AS PAUL McGinley backed Rory McIlroy’s shock move to put a new driver in his bag for the event, Tom Watson defended a decision to get wounded warriors to talk to the American team in the build-up to the Ryder Cup starting tomorrow.
At the same time as Sir Alex Ferguson was giving a rousing speech to the Europeans in the five-star Gleneagles Hotel on Tuesday night, some American soldiers were in another room chatting with Watson’s players and recounting their experiences on the battlefield.
Four years ago, Corey Pavin flew in Major Dan Pooley, a navy pilot, to Celtic Manor in a bid to fire up the visiting team, but Watson insisted that his move was more about trying to bring some perspective to a tension-filled event.
“We had some men who suffered nearly the ultimate sacrifice for their country speak to the players and the caddies as well – it was a wonderful experience,” said the American captain.
“I think the players enjoyed it, enjoyed the sobriety of the conversation that, indeed, we are just playing a game and that there are people out there doing work that very few other people in the world will do. That was the message.
“It gave perspective – that was the whole reason for it. I didn’t want to advertise the fact these gentlemen were coming to speak to the team as it was a very private thing.
“It was a very good experience and it’s great to have that sobering conversation in this cauldron of pressure.”
Despite winning two majors and returning to world No 1 in the build-up to this event, McIlroy has been practising here with a new Nike driver and hinted it would be in the bag for the opening fourballs tomorrow.
A decade ago, Phil Mickelson made a grave mistake by changing his clubs before the match at Oakland Hills in Detroit, but McIlroy is confident he can still be firing on all cylinders for McGinley, even if making a switch for such an important event would appear to be an unnecessary risk.
“Phil Mickelson nearly hit me off the first tee in 2004, so I’m very aware of what he did that week,” joked McIlroy, who was at that event after playing in the Junior Ryder Cup.
“This is a driver I’ve been practising with since June,” he added. “I wouldn’t be putting it in the bag if I didn’t feel it was better. I think everyone saw yesterday that it was the only driver I had out there in the bag and it’s looking likely that it’s going to be in it this week.”
While impressive in every department over the past two or three months, McIlroy’s driving in particular has been imperious, but McGinley said he had full confidence in the Northern Irishman’s choice of weaponry for this week.
“It doesn’t concern me at all,” insisted the European captain of the driver switch. “I trust Rory with his decisions. The first thing he said to me when he got here was, ‘I’ve been testing something new, this is where I’m at it with it, do you have any problem?’
“I said, ‘Rory, I don’t have any problem. You make your own decisions.
“You have your own team around you. You are the best player in the world and I’m not going to influence your decisions’. I’d never dream of giving a player a lesson or telling them what to do. They make their own decisions. They’re top players and that’s why they are here.”
Of the two captains, Watson has undoubtedly been given the toughest ride so far, with questions about both his age and 21-year absence from the Ryder Cup cropping up in his latest press conference in Perthshire.
“No,” he replied, tersely, to being asked if he felt such a lengthy stay-away was a disadvantage. Why not? “Because I’ve played in the Ryder Cup four times and I’ve been a captain once. That’s experience.
“The only thing different here is the media responsibilities. Everything else is the same and they [the American players] have a respect for me and I have the ultimate respect for them.
“We are on the same page. We’re all professional golfers. It doesn’t matter how old or how young you are.”
While it was slightly changed for the second day’s practice, Watson looks to be operating the same ‘pod’ system that helped bring about a victory for Paul Azinger at Valhalla in 2008 – the last time the Americans got their hands on the iconic gold trophy.
It is pointing to Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley retaining the partnership that galvanised the Americans in the opening three sessions at Medinah two years ago before Europe pulled off their record-equalling last-day fightback.
In threeballs on the first day, the Europeans were out in fourballs yesterday, with McGinley saying he couldn’t be happier with his side’s preparations so far.
“We’re pretty much where we need to be,” said the Irishman.
“The skeleton plan is pretty much on target and I’m meeting with my vice-captains later to solidify that.”