The stress of uncertainty
Padraig Harrington has 20 career victories on the European and PGA Tours. He has endured the stress of the back nine during the final round of major championships and three times came out a winner. He represented Ireland at the Olympic Games in Brazil. Pressure at the highest levels of golf is something he understands intimately.
But at only one event did stress cost Harrington his sight — at least temporarily.
Standing over the opening tee shot at his first Ryder Cup in 1999, Harrington recalls, “I could not see the golf ball, I was so nervous. I had to say to myself, ‘You are going to have to hit this.’ I had to remind myself to swing at it.” The pressure felt by players at The Ryder Cup is legendary, unquestionably related to the realities of playing not for yourself, but for team, country, and continent. But there’s also a deep vein of uncertainty running through the competition itself. Some golfers, for example, will be sidelined during best-ball and alternate-shot sessions, while others might play 36 holes over nine hours. Gallery sizes fluctuate widely, depending on which matches are receiving the most attention. Everything about the event, Harrington says, is atypical and can serve to make players uneasy.
“Normally, professional golfers only come under pressure in the last nine holes of the tournament, which generally means they’re in contention and have played well for 63 holes,” says Harrington, a vice-captain for this year’s European team. “It’s very possible in The Ryder Cup, especially in the morning round on the first day, that you’re under enormous pressure and you really don’t know what your form is like. Alternatively, you could be teeing up on Sunday in the singles and be part of a key match where the pressure is on you, and yet you’ve played terrible all week. That just doesn’t happen at a regular event.”
For captains at The Ryder Cup, the uncertainty makes it critical to lead effectively through such fluid circumstances. It starts with controlling what can be controlled. “If you allow everything to be variable, then you get paralyzed. Fix what you can so that you can deal with what’s variable,” says Ben Walter, CEO of Hiscox USA, a leader in specialist insurance for small business. “The way to do that is to have done your research and know the facts, and then have a toolkit, whether that’s a framework for problem-solving or execution.”
U.S. captain Davis Love III, reprising the role he played in 2012, has spent the last two years working on ways to integrate predictive analytics resting on a strong foundation of data. The first aim: Eliminate as many variables as possible before the competition. America’s leadership team at The Ryder Cup has a comprehensive understanding of Hazeltine National Golf Club, with its prodigious length and tightly protected greens. They have attempted to address every variable capable of being fixed, down to ensuring players have the quietest rooms available at the team hotel.
Love and his vice-captains have collected data on the strengths, weaknesses, and personalities of all 12 players on the roster. He’s also looked at his own mistakes by completing exhaustive reviews of every Ryder Cup since 2006. “In 2012, we put an immense amount of effort into Friday and Saturday because we had always been poor at winning the first two days,” he remembers. “Well, we did well the first two days. We were four points ahead against a team that was playing great. But then we didn’t really have a set, structured plan for singles matches on Sunday.” That left the door open for Europe, which won eight and a half of 12 available points, to retain the Cup in what is now known as “The Miracle at Medinah.” This year, the U.S. team is confident that it has developed answers to every “what if” scenario and anticipated the moves of European captain Darren Clarke as well.
Once the players tee off, Love will shift to monitoring real-time information from every corner of the course. That data will help Love make better decisions in the face of The Ryder Cup’s uncontrollable variables, from weather to his opposition’s performance. Should a pairing lose in morning play, fresh data can tell Love if his players played poorly or simply ran into a hotter team, impacting lineup decisions for afternoon sessions. “We’re going to have more ammo. We’re going to have stats popping up on our tablets and our phones,” Love says. “All of that is really, really ramped up.”
Statistics, however, are only as good as the people analyzing them and the skill with which information is delivered. “Good organization and effective decision-making bodies are key. If decisions have to be made quickly, the right people need to receive the right information promptly,” says Jeremy Lawson, Chief Economist at Standard Life Investments. “If an organization has a good framework already in place, new information can be rapidly incorporated into the forward-looking view, making speed an advantage rather than a disadvantage.”
That is particularly true in how information is relayed to athletes during competition. Love and his assistants have learned which men respond to fiery speeches versus quiet encouragement. On the course, they know who wants the captain in their ear and who prefers communication from a particular vice-captain. “There are some guys on our team that if [vice-captain] Tiger Woods walks up to them in the middle of the fairway, they’re going to melt. It’s not going to help them,” Love says. “But Rickie Fowler? Matt Kuchar? If Tiger walks up and stands beside them, they’re going to be 10 feet tall.”
While data provides Love and his staff with more information, intuition still plays a vital role. Love will consult with his assistants and team leaders like Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth for honest assessments of player performance. “‘What do you think? Are we going to play him or are we going to sit him?’ That’s where your experience and your gut come in,” Love says.
Finally, there is the matter of that blinding pressure of The Ryder Cup competition — the thread linking all the variables and uncertainty together over three days of golf. “You cannot take The Ryder Cup too lightly,” says European vice-captain Ian Poulter, himself a veteran of six events. “It’s all the shots you’ve ever played in your entire career, and all of the shots you’ve ever archived, that you need to pull upon to deliver better than you’ve ever delivered before.”
Love definitely recognizes the high stakes this year for the U.S. team after two decades of almost uninterrupted loss.
He has encouraged his players to confront the stress. “You have to accept it and enjoy it. You have to feed off that energy. We want it to be loud. We want it to be exciting. We want to be in this arena and come out on top. I don’t think our guys shy away from it,” Love says. “The question is, can we get momentum and keep it, or regain momentum if we lose it? That’s the pressure part of it. I think that’s all in preparation.”