Tom English: Ryder Cup captaincy not rocket science

It was the players what won it: Ian Poulter may play the fool but he single-handedly inspired Europe to Ryder Cup glory, his on-course heroics far outweighing any contribution from captain Jose Maria Olazabal ' or from Seve Ballesteros. Photograph: Getty Images
It was the players what won it: Ian Poulter may play the fool but he single-handedly inspired Europe to Ryder Cup glory, his on-course heroics far outweighing any contribution from captain Jose Maria Olazabal ' or from Seve Ballesteros. Photograph: Getty Images
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DURING his first press conference as captain of the American Ryder Cup team for 2014, Tom Watson nicely captured the craziness of the matches just gone, the moments when a sure-fire victory started to slip away from the home team.

“It was one of the greatest Ryder Cup matches in history I think, this last one at Medinah. Not a question,” said Watson. “I watched it, and it was like Ian Poulter, who is right up in that window, when he made those five birdies in a row on Saturday, and just gave them a little breath, just a little bit of hope. It was like there was a cloud on the horizon that was the harbinger for the next day. And, when that next day happened, that cloud grew to a storm. And, when those first five matches all went blue midway through the matches, that storm was howling. That pressure was great. The momentum had changed.”

Then Watson got a little spiritual. He started talking about the memory of Seve Ballesteros, as everybody tends to do when the talk is of the Ryder Cup. In Watson’s mind, there was no question but that Seve had a major influence on what happened at Medinah that Sunday. “I give a great deal of credit to that guy right there, Seve Ballesteros,” he said.

“Jose Maria Olazabal, he was a great friend of Seve. He shed a lot of tears concerning Seve during the playing of the matches. That man right there [Ballesteros] I think had a great deal to do with their victory and their comeback victory on Sunday. It’s not a question in any mind that that was one of the major reasons they won.”

To be fair, this evoking of Seve’s memory and applying it to anything good that happens to the European team is widespread in the game.

If a European pulls off a miraculous escape from deadsville, somebody will say that Seve had something to do with it. If one in blue holes from a bunker or chokes down on a four-iron and whips it around a tree to within an inch of the hole there is a better than even chance that Seve will get a mention.

That is what golf is like. It buys into such mysticism. It’s schmaltzy but it’s charming, too. The game doesn’t give up its heroes very easily and there’s a lot to be said for that.

But, of course, it can get silly. Watson, and so many others, reckoned that Seve was like some supernatural force helping to mastermind the European comeback from his place in the pantheon of golfing Gods. It’s a heart-warming notion and one that the game understandably clung on to so soon after the great man’s passing but the truth has probably more to do with what Watson said first in the quotes above rather than what he said about Seve.

It was Poulter who dragged his team-mates by the collar and yanked them back into contention. It was Poulter and his indomitable will who made them believe that a comeback was possible. No celestial angel stood on his shoulder and helped him hit those shots and hole those putts. Sure, his passion and brilliance was Seve-like. And, yes, Poulter spoke about his love of Seve a lot that week but, when he got out on the course and had to execute great shot after great shot, he was all on his own.

Many, many players have been inspired by Seve over the years but that kind of emotion only gets you so far. It doesn’t make you do what Poulter did at Medinah. That was all his own work, nobody else’s.

And so we return to Watson and his appointment as captain at Gleneagles in 2014.

It’s a smart move by the USGA, no doubt about it. A man of enormous stature will lead his team to a country which holds him in as high a regard as the Americans do. Watson as captain in Scotland. Given the greatness he achieved in Scotland and the class he exhibited when achieving that greatness, it’s just nice, isn’t it? It’s fitting.

But will he make his team play any better?

Clearly there is a hope – and, seemingly, in some quarters the hope is an assumption – that the Americans will be inspired by Watson’s presence, that his experience and his understanding of the Scottish landscape will instinctively help them hit better shots and hole more putts and keep their nerve when their brains are getting fried from all the pressure they’re under. That he will have some cosmic ability to get into their heads and make them better match players.

If you buy that, then you must believe in the power of the captaincy at the Ryder Cup. You must reckon that the captain’s role is of huge significance and goes beyond creating the right mood music and doing nothing daft with the pairings.

The captaincy role is sometimes made out to be rocket science, mostly by former captains who have managed to win the thing. Paul Azinger’s pod system – yawn – was dressed-up as part-golf, part-military masterclass. He even wrote a book about it, Cracking the Code.

Puh-lease. Ian Woosnam also cracked the code at the K Club in 2006 and yet, in the aftermath, he couldn’t down a pint of stout without half of it shooting out of his nose.

Azinger was no more Eisenhower than Woosnam was Napoleon. The secret to the Ryder Cup is this: Don’t be Nick Faldo. That’s all you’ve got to remember. Be organised, keep everybody happy, don’t stuff up your pairings and pray like hell that everybody turns up in good form.

That, pretty much, is it, despite what the likes of Azinger or his European equivalent, Colin Montgomerie, might tell you. When all is said and done, it is all down to the players.

Monty and Olazabal have both been hailed as Captain Fantastic, but they weren’t. Monty had a phenomenal team at Celtic Manor in 2010, arguably the best ever assembled by Europe. He had home advantage against a supposedly average American side who arrived into the monsoons in the valleys of Wales in waterproofs that didn’t work.

Despite having every advantage imaginable, Monty’s team scraped home, not because of magnificent captaincy but because Graeme McDowell held his nerve in the last match on the golf course and his opponent, Hunter Mahan, did not

Of course, it was Monty who put McDowell in the last match but you don’t need to be a tactical genius to figure out that you need a heavy hitter in the anchor role on what was always going to be a tight finish. Mr Magoo could have made that call.

Because McDowell was nerveless, Monty is ordained as a great leader. Because Poulter was gob-smacking, Olazabal is hailed as a fine captain who was inspired by Seve. It’s all a very big stretch. Watson will be a wonderful ambassador and great company in Gleneagles but, if his team are not in good form when they get to Perthshire, the chances are they will lose no matter how impressive his oratory is.

The debate continues as to who Watson’s European counterpart is going to be. Darren Clarke? Paul McGinley? Here’s the thing, though. Timmy Mallett could do it so long as Poulter is Poulter and the rest are as good as they can be. It’s all about the players.

The rest is just talk.