TOM Watson said it so often that Paul McGinley finally had to concede that Europe are indeed the favourites to win the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
The countdown began in earnest yesterday when the respective captains fetched-up in Perthshire and launched the event with a full year to go.
But in accepting that home advantage, and a winning record – 19 out of 19 bookmaking firms make them odds-on to win – gives his team a “marginal” edge, McGinley introduced the element of luck to the equation and said that nobody should forget that Europe have been blessed in the last two matches, when Colin Montgomerie’s team won at Celtic Manor in 2010 and when Jose Maria Olazabal’s side came back from the dead at Medinah last year.
“I can tell you right now, Lady Luck has shone on us at the right times in the last two Ryder Cups,” said McGinley. “We have been fortunate to come out on the right side. Some wonderful play and great heart from our team at the right moments, but having said that, Lady Luck has always played a factor and we have been on the right side of her.”
The line that stood out was his view that Europe had been fortunate in 2010 and 2012.Whatever about Olazabal – who will probably take the remark in his stride – you can imagine Montgomerie having his nose out of joint at that comment. It doesn’t exactly chime with the whole Captain Fantastic narrative. But McGinley was absolutely right. In Wales, Europe had every conceivable advantage. They were at home, they had arguably their best-ever team, they were playing in a monsoon, the Americans were unremarkable and had arrived with defective rain gear and yet the whole thing came down to the last match on that fateful Monday.
Again at Medinah. Europe played some miraculous golf, but they got the breaks at critical times and were sufficiently brilliant to take advantage of them on Sunday. McGinley has the authority to say that providence was on Europe’s side because he was vice-captain on both occasions. He was trying to illustrate how tight these matches are and how the tag of favouritism doesn’t really mean much because, normally, only a tiny margin separates winner from loser.
“I’m aware the margin between the teams is very slight,” he said. “It’s going to be a very closely-fought contest and that’s what makes the Ryder Cup special. In boxing terms, it’s going to be a heavyweight contest, toe-to-toe, from start to finish.”
As well as stating that he will have four vice-captains in Gleneagles – no names until next summer but Sam Torrance is very much in the frame for Scotland – McGinley constantly summoned up boxing imagery. Instead of calling out the players names on the first tee on the morning of 26 September next year, they might as well sound a bell given the nature of McGinley’s fighting talk yesterday. “Tom [Watson] said these guys may be friends and they may live in Lake Nona, or whatever the case may be, and might have friendly fourballs together, but I guarantee you when they get out there in the Ryder Cup, it’ll be a different story. I see it in boxing terms. When the bell rings for the first round I’m going to go into my corner and Tom is going to go into his and we’re going to fight like hell and there is going to be incredible passion on both sides. We’re going to slug right to the end, toe-to-toe like heavyweight boxers. One team will win and one team will lose and we’ll shake hands and a have a drink but, before the drink on Sunday night, I want it to be electric and there’s certainly no quarter going to be given on our side and I’m not expecting any from Tom either.”
As they say in Ireland, McGinley is no bargain, meaning that he is no pushover, no lightweight in the captaincy battle regardless of the gulf in status between him and his American counterpart. McGinley says Watson was a hero of his – Watson said he was both appreciative and embarrassed by that – but there is no inferiority complex at play here.
“Going against Tom is very formidable, but I’m the captain of a very strong ship,” he said. This is how McGinley answers the question about the difference in statute between himself and Watson. He will acknowledge Watson’s greatness but then talk about the greatness of his own team. So much of what we hear from the captains is sweetness and light, but there was a subtle dig in there from McGinley, a challenge laid down. If this was football, it would have amounted to McGinley carrying out a ‘let-him-know-you’re-there’ tackle.
“I’m in a very privileged and fortunate position that Tom is not in because I’ve been riding shotgun on this rollercoaster of success we’ve been having for the last decade or so. I’ve been involved five times – three as a player and two as a captain. Watching and observing and educating myself and, hopefully, I can formulate that into making some really good decisions next year. One of the great regrets of my career up to now is that I’ve never stood toe-to-toe with Tom on a golf course, never reached the heights he reached. I’m getting the opportunity to go toe-to-toe now as captain.”
McGinley is tough and his captaincy, it is clear, is going to be one where attention to detail is everything. Just as obvious is the Irishman’s ability to inspire with his oratory. You got a sense of that when he was asked about Ian Poulter at Medinah. “Ian Poulter is a special guy,” said McGinley. “As a peer of his, having played in the Ryder Cup myself and knowing what it feels like, to do what he did at Medinah. . . It wasn’t just a case of making five birdies in a row [as Poulter did to win a hugely significant point on the Saturday evening] when everything is going with you and you’re hearing the roars around the golf course and everything’s flying. Making five birdies when the momentum is with you is one thing, but what Ian did was incredible, one of the most incredible achievements I have ever seen on a golf course.
“To be able to make those five birdies when the team absolutely needed it, when all the momentum was going against the team, was a monumental achievement. There is no doubt that he pulled the team, personally, on his own, into a position where we were just within touching distance. I’ve said before what he said when he came into the locker room afterwards. ‘For the first time in the week, we have a pulse’. And it was so poignant and so right. We were on life support before that.”
McGinley said that the only thing he could remember that could compare with Poulter in full flight at Medinah was Liverpool coming back from 3-0 down at half-time to win the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan. “But to me, it’s better than that. We were away from home. It wasn’t a neutral venue like Liverpool had. It was in the heart of America when they were flying and everything was going in their favour.
“Everybody’s got the impression of Ian that he’s a William Wallace walking around banging on the heart and shouting and roaring. I can assure you that behind the scenes he’s very polished and observant. He doesn’t make rip-roaring speeches. Looking around the team room you can tell the guys who are suffering, nervous, off their game and you can tell the guys who are like ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m all right’.”
There is a year to go, but already the hype and hoopla has begun. A heavyweight contest? Somebody send for Don King to introduce the players on the first tee.