Runners & Ryders: The race to become the man who captains Europe at Gleneagles next year is already well under way

THE official talking hasn’t even started in anything like earnest, yet already this whole thing has taken on something akin to epic proportions.

THE official talking hasn’t even started in anything like earnest, yet already this whole thing has taken on something akin to epic proportions.

Will former Open champion Darren Clarke lead the European Ryder Cup side into battle next year at Gleneagles? Or will it be Paul McGinley? Or, heaven help us all, Colin Montgomerie? Or will someone else, as yet unquoted, make a late run to claim the captaincy and the up to £1 million it is estimated can be earned from the non-playing position? Sandy Lyle, for example, would make a fine skipper (were it not for the fact that he is so nice and honest).

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The possibilities are multiple and varied. So when 12 of the 15-strong European Tour Tournament Committee of Thomas Bjorn (chairman), Felipe Aguilar, Paul Casey, Clarke, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, Joakim Haeggman, David Howell, Raphael Jacquelin, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Robert Karlsson, Peter Lawrie, McGinley, Francesco Molinari, Montgomerie and Henrik Stenson (Haeggman, Jimenez and Karlsson will be absent) sit down in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday evening to discuss this burning issue, expect there to be much heated debate.

Already there has been plenty of speculation. Seemingly everyone with even the most tenuous connection to the biennial battle with the Americans has been asked for an opinion on who is the individual best qualified to spearhead the European cause.

Not that much or any of what is already in the public domain has added much of anything to what even casual observers could have deduced all by themselves. Just about the only thing that can be gleaned from the many and various utterances is the fact that each of the main protagonists has chums out there in “golfy land”. Thus, the stated preferences have tended to be eminently predictable.

Three-times major champion Padraig Harrington has been especially vociferous in his support of McGinley, a fellow Dubliner and a man he went to school with. World No.7 Lee Westwood was just as obvious when he came out in strong favour of his close pal and fellow International Sports Management client, Clarke. Likewise, Monty has as ever been unstinting in his praise of himself, while being oh-so careful not to openly declare that he is, in fact, desperate to skipper Europe for a second time.

So who is it going to be? Each of the unofficial candidates – heaven forbid anyone should actually campaign for the position – has plusses and minuses. But does any of that really matter? Is this, as many feel, the most overrated post in sport? Is this a job anyone armed with just a modicum of commonsense and a wee bit of good fortune could do?

History offers some support for the cynics. The late, great Seve Ballesteros was, by almost every account, a complete disaster as a leader in 1997 at Valderrama. No one is saying so publicly but Jose Maria Olazabal could have been a bit more on top of things than he was at Medinah last September. Then there’s Monty at Celtic Manor back in 2010. Armed with what many astute observers identified as perhaps the deepest European side of all-time – and certainly at least the second-strongest – and up against what was widely viewed as a mediocre American team, the Scot scrambled to a one-point victory, winning only one session of matches.

The common factor in all of those encounters, however, is that Europe won. So any failings perpetrated by the captain magically became irrelevant, at least as far as the media was concerned. In other words, you can be the biggest bumbling fool imaginable, you can come up with the strangest pairings ever seen, you can even have a player turn up with seconds to spare but, as long as the team wins, you are all but invulnerable to criticism. All of which leaves the rest of us in the dark as to who was a good captain and who was not. Only one thing really matters – the end result. How it is actually achieved is apparently neither here nor there.

Given all of that, it is hard to get too excited about the identity of the man who will have to make polite noises as to the quality of the oh-so-mediocre PGA Centenary course that is, for many and by a distance, the least stimulating test of golf on the spectacular Gleneagles property. One can easily argue that his identity and/or experience and/or intelligence are of no real concern. Winning and losing is decided by a greater power, or at least by which side happens to make the most putts.

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Still, we are here to inform and educate. So here are the ups and downs of the four men with even a remote chance of winning the £1m lottery known as the Ryder Cup captaincy.

Darren Clarke

Why Major champion. Has the stature and personality to compete with US skipper Tom Watson. Has at least the respect of almost every player on the European Tour. Has twice served as an assistant captain in Ryder Cups. And it’s about time we had an Irish captain.

Why NOt Once expressed some honest (and accurate) but hardly complimentary views on the PGA Centenary course. May have to wait until 2016 because he is seen as well-known enough to be captain in America.

Colin Montgomerie

Why Peerless Ryder Cup record as a player, unbeaten in eight singles matches. Has the high profile needed to nullify as much as possible the “Watson-factor”. Did the job in 2010, albeit ultimate victory covered over many cracks in his strategy and leadership.

Why NOt Commands enormous respect on tour as a player, almost none as a sportsman, following his outrageous “drop” at the 2005 Indonesian Open. Many eyes narrow whenever he enters a room occupied by his fellow players.

Paul McGinley

Why Has garnered rave reviews after twice captaining Great Britain & Ireland to victory over the Continent of Europe in the Seve Trophy. Like Clarke, has twice been an assistant Ryder Cup captain. Plus, if he doesn’t get it this time, his chances have probably gone forever.

Why NOt With only four European tour wins on his rather thin playing resume, he runs the danger of looking and sounding like the equivalent of a small child alongside the imperious and headmasterly Watson.

Sandy Lyle

Why Painfully honest and honourable, to the point where he once turned down a Ryder Cup place because of his poor form at the time. Commands respect as a two-times major champion. And he’s Scottish.

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Why NOt Painfully honest and honourable, attributes not always to one’s advantage within the strange little world that is the European Tour. Certainly won’t get Monty’s vote, after branding his fellow Scot a “cheat” in the wake of the aforementioned dropping drama.

So there you have it. Who it will be remains to be seen. Much politicking has still to be done behind the scenes before white smoke emerges from the committee room. But don’t be surprised if the next two captains are announced together, a strong possibility if McGinley (an astute politician) garners enough support for 2014. His ability to do so is the ongoing “X-factor” in the alphabet soup known as the Ryder Cup captaincy.