John Huggan: Ian Woosnam’s roller-coater Ryder Cup

WHEN it comes to the Ryder Cup, Ian Woosnam has seen – to paraphrase that well-known slicer, Chuck Dickens – both the best of times and just about the worst.

Ian Woosnam, pictured at the Senior Scottish Open two weeks ago, lost eight Ryder Cup singles matches but enjoyed a crushing win as non-playing captain at the K Club, above. Main photograph: Phil Inglis/Getty

Non-playing captain in 2006 at the K Club when the European side recorded a record-equalling nine-point victory (it would have been ten had a certain Paul McGinley not conceded JJ Henry a 25-foot putt on the last green when the American was distracted by the gallery), the wee Welshman played in the biennial battle with the United States on eight occasions and not once did he win his singles match.

Such a streak of indifference is all the more remarkable when you realise what the 56-year-old from Oswestry brought to the Ryder Cup table. Over the course of his distinguished career, Woosnam won three World Match Play Championships at Wentworth and was for 50 weeks of his life ranked the best golfer on the planet.

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“Ironically, after two days of playing for the team, in Ryder Cup singles you have to play as an individual,” says the 1991 Masters winner. “You have to think about yourself. If you start thinking about everyone else and watch the board, you are dead. I was guilty of that on more than one occasion. I was a board watcher. There is really no other explanation for the fact that I never won a match on my own. My record in match play elsewhere was as good as almost anyone’s. I was always more comfortable knowing I could only let myself down.

“I look back on it now and know that, for the first two days, there are four Ryder Cup ‘teams’ on the course at any one time. But on the last day there are 12 teams out there. That’s how you have to think about it. Everyone has to concentrate on his own match.”

Clearly, that’s good advice. But you’d expect nothing less from such an experienced individual, one this year’s captain – the aforementioned McGinley – would do well to take heed of as he weighs his wildcard selections in the run-up to next month’s matches at Gleneagles.

“What Paul has to look at as much as who to pick are the pairings he would like to make in foursomes and four-balls,” continues Woosnam, who played 23 Ryder Cup foursomes and four-balls with nine different partners, losing only six times. “But form is everything at this stage. It would be a brave move to pick someone who hasn’t been playing so good. For me, that means picking guys who are good putters. You want players who can make putts under pressure. That’s what the Ryder Cup is all about.

“My selections [Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood] turned out to be more than a little controversial [Thomas Bjorn wasn’t picked and screamed bloody murder to the press]. Leaving Thomas out was the toughest decision I had to make. Any captain would have wanted him in the side. He’s the sort of player who can make dozens of birdies. But I had to make a choice. Thomas and I speak now, but that’s about it. His reaction was like a dagger being stabbed in my back. And it put me under pressure. I wasn’t happy about that.

“In fact, when I took some of the lads to the K Club before the matches I sat everyone down and asked them if they still wanted me to be captain. ‘You’ve all read the newspapers,’ I said. ‘Do you think I’m up to the job? Am I the right captain?’ Thankfully, they all backed me and off we went.”

Still, when it came to his pairings for the matches, Woosnam clearly did something right. Even allowing for the fact that the American side was the worst in living memory (the likes of Brett Wetterich, Henry and Vaughan Taylor made the squad), the tactics employed by Europe’s skipper had to have played at least a part in the eventual 18∫ – 9∫ pasting handed out to the hapless visitors.

“I think Paul will lean on his assistants before making his decisions,” says Woosnam. “I wanted to hear from the players too, though. I asked them all who they would like to play with. That feedback was vital. I never really had any of them saying they didn’t want to play with someone else. Which is not to say I didn’t have my own views on what wouldn’t necessarily work.

“Some guys are happy enough to play with anyone. Every successful Ryder Cup side has won as a team. That needs to be explained early in the week in case anyone doesn’t quite get that concept. Individualism – which I think the Americans have sometimes had too much of – is a bad thing in any Ryder Cup.

“And, yes, over the years we’ve had a few of our own players who needed some help in that area. There was one in Sam Torrance’s team in 2002. But I was able to play anyone with anyone really. Which is a huge boost to any captain.”

Then there is the golf course. As something of an architecture and course set-up geek, McGinley will already have his plan in place as far as that is concerned. This is a home game and he will be keen to grasp any and all advantage from that fact. Woosnam certainly was.

“Some of the Americans were really long hitters so I had trees put in at their driving distances and narrowed the fairways. I had a couple of bunkers put in places I felt would help us and hinder them. And I had the rough cut away from the greens so we didn’t have to play American-style lob shots. I got all the guys involved in that stuff.”

Planning isn’t everything though. In every Ryder Cup, the unexpected lurks in every match.

“Paul will have all sorts of ideas about what he is going to do,” continues Woosnam. “But he will know too that he has to be flexible enough to react to events at they unfold. For example, I had Henrik Stenson – who hits the ball miles and typically makes a few birdies – pencilled in for the four-balls. But he didn’t play well in practice. So that meant a re-think. Also, I started out with McGinley and Padraig Harrington together. Good pals and fellow Irishmen, on paper they were an obvious partnership. But they just didn’t click that week. So again I had to readjust.

“Having said that, there are a few things I stuck to. In the four-balls I mostly went with my longest hitters because the course was so soft. And, in the foursomes, I brought in the more accurate players. In that format, if you have two long hitters together neither one is going to be much bothered by hitting from the rough. They are used to that. Equally, putting shorter hitters together makes sense because they will be able to play the game they are used to playing. Long and short together can often be a bad mix. But the bottom line was that my team was so good and so strong I could have played anyone with anyone.”

McGinley might be well advised to keep an eye on his assistants too. Sometimes you never know what they might get up to.

“My old pal Sandy Lyle was a great help to me,” says Woosnam with a smile. “Although sometimes he didn’t seem too sure about what was going on. On the first morning I had to ask him not to tell our lads what clubs had been used in the previous games. The captain is the only one allowed to do that.

“I still laugh at him saying, ‘oops’ when I told him.”