The scrutiny has already started and will continue for the next couple of years. This is how it is for the precious few golfers who have the chance to serve as a Ryder Cup captain. Their jobs begin when they are appointed, usually around eighteen months ahead of the next biennial match between Europe and United States. It is a contest that captures the imagination and transcends the sport and the captaincy is a big deal. Initially much of the role involves work away from the public eye. Preparations to make sure everything is tickety-boo for the players and that they look just so in team uniforms on and off the course. Then comes the appointments of vice-captains, which ramps up the sense of anticipation a notch or two, before the job genuinely comes to the fore with the announcement of the skippers’ wildcard picks. This is when the scrutiny kicks in and it remains a relentless presence well beyond the closing press conferences once the match is done and dusted.
For this month’s match at Le Golf National near Paris, the captains have been responsible for choosing a third of both twelve-man teams. How Europe’s Thomas Bjorn and America’s Jim Furyk dispensed the four wildcards each had at their disposal has already been widely debated. And this is just the start.
It is a delight for us pundits, providing endless talking points for The Cut, our BBC golf podcast, where we get stuck into the nuances of the selections, pairings and orders of play. Was Bjorn correct to pick an out of form Sergio Garcia? We will only find out when the contest begins on September 28, but that has not stopped animated debate on the topic. It has set the agenda on the pod, it has been the first topic of conversation with my mates on the golf course (did I tell you I had my first hole in one recently?) even my non golfing friends at the pub quiz are interested. There has been common consent that Furyk’s decision to select Tiger Woods was a no brainer and despite a lack of recent form Phil Mickelson could not be ignored. Few, if any, are arguing with the selections of the red hot rookies Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau. Likewise for Bjorn, choosing the inspiration and experience of Ian Poulter and Paul Casey seems to make perfect sense as does the selection of Henrik Stenson to supplement a team already containing five debutants. But if any of these picks fail to fire the captains will be under pressure. It is not them hitting the drives, chips or the putts, but the responsibility for performance rests with these team leaders. Some might argue this to be unfair. How can it be a captain’s fault if a player loses his touch around the greens?
Well, here is the deal. If a team wins the captain is a champ, when they lose he is the chump. That is the binary fact of sporting life, even if it hardly seems just in a sport such as golf where it is the players alone who hit the shots. But, I firmly believe the captains massively influence the outcome. Dispassionate analysis of a skippers’ performance usually helps explain the outcome of a Ryder Cup.
Think of 2014 at Gleneagles where Paul McGinley’s astute leadership of Europe completely outshone an out of touch Tom Watson. McGinley had thought of partnerships long before that glorious week in Scotland, surreptitiously orchestrating pairings in European Tour events to see how players such as Graeme McDowell and the enigmatic Victor Dubuission got along. The result was a foursomes partnership that yielded a maximum return. Watson, meanwhile, alienated Mickelson – a player the US team held in the highest regard – and overplayed the combination of Rickie Fowler and an exhausted Jimmy Walker. These are the details that can make the difference. Colin Montgomerie insists that a stirring, well executed speech at the opening ceremony is worth a point to the team whose captain shines most at the curtain raiser. Sir Nick Faldo, such a brilliant individual player, could not grasp the level of detail required to lead a team. His speech in 2008 was shambolic and self-indulgent, he spelt Soren Hansen’s name incorrectly and accidentally revealed potential pairings during a practice round. That error was explained away in hamfisted style, “it’s the sandwich list for lunch” the captain told the disbelieving media. Faldo also had too few vice captains – Jose Maria Olazabal was the only one officially at his side. The result – a European team that looked very strong on paper under-performed and was thrashed by a US line up brilliantly led by Paul Azinger.
Four years earlier Bernhard Langer ran rings around Hal Sutton and his cowboy hat. The US captain was the only guy in golf’s wild west who thought pairing Woods and Mickelson together was a good idea. America slumped to a record defeat. Go further back and think of the way Tony Jacklin inspired Seve Ballesteros, Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Langer and Sandy Lyle to stir lesser European playing partners to hit the heights and inflict painful defeats on our friends from the other side of the pond. The United States team is heading to France hellbent on keeping the trophy, but who will have the captaincy edge this time around? Will it be Bjorn’s analytical passion or the cerebral Furyk who holds sway? As characters they look evenly matched for a contest in which both teams boast world class line ups. It really is going to be fascinating to commentate on during our wall to wall coverage on BBC Radio 5Live. And I genuinely would not like to call it at this stage. The US holders might have the edge on current form but Europe have not lost at home for a quarter of a century.
Whatever the outcome, every facet will be scrutinised to the nth degree and with the teams so evenly matched, the difference may well come down to the captains. That’s why the talking has already started and their every moved closely examined. It will be a long time before it subsides.