captains. When we tell the story of The Ryder Cup, there are two types of leader, a winning one and a losing one—a fact that Davis Love III and Darren Clarke know only too well.
Both men have been in and around their respective Ryder Cup teams for two decades, long enough to have witnessed good captains lose and less effective ones win.
Love and Clarke know that, come September, their names will enter the event’s storied past as two of a select group of elite players to have been rewarded with the captaincy. What they don’t know is which column they will reside: hero or villain?
“We’ve both been on teams where things haven’t run smoothly, or not been as organised as you might like and won,” says Clarke, sitting next to his counterpart, and friend, Love. “Then there’s been people who have done everything right and lost. Does that make you a bad captain? I don’t think so, but I know that’s how the story will be told.”
Love nods his head in agreement, recalling his Ryder Cup debut at Valderrama in 1997 under the man he refers to as his mentor, fellow Texan Tom Kite.
“Tom Kite was brutally criticised for losing. They blamed him for riding around in a cart with Michael Jordan,” says Love, who then noted with affection the memory of European captain Severiano Ballesteros’ energetic approach to the role.
“They said that Seve was everywhere and Kite was nowhere to be seen, all that stuff. But what Tom Kite did was take three major champions—Tiger Woods, Davis Love and Justin Leonard—and they didn’t make a putt. Maybe he should have left us at home. He didn’t do one thing wrong. At that time, I was one of the best players in the world, Tiger Woods was the hot new thing who had won the Masters for the first time that year, neither of us got a point. I didn’t make a putt from Friday to Sunday.”
“Tom Kite was brutally criticised for losing. They blamed him for riding around in a cart with Michael Jordan.”
Clarke smiles while recalling the match two years later, at Brookline in 1999, when Mark James and Ben Crenshaw were the men in the hot seats. The American team famously came back from four points down on the final day, a mirror image of Love’s experience at Medinah in 2012.
“Mark James at Brookline was a wonderful captain,” says Clarke. “The team spirit he had going was second to none.” After the first two days, James’ team was four-up. “He got off to a winning run and decided to stick with the players who got him there. It was tough on the rookies though, because they didn’t play until Sunday. But we had a four-point lead going in to Sunday, which was unheard of.”
One of the most compelling features of Ryder Cup captaincy is the impact of past results on the strategic decisions of current captains. How useful is history in guiding the future?
Clarke recalls the pressure-cooker atmosphere of that Sunday in 1999.
“Things started badly on Sunday. Lee (Westwood) went out first for Europe and I was second. Then the rookies came after us. Because neither Lee nor I performed for Mark James on the Sunday, suddenly the rookies were exposed and America gained the momentum back again. Justin Leonard holed a wonderful putt on the 17th hole and they won. Yet if Lee or I had won our match on that Sunday the result would have been different probably. But Mark James was deemed to be a bad captain by some. But he wasn’t, he was fantastic.”
Second guessing what went right can mess with your head, says Love, who played on that day, beating Jean van de Velde 6&5 in the fourth match of the Sunday singles: “If one of those guys wins the first matches, then Mark James is brilliant. He did something that people refer to all the time. He said he was going to build a lead and not play the rookies until Sunday. Nobody had the nerve to do that until him and he was this close” says Love, indicating the distance between his finger and thumb.
“Second guessing what went right can mess with your head.”
The legacy of Brookline can be found in the way both of this year’s captains refer to the importance of momentum, Ryder Cup golf’s mysterious force. It influences many of the decisions made over the course of the three days of competition. How do you get it on your side, how do you keep it and what can you do if it’s coming straight at you?
“Momentum is huge. It comes and goes and you have to ride that wave,” says Clarke. “If you lose it, it’s unbelievably hard to get it back. The thing with momentum in the Ryder Cup, the time you really want it is on Saturday afternoon. If you are leading, you need to keep it, and if you’re losing you need to give yourself something to play for on Sunday”.
He references Ian Poulter’s brilliant run of four birdies in the last four holes on Saturday evening at Medinah in 2012, one of the most exciting moments in recent times.
“We have a pulse,” said Poulter as he entered the European team room that night. The following day, Europe beat Love’s Team USA to clinch a famous turnaround victory. “It gave them hope. The people who say momentum doesn’t exist have never played in a Ryder Cup,” says Clarke, smiling.
Love, the American captain that day, has thought long and hard about what lessons he should take from the experience ahead of Hazeltine.
The crowds play an integral role, he says. “When we play in Europe and if it’s really quiet, we get excited, because it means we’re kicking their butt now. It’s going our way. If you’re one-down and it’s real quiet, it gives you an extra boost. If we’re in Europe and you’re one down, you panic. ‘Oh crap.’”
The greatest lesson Love takes from his experience of captaincy is a broader point. Helped by the PGA of America, Love feels that Team USA has put in place what he refers to as “a board of directors” made up of past and future captains, with a fresh attitude of wanting to try a new approach.
“I was Assistant Captain to Corey Pavin in 2010 and then captain in 2012,” says Love. “I’ve seen what we did wrong. Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk have been very blunt about what we did wrong and right. Pete Bevacqua (chief executive of the PGA of America) coming in has given us ownership, which is why we as players and captain are excited. They have some stake in the game. We realised that we’re not doing a very good job at that. The captain was isolated. There was Davis Love and there was Tom Watson, and before that Corey Pavin. It was time that we all got on the same page, to get some continuity from one team to another. You never change football coaches every season and expect things to be the same.”
The other part of the job, says Love, is to stop talking and listen.
“I didn’t do a good job of asking Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw. They were there for me, I just didn’t ask. Lanny Wadkins said it best. Nobody has asked me for my advice in years. If that’s the case, we really screwed up. Now we all came together and it’s been more fun this time as a result.”
Redemption for Love at Hazeltine? Maybe. Certainly Clarke will be going all out to ensure that doesn’t happen. There are no guarantees.
“I’ve learned more about how to get the job done,” Love says about his journey from 2012 to 2016. “I’ve seen the movie, I just didn’t like the ending.”
Roll the cameras.