IT WAS a mini-crisis for Paul McGinley. Shortly before he was due to take his seat in the Sky Sports studio at Valhalla on the opening day of the 96th US PGA Championship, he had spilled coffee on the chest area of his white shirt.
“I’ll need to sponge it,” he tells Scott Crockett, who, in his role as the European Tour’s media communications director, has been dubbed “Captain Clipboard” by McGinley due to the fact he has shadowed the Irishman’s every move over the past 18 months with the said item always close by.
If only Tom Watson, McGinley’s US counterpart when Gleneagles stages Scotland’s first Ryder Cup in more than 40 years next month, could wash away the stains that have appeared on his landscape for that event over the past ten days. He has definitely lost Dustin Johnson, a useful man to have at your disposal in match-play, as golf’s current bad boy, the new John Daly so to speak, takes a break from the game to deal with “personal issues”.
He has watched Tiger Woods compound serious worries about his fitness and form by suffering a back spasm last weekend then make a stuttering start to the season’s final major. He has seen Matt Kuchar and Jason Dufner, both inside the automatic standings when that event got under way in Kentucky on Thursday, become injury concerns, too, after the former failed to make it to the first tee due to back trouble and the latter’s defence of the title ended after just ten holes because of a neck injury with which he has been struggling for a month.
All that has come on top of the Europeans running into real form as the biennial bout looms on the horizon. Rory McIlroy has returned to world No 1 after back-to-back wins, including the Open Championship; Martin Kaymer has notched up another brace of impressive victories, one of them a runaway success in the US Open; and Sergio Garcia has rediscovered the spark that once lit up the game.
No wonder McGinley, who was due to play himself this week but pulled out due to shoulder trouble (the only injury in the European camp but not exactly a worry as far as the Ryder Cup or his captaincy are concerned), has been wearing an almost permanent smile at Valhalla Golf Club, though, unsurprisingly perhaps, he is beginning to become concerned that perhaps too much is working in his side’s favour.
Having played on three Ryder Cup teams himself, been an assistant to both Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal in two other matches against the Americans and also either been involved in or watched the Seve Trophy and Royal Trophy, the 47-year-old is pretty long in the tooth when it comes to these events.
He is well aware, therefore, that underdogs can be dangerous, especially ones that are licking wounds. The Americans were already doing that after Medinah, where Europe equalled the record last-day fightback to hold on to the trophy; now he sees a danger of them being motivated by recent events.
“I just hope that things aren’t going too well for us,” admits McGinley, a giant coffee cup in his hand as he sits in a production cabin in the TV compound for this week’s event, which is being staged just under 20 miles to the east of Louisville. “I’m very wary of that because I know what this game is like. I can really relate to where Tom Watson is because that’s where we as Europeans have been in the Ryder Cup until fairly recently. We have always been the underdogs.
“That can be used in a very positive way. It can galvanise players and, on the back of the hurt from Medinah, the things that are going wrong for them at the moment means there’s a strong possibility of that being the case. Tom Watson is a really shrewd guy and you can be sure that he’ll be trying to turn a negative into a positive and we need to be aware of that. We have to be ready to step toe-to-toe with them and not give an inch to them just because they could be losing players through injury or whatever else.”
Born and bred in Dublin, McGinley was tipped to represent his home city in Gaelic football’s All-Ireland final only for his promising career in that sport to be brought to a shuddering halt by an appalling injury that broke his kneecap. He turned to golf instead, though only after completing an educational journey that took him to the European Commission in Brussels then San Diego, where he studied at the United States International University.
He had two boyhood heroes. Trevor Brooking, the silky West Ham and England midfielder, was one; the other was the man with whom he will lock horns over the PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles from 26-28 September.
“When I was in San Diego for three years, Tom would always play in the San Diego Open,” recalls McGinley after taking another sip of his coffee. “The guys would be telling me when he was out on the course and I’d be racing from the college campus to see him practise. We used to work on the range and the guys would allow me to stand behind Tom as he was hitting balls. I never missed a shot that he played.
“The first time I met him was in the 2001 US PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club. I’ve arrived and I’m excited about playing. I wake up at 5am in the morning due to jet-lag and get to the course when it’s still dark. I’ve gone and hit a few balls on the range and my caddie at the time was JP [Fitzgerald], who is now with Rory. I’m walking to the range along a hedge and get round the corner of it to see Tom Watson standing on the tee.
“I’ve never spoken a word to him before and it was a bit like the words in The Clash song, ‘should I stay or should I go’. Should I speak or should I not? I decided to go for it. Tom was standing with his caddie at the time, Bruce Edwards, who has since passed away and I walked over, put out my hand and said, ‘Tom, I’m Paul McGinley from Ireland, would you mind if I joined you?’ He looked at me with those steely eyes. It felt like five minutes but it was only probably two seconds and I thought ‘oh my god I shouldn’t have asked him’. Then he stuck out his hand and said, ‘Irishmen are always welcome in my company’.
