John Huggan: Captains’ choices will be crucial in battle for Ryder Cup

THERE are those who will tell you that the position of Ryder Cup captain – whether American or European – is the most overrated job in all of sports.

It’s an easy case to make. Non-playing employment is by definition hardly the most strenuous and, at the end of the three days, it is the relative performances of the two teams that inevitably determines the success or otherwise of even the most gifted by-stander’s stewardship.

Sometimes, the quality of an individual’s captaincy is concealed rather than revealed by the eventual result of the biennial contest. Take 1997 at Valderrama. The late, great Seve Ballesteros was, by the vast majority of first-hand accounts, somewhere between hapless and hopeless when it came to communication and team bonding. One player actually had the Spaniard pinned against a locker, so angry was he at learning of his omission from the opening fourballs on television and not from the captain himself. Another, irritated beyond reason by Ballesteros’s endless eccentricities, was halfway out the door and on his way home before eventually being persuaded to hang around for the last day singles. And yet Europe won, against an American side led in exemplary fashion by the highly organised and player-friendly Tom Kite.

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Still, if there is an area of the Ryder Cup where the non-playing skipper can actually make a difference it is in the planning of pairings. A large variety of factors have to be considered. Style of play is obviously important, not least in the distances each player hits the ball. And even then there is no consensus. One school of thought has it preferable to pair a long-hitter with a short-hitter in foursomes. But others contend that ‘like with like’ is best, each player more comfortable hitting from familiar spots and distances.

Equipment comes into the equation, too. Such is the sophistication of the 1.68-inch sphere these days, it helps if players paired in foursomes play the same type and make of ball. Especially when it comes to less than full shots around the greens and putting, using an unfamiliar ball can seriously impair a player’s ability to judge and control distance.

Then there is the obvious difference between foursomes and fourball play. What plusses go into the formation of a solid foursomes partnership may not necessarily transfer successfully into the other discipline – and vice versa.

So much thought is required, even before the state of the matches goes a long way towards dictating the order of play in the final-day singles. Here are just some of the deliberations and decisions that will surely occupy the minds of Davis Love and Jose Maria Olazabal between now and two weeks from Friday, when the matches kick off at Medinah, just outside Chicago.

JOSE MARIA OLAZABAL

Amid all the calculations and opinions as to which players are best suited to partner each other, one criterion stands out: Are they friends or at least friendly? Putting two unwilling participants together is a recipe for disaster – see Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in 2004, or Nick Faldo and David Gilford in 1991 – so it follows that like-minded individuals are more likely to gel successfully.

On that front, Olazabal has a lot going for him. In terms of pairing pal with pal, he has a few obvious partnerships available. It doesn’t take a golfing genius to work out that Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell – close mates and fellow Ulstermen – will be working together on day one at Medinah. Likewise, the all-English duo of Justin Rose and Ian Poulter and the Anglo-Spanish pair of Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia. Throw in world No.4 Lee Westwood with anyone else on the squad and that’s a pretty meaty looking opening quartet. All achieved with minimum thought, too.

As for the other members of the European side, one would expect Olazabal to adopt something of a “mix and match” approach, depending to a large extent on who is and who is not playing well upon arrival in the States. The lone Scot in the team, Paul Lawrie, clearly has the sort of balanced all-round game and overall experience – he’s the oldest member – to play with almost anyone, so it would be something of a surprise if the former Open champion did not tee-up at least once a day.

Elsewhere, the lone European rookie, Nicolas Colsaerts, is the longest player on either side and so would seem well suited to the fourballs. Paired with a “steady Eddie” like Francesco Molinari or Peter Hanson he could, in theory, be given free rein to blast away from the tee with relative impunity on a course that has apparently been set up to benefit the big hitters. “Go make your five or six birdies and leave the rest to your partner,” could well be the message from Olazabal to the Belgian.

DAVIS LOVE

Now that the formidable Mrs Robin Love has chosen the wives she wants to hang out with in Chicago, it’s time for Mr Love to do his bit. Just kidding. Like Olazabal, the former USPGA champion would seem to have one or two obvious partnerships around which to build his order in both fourballs and foursomes.

It’s almost a given that regular practice day partners/opponents Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley will tee up alongside each other, at least in the fourballs. It remains to be seen if “Lefty’s” increasingly unreliable game is viewed as consistent enough for the more demanding discipline Americans like to call “alternate shot”.

Another Love “stick-on” is the tried-and-trusted partnership of Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker. It isn’t easy to play alongside such an intimidating presence as Woods but the stoic and steady Stricker has largely succeeded where many others have failed.

Elsewhere, Love seems to be stuck with a group of players – the exceptions being Matt Kuchar and Jason Dufner – who will feel more comfortable in one of the two formats, but not both. The eccentricity of Bubba Watson, for example, could prove to be a heavy load for any foursomes partner. And the same might be said of the mighty hitter that is Dustin Johnson. Can be great, but is just as likely to be awful, at least when judged on his play in the last Ryder and Presidents Cups.

Conversely, the superior putting but relatively short hitting of Webb Simpson, Brandt Snedeker and Zach Johnson would make them likely participants in “turn about” play.

Which leaves the vastly experienced Jim Furyk. While there is much to admire in the character of the steely Pennsylvanian, the feeling here is this might just be a Ryder Cup too far for a 43-year-old, whose best putting days would appear to be behind him. Back in 1995, the then US skipper Lanny Wadkins was left to rue his wildcard selection of close friend and near contemporary, Curtis Strange.

Love’s opting for Furyk’s fading acumen over the hot recent play of, say, Nick Watney, has the same sort of “do you really think so?” feel about it.