Ryder Cup 2021: Still too early to call Padraig Harrington's captaincy

Like a book, you can never judge a Ryder Cup captaincy until it’s done and dusted. We discovered that in this contest, after all, with Ben Crenshaw at Brookline in 1999 then Jose Maria Olazabal at Medinah in 2012.

European captain Padraig Harrington waves to the crowd on the first tee during the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits. Picture: Warren Little/Getty Images.

If verdicts had been delivered on both of them after just two days in their respective matches, they wouldn’t exactly have been complimentary. On both occasions, they found their sides trailing 10-6 at that stage.

Yet, look at the record books and they’ll always show them as celebrated winning captains, having watched those matches both be turned around following dramatic last-day fightbacks.

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As illustrated by the end results in Boston and Chicago, there is a very fine line between winning and losing when it comes to this contest, and that’s why day two was too early for anyone to be hanging Padraig Harrington out to dry.

“No, I'm not going to go that way, sorry,” said Sergio Garcia in reply to being asked if the European captain for the 43rd edition had been right to pick him but had perhaps got it wrong by also adding Ian Poulter and Shane Lowry to his nine automatic qualifiers.

“I'm not going to start ripping ... that's not what we do. You know, everyone is trying as hard as they can. Sometimes you don't play as well and sometimes you get outplayed. It's as simple as that. But I can tell you that we are all trying as hard as we can.”

The Spaniard was speaking after the Europeans had lost a third straight session 3-1 at the Wisconsin venue as the hole they’d found themselves in at the end of the opening day got deeper.

They’d been well and truly outplayed by the Americans to that point, the strongest-ever side on paper in the event’s history living up to that tag on grass in captain Steve Stricker’s home state.

Rory McIlroy, who lost his two matches on the opening day, and Padraig Harrington. Picture: Patrick Smith/Getty Images.

By the time it’s finished, the verdict could well be that Harrington was simply unlucky that his turn to lead Europe simply coincided with a changing of the guard in the US team.

For too long, the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson and Bubba Watson carried baggage as they stepped on to the first tee against the Americans and, good as though all were individually, that always seemed to take its toll on them in a team environment.

Dustin Johnson was another one you sensed a feeling of being dragged down whenever he competed on this stage but, boy, has he been transformed having the likes of Collin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as new team-mates for this week’s encounter.

Johnson, the oldest player in the team at 37, had delivered three wins out of three for Stricker, as had Schauffele. Two of Johnson’s successes had come alongside Morikawa, the Open champion having taken to this stage like a duck to water, as has been the case with every new challenge he’s faced in his career thus far.

Shane Lowry celebrates a birdie in the Saturday afternoon fouballs. Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images.

In short, the Americans had delivered for Stricker in those opening three sessions whereas only Garcia and Rahm had managed to do likewise for Harrington, though, at the same time, some of the European captain’s decisions had been somewhat puzzling.

Like Stricker, the three-time major winner had a plan in place in terms of pairings heading into the event, as Thomas Bjorn did at Le Golf National in Paris in 2018.

On that occasion, Europe lost the opening session 3-1 but Bjorn stuck with his pairings for the second one and was rewarded as the home side came roaring back and went on to win by seven points.

On that basis, Harrington can’t exactly be blamed for doing likewise after the same result from the first session in this match, but, after seeing Sergio Garcia and Jon Rahm perform as well as they did together in picking up Europe’s sole point, it definitely seemed an error to then leave Garcia, the event’s all-time record points scorer, out of the afternoon matches on Friday.

What Harrington hadn’t reckoned for, of course, was two of his big guns, Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter, losing the first five holes in their match in that opening session then seeing McIlroy mis-fire again alongside Shane Lowry in the fourballs.

Make no mistake, McIlroy, who knows better than anyone when he’s not fully on his game, would have had no complaints about then sitting out the Saturday morning session, even if that meant he was looking on in a match for the first time in his Ryder Cup career.

However, Harrington’s selections for that crucial segment of matches definitely raised eyebrows. Fleetwood, who won both his foursome matches in 2018, was overlooked, as was Lowry. Harrington had felt comfortable handing his compatriot a captain’s pick and rightly so, yet the 2019 Open champion had been called upon in just one of the opening three sessions.

Sent out in the top match in the penultimate phase, Lowry looked like a man on a mission as he made four birdies in the opening seven holes – his heart was almost bursting out of his chest as he celebrated another one early on the back nine – as the Europeans tried to drag themselves back to a position where a Brookline or Medinah was still a possibility.

As some feared, Harrington’s job hasn’t been helped by a couple of his automatic qualifiers having gone off the boil before this week came around and, up against this new breed of mega-talented young Americans, you won’t get away with carrying passengers.

Once the dust settles, this is one that Europe might simply need to hold their hands up and admit that the better team won and, at the same time given he’s put his heart and soul into the roul, no blame should really be placed at the captain’s door.

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