Ryder Cup: Order of play is toughest decision for Olazabal and Love

Appropriately enough, one supposes, being a Ryder Cup captain is a lot like playing 18 holes of golf. Both offer plenty of time to think about the potential consequences of every action – good and bad – and both involve lots of decision-making – big and small – once the action does get underway.

Perhaps the only real difference between the two is their respective timescales. Ryder Cup skippers are afforded two years to get things right, a typical circuit of a typical course typically takes a little over four hours.

Captaincy and a round of golf have one more thing in common. During each, the importance and implications of every choice or determination become exponentially more influential. Which makes sense. As the time available for the correction of any wrong gradually contracts, the burden to be correct grows and grows. So it is that the final resolution for any Ryder Cup captain, the identification of the most advantageous order of play for the Sunday singles, doubles as his most pressure-packed choice – even if, as with Jose Maria Olazabal this weekend, that decision has surely been accompanied by a prayer for some sort of miracle.

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“I was like most captains in that I tried to put my strongest players out first and last, then try to hide anyone not playing so swift in the middle,” admits former USPGA champion, Dave Stockton, who led America to victory in the so-called “War by the Shore” at Kiawah Island in South Carolina in 1991. “You need a good start and a good finish. No matter what the score is going in, that always applies.” Decisiveness doesn’t hurt either. Nor does an ability to come to an appropriate conclusion – then stick with it no matter what. “My strategy was to put my best players out first and my not-quite best out last,” recalls Sam Torrance, the winning European skipper at The Belfry in 2002. “I didn’t see a scenario where that order wasn’t going to work. I didn’t keep any of my best players for the end. To me, in the cauldron of the Ryder Cup over the last five or six holes, anyone can stand up and be counted and anyone can fold. So I didn’t mind having my rookies out there late. Besides, they all performed magnificently, especially Philip Price, who beat Phil Mickelson.

“The bottom line is that my strategy was never going to be dictated by circumstances or even the overnight score. That was the way I wanted to do it. And I never changed. Before the 2001 matches were postponed for a year, I had my singles order written out on a piece of paper. A few months after we eventually played in 2002, I was clearing out my desk and found that list. It was exactly the same as the one I went with a year later.”

For all that, other skippers have found themselves cornered by the scoreline after two days of competition. Not surprisingly, the four series of team play tend to be the most influential aspect of the decision-making process.

“We were way behind, so we couldn’t afford to have any gaps in our line-up,” says Tom Lehman, US captain in 2006 at the K Club in Ireland, where the European side racked up a record-breaking margin of victory. “We needed to be strong at the top, strong at the bottom and strong in the middle. The position we were in really forced my hand. And for that reason I didn’t pay that much attention to what (European skipper) Ian Woosnam may or may not do with his order. There were no secrets for us, we just had to win almost every match.

“So, for me, circumstances dictated what I had to do. Ideally, you want to be considering whether you’d like to start fast or finish strong or whatever. And I’d like to have tried to match their strongest guy with the guy on my side who was playing worst. But stuff like that never entered my head – I had only that one strategy available.

“I didn’t have much hope to be honest. If the other team has some holes in its order, then you have a chance. But the Europeans were strong from top to bottom that year. They had some great players. There were no holes in their line-up.”

Other factors have come into play over the course of the 38 previous biennial contests. For captains so inclined, tactics have been influenced by the perceived strengths, weaknesses and characteristics of both sides.

“We started the last day tied, so I tried not to over-think what I wanted to do,” continues Stockton, who presided over the winning team in perhaps the most controversial Ryder Cup of them all.

“It’s easy to do that. Plus, circumstances help make decisions for you. I wanted to put Lanny Wadkins out first because he likes to play fast. But he wanted to rest a little. So I led off with the late Payne Stewart, with Ray Floyd second.

“You must look at pace of play too. If you have a guy who is deliberate, you have to put him out near the back. If he goes early, he’s just going to spoil the day for everyone behind him. So I considered that, especially as the continental Europeans tend to play slower than we do. I wouldn’t have done anything different, even if we had been three points ahead. You have to do what is best for your own team. And that’s what I did. It’s about a team, not individuals. I certainly didn’t care what the other side did. I took the view that my guys were going to win anyway, so anything they tried wouldn’t matter. Having said that, I didn’t anticipate it being as close as it was.”

Mistakes get made, of course. And surprises do occur. But both tend not to emerge until after the deed is done and both lists have been married together into 12 matches.

“I was a bit taken aback by what my opposite number Bernard Gallacher decided to do,” states Stockton. “I hadn’t studied many previous captains, but I can’t imagine many did what he did, which was put all his strength in the middle. So I ended up with Wayne Levi – who was playing poorly – up against Seve Ballesteros, maybe the best of the Europeans that week. And Wayne almost beat him.”

Torrance too, was pleased at how his tactics worked out. Some observers, in fact, jokingly suggested that the Scot had actually chosen the singles order for both sides. “It actually worked better than I could ever have imagined,” he says with a smile. “The two lists matched up almost perfectly for us. Plus, they had Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the last two matches. Which surprised me. Only rarely is a Ryder Cup decided that late. Invariably it comes down to number nine or ten.”

What doesn’t happen – or, if it does, no one admits to it – is opposing captains getting together to make sure a particular match between two notables does take place. “I had heard a few stories about past captains getting together to manipulate the draw and have certain guys play each other,” says Stockton. “But I can tell you that Bernard and I never talked about anything like that.”

Well, not officially anyway.