“I also remember the day after Turnberry (when Watson came agonisingly close to winning his sixth Open Championship in 2009), him coming to Sunningdale (McGinley’s home club) to play in the Seniors Open. I got a call to say he was there and I got in my car pronto and walked around 18 holes with him. Little did we know that two years later we’d be announced as opposing Ryder Cup captains. Our relationship has evolved over the years and it’s great when you get to know your boyhood heroes. It’s the same with Trevor Brooking and he’s coming as a guest to Gleneagles.”
If it was decided on the respective playing careers of the opposing captains, the Perthshire event would probably be a mis-match. Of much importance than McGinley’s four European Tour wins, however, is his Ryder Cup experience and the meticulous way he went about his role as a two-times Seve Trophy captain in being groomed to become the first Irishman to lead either Great Britain & Ireland or Europe in the inter-continental contest. Listen to Watson wax lyrical about his opposite number, for instance, and you’ll see the impression he has made on one of the game’s legendary figures.
“To be honest, I’d rather Tom was underestimating me rather than overestimating me. Maybe I’ve done too good a job in that respect,” says McGinley, an unassuming father of three and devoted family man. “I think people recognise me a bit more,” he admits of his profile having been raised through holding a key role in the Ryder Cup. “I try to keep off the radar, to be honest. It’s naturally going to build but it’s not something that I’ve consciously gone out to do.”
In contrast, he has said from the outset that he will make sure this Ryder Cup has a strong Scottish flavour to it. Sam Torrance has already been appointed as one of the vice-captains along with Des Smyth – the others will be revealed soon after the three wild cards are announced on 2 September – and McGinley is keen to tap into the frenzy that was built up during a hugely successful Commonwealth Games, both in terms of participation and organisation.
“I’m very aware of how big a role the crowd can play at Gleneagles,” he says. “I love the patriotism of the Ryder Cup, Even the American national anthem. I really admire the passion they show for their country. They all stand with their hand on their chest and all sing the national anthem. I want us as Europeans but particularly the Scots to show exactly the same kind of passion.
“You are the home of golf, it’s where the game originated and you are hosting what is arguably now the biggest golf event in the world, one that might not be back in Scotland in our lifetime. This is a real one-off and it is important to enjoy it more than anything else and get involved in it. I want this to be the noisiest Ryder Cup ever. There is obviously a line we can’t cross, so we don’t want any unruly behaviour, but there is nothing wrong with cheering as loud as you can.
“It’s great that an official fan range – a series of blue-and-gold products including polo shirts, sweaters etc – has just been launched as you can just imagine seeing a sea of blue around the course, but, at the same time, there will a strong Scottish element to the team clothing during the week. As captain, I think I have to honour the fact we are in Scotland and it’s the home of golf. In Wales (in 2010), we started in red and in Ireland (in 2006) we started in green.”
In the latter, McGinley savoured the added thrill of playing in the event on home soil along with two other Irishmen, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke. Eight years on, Stephen Gallacher is desperately trying to do likewise. With the qualifying race for nine automatic spots finishing at the end of the month, the 39-year-old is battling furiously against some stiff competition – Ian Poulter, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, to name but three – to either secure one of those berths or earn a captain’s pick.
“I’ve had lots of communication with Stephen during the year,” says McGinley. “He’s been a good friend for a long time and we always get on great together. We’ve got lots in common and always have lots to talk about. We’ve communicated even more as he’s gotten close to the team. The unfortunate thing from Stevie’s point of view is that this is the hardest Ryder Cup team in history of Europe to make and it happens to be in his home country. The amount of points necessary to make the team way outstrip any before and that makes the task even harder for him.
“Having said that, the good news is that he’s right there – just a fraction away from the automatic qualifying spots. He’s going to play in every tournament he can between now and the end of the qualifying and he’s very motivated. I really do wish him the best of luck, but he’s aware that when it comes to the picks there’s a lot of guys with strong pedigree there and even if it goes to the picks these could be the toughest picks ever. The odds are against him, I’d say, but he’s done incredibly well and he is also playing great. I’ve said it many times that I won’t be afraid to pick a rookie and, if Stevie comes through strongly in the next four weeks, then he will be on the team.”
In the past six Ryder Cups, only Nick Faldo has failed to lead Europe to victory, his failed captaincy, ironically enough, having come at this week’s venue for the final major of the season. Does McGinley have to emulate the five others – Torrance, Bernhard Langer, Montgomerie and Olazabal – to consider his captaincy as being successful?
“It will be determined to a large degree by whether you win or lose, but I don’t want to live or die by the result,” he declares. “I want to do the job as best as I can and I feel that I have put a huge amount of effort into it. I like to look at it deeper than that [the outcome] and if I can leave the players with a sense of bonding towards each other, having spent the week together in an emotional and passionate environment – the same bonding I felt with guys I played in Ryder Cups with – then for me that will be a very successful Ryder Cup, irrespective of the result.
“It’s going to be interesting as it looks as though we are going to go in as favourites and that’s not a position that we are used to as Europeans. It’s a situation that I’m going to have to adapt to and I am very aware of the galvanising effect of being underdogs and I am sure that Tom Watson will be using their bad luck to a certain extent.”
With that warning sounded again, the affable McGinley headed off to make a coffee stain disappear.