WHEN it comes to the Ryder Cup, Paul Lawrie has viewed the biennial contest between the United States and those Europeans who choose to be members of the European Tour from a variety of angles. Twice the former Open champion has been a player, in 1999 and again in 2012. In 2010 he was a member of the Sky Sports commentary team at Celtic Manor. Last year at Gleneagles – for the first time in his life – he attended the matches as a common-or-garden spectator.
“At a Ryder Cup, players only see what they are doing and where they go – range, locker room, players lounge, inside a courtesy car,” he says. “So when I got there I couldn’t believe the size of it all. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to see. I certainly couldn’t believe I had to queue 20 minutes to use a toilet, or 40 minutes to buy bacon rolls.”
Just about the only Ryder roles Lawrie has yet to fill are those of non-playing captain or assistant-captain. Paul McGinley chose not to co-opt the 46-year-old Aberdonian on to his backroom team last September, which might just have been the only mistake the Irishman made throughout his otherwise admirable tenure as European skipper. Still, should Lawrie not make the side as a player at Hazeltine next year – very likely given that he is currently ranked 296th in the world – he would be a strong back-up to the latest incumbent, Darren Clarke.
“Darren is a great appointment,” says Lawrie, who played alongside the Ulsterman in Europe’s colours at The Country Club in ’99. “I can’t imagine anyone on the committee had many doubts about his ability to do a great job. If I had been part of the selection process I would certainly have picked him.
“Darren is the sort if guy who, if he has a tenner, he will spend £15. He always dresses really well. He always has a great car. He loves the good things in life. That’s how he is. But when you sit down and chat with him you see a different, more serious side to him. He is unbelievably professional. He works hard. You see him smoking the cigars and hear him talking about the next pint of Guinness, but in actual fact he is very serious about his golf. He’s a great example to young pros on tour.”
The same could be said of Lawrie, of course. His considerable contribution to the game in Scotland through his junior foundation has been well documented and continues to be a credit to both him and his wife, Marian (the person who really does all the work behind the scenes).
When it comes to Ryder Cups, Paul is the Lawrie to talk to though. And, not surprisingly, he has gathered plenty of insights over the course of his more than two decades on the European Tour. The continuing debate over the role and importance of the captain is but one aspect of the matches to which he has given some thought.
“It’s simple really,” says Lawrie. “How good a captain is depends a great deal on how good his team is relative to the opposition. If you have a great team like Ian Woosnam did in 2006 – and Ian I know did a great job – then my mother could lead the side and they would still win.
“But if you have a not-so great team it is difficult to get the pairings right and the chemistry right. You have to say the right things and if you don’t it can all go horribly wrong. Look at Nick Faldo in 2008. With some of the things he said and did, he singlehandedly caused a lot of what went wrong that week. On that evidence alone it is clear that a captain can lose a Ryder Cup far more than he can win it.
“The practice rounds are very important, as is the man management side of the job. A good captain always knows when to put his arm around a player. There are always two or three rookies who are going to be a bit wide-eyed at what is going on. So they need to be watched. But if you ask me how important the captain really is at the end of the day, my answer has to be, ‘not that much’. How the players perform is what really counts.”
Having said that, Lawrie is quick to pay tribute to Jose Maria Olazabal, his captain at Medinah in 2012. An emotional soul, the proud Basque proved to be an inspirational figure.
“On the Wednesday evening, we gathered before the gala dinner,” recalls Lawrie. “We were all there, suited and booted, just the players and Ollie in the room. He made a speech about what the Ryder Cup means to him and all the great times he had with Seve. It was amazing stuff. Then he went round and told a story about every player that contained an anecdote about him playing with each of us. We were all greetin’, every single one of us. And we all walked out of that room feeling like a million dollars.”
Later in the week, Olazabal again found the right words.
“On the Saturday night – when we were 10-6 behind – the team was sitting around a table with Ollie at the head,” continues Lawrie. “The assistants were off to the side. He handed out the singles order to everyone. Then he went round the room and asked everyone if they were going to win. Of course, we all said, ‘yes.’ ‘OK then,’ he replied. ‘Go to bed.’ And that was it, the shortest meeting of the week. I walked out knowing I would do anything to make it happen for him. Right after that, someone mentioned we would have to give it 110 per cent the next day. Then another guy said how sad it would be if Ollie was to be a losing captain. He had been greetin’ in every meeting, telling us stories about what the Ryder Cup means to him. So we all knew how he was feeling.”
As for the Americans’ recent appointment of Davis Love – the losing captain at Medinah in 2012 – like most people, Lawrie is a little surprised by the former USPGA champion’s return.
“I assumed they would give it to Fred Couples,” he says, echoing the general view. “He has won the last three Presidents Cups. But I can see where they are going with Davis. And I hear the so-called ‘Task Force’ all wanted him.
“If you are a winning captain, no one cares how you did the job. But if you are a losing captain like Davis has been, you get picked apart. Yet I didn’t see him doing much wrong. The things that had to happen on the last day for us to win were extraordinary. But they did. Justin Rose making that huge putt on the 17th green, for example. Sergio winning the last two holes with pars. It was amazing stuff. But was any of it Davis’s fault? I can’t imagine that it was.”
Still, as has been obvious for a while now, the Americans do seem to be getting something wrong. Eight defeats in the last ten Ryder Cups speaks to something deep and dark in their preparation and play. Theories abound as to why this should be, but an anecdote from the immediate aftermath of Lawrie’s 5&3 singles victory over Brandt Snedeker in 2012 might provide a little clue.
“[NBC commentator and former US Open and Open champion] Johnny Miller called it a ‘major shock’ when I beat Brandt,” says Lawrie with a smile. “Miller wasn’t alone though. After we shook hands on the 15th green, Snedeker’s caddie said to Davie [Kenny, Lawrie’s caddie], ‘we had no idea your guy was that good’. You’ve got to laugh. I was ranked 27th in the world at the time and they had never heard of me?
“In the end, though, I’m not sure why we keep winning. We should have lost at Medinah. And we could have lost at Celtic Manor. It’s a combination of things. Europe at the very top has players who are a wee bit better than the leading Americans. And we always have two or three guys do well whom maybe you don’t expect. The Americans haven’t had as much of that recently. Throw the odd captaincy error into the mix – see Tom Watson last year – and we keep winning.”
Looking forward, Lawrie recognises the extent of the task ahead of him is he wants to be a member of a third Ryder Cup side as a player – “If I’m not in the top 50 by this time next year I can forget it.” But, no matter, he feels he has a role to play.
“Picking assistants is right now way down Darren’s list of priorities,” he acknowledges. “But I’d like to think I’d be in with a shout when the time comes.”
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