Now that they have selected everything from players’ socks to their golf-bag design, Ryder Cup captains Davis Love III and Darren Clarke will do the job’s heavy lifting Thursday afternoon at Hazeltine National Golf Club.
That’s when each will blindly submit his first lineups for the 41st Ryder Cup, four two-man, alternate-shot pairings that head off Hazeltine’s first tee starting 7:35 a.m. Friday.
Europe arrives there winner of three consecutive Cups and eight of the past 10. That’s the kind of dominance that begs this question:
Just how much difference can a captain make over three days of match-play team competition?
Well, that depends on whom you ask.
“Unbelievable,” U.S. team member Phil Mickelson said Wednesday. “It all starts with the captain. That’s the guy who has to bring together 12 strong individuals and allow them a platform to play their best. That’s the whole foundation of the team.”
Mickelson has played for 10 different captains in his 11 Ryder Cups, including Hal Sutton in a 2004 American home loss. Sutton sent out the superstar pairing of Mickelson and Tiger Woods twice on Friday, it lost both matches, and by Sunday. Europe had lapped the U.S. team 18 ½-9 ½.
“I don’t think it’s all that important, to be honest with you,” Sutton said last month at the 3M Championship in Blaine. “I really don’t. Guys are either playing well or not playing well going into it, and I don’t think anything a captain says or does is going to change that. There are some duties. The real duty is to make sure they play well, and that’s not up to the captain. That’s up to them.”
Sutton absorbed plenty of blame for that lopsided loss and the failed superstar pairing, which Mickelson now attributes to lack of preparation.
If Sutton’s team had won, his players probably would have received the credit.
“A good captain doesn’t really matter,” eight-time European player and winning 2010 captain Colin Montgomerie said. “But I’ll tell you what: A bad captain can influence a team, the whole thing. A bad captain can with his timing of decisions, where they are made, how they are made. Has he got the locker room? Has he not got the locker room? I think bad captains, I hate to say, are more important than a good one.”
Paul Azinger is considered the gold standard of recent U.S. captains. That’s partly because he is the only one since 1999 to win a Ryder Cup and partly because he brought unconventional theories based upon how Navy SEALS train in small “pods” and how corporate team-builders organize based upon personality types.
“I wish they would have let Zinger keep going until he lost,” said PGA Tour Champions player Fred Funk, who played on the 2004 team that Sutton captained. “He had a concept going.”
Taken to task
The PGA of America appointed Corey Pavin in 2010, Love in 2012 and Tom Watson in 2014. Pavin’s team narrowly lost in Wales, Love’s team collapsed and lost a big lead in Sunday singles play, and Watson’s team lost resoundingly in Scotland, and afterward Mickelson praised Azinger’s ways six years earlier during an unusual, fractured team news conference.
To illustrate a captain’s influence, Mickelson mentions that pairing with Woods. He attributes its failure to two days’ notice, even though there had speculation about the two playing together for some time.
“That gave us no time to work together and prepare,” said Mickelson, who had recently changed golf-equipment sponsors, too. “I hear and understand, ‘Guys need to play better.’ Absolutely you do. But you play how you prepare. In major championships when we win, it’s because we prepared properly and that allowed us to bring out our best golf. In a Ryder Cup, you have to prepare properly.”
An 11-member Ryder Cup “task force” convened after 2014’s loss brought back Love as captain four years later. It is one of its many moves intended to form a winning blueprint for the next five Ryder Cups and beyond. Borrowing some ideas from Azinger including his “pod” system, Love said he is better organized and has relied more on past captains’ advice than he did in 2012.
Six team members and three prospective ones practiced at Hazeltine last week and, like Azinger, Love has separated his 12 players into three four-player groups with their own vice captain assigned for three practice days so they can bond.
“A captain doesn’t hit the shots, but he can certainly get the guys in the right frame of mind to hit good shots,” said one of Love’s vice captains, Tom Lehman, U.S. captain in 2006. “He can have a big influence. I think he also can have a real negative influence. You can create an atmosphere for positive energy and real high expectations and camaraderie or you can set an atmosphere of every man for himself.”
Each captain has his own style: Azinger was emotional, innovative and hands-on. Watson and 2008 European captain Nick Faldo, among others, were more old school and hands-off.
“You’ve had captains who say,’ You’re all professionals, do your job and go out and win,’ ” 2008 U.S. team member Kenny Perry said. “I like a rah-rah guy in my corner, talking in my ear, getting me psyched to go play. That’s the way Paul was.”
A captain has to make all the little decisions months in advance that Lehman calls “minutiae,” and the big ones such as partner pairings and order of play come competition days. In Ireland in 2006, the U.S. team’s hotel arrangements left them with many nice rooms and one spacious suite.
“Who gets it?” Lehman asked. “Does Phil get it or does Tiger get it? I gave it to Vaughn Taylor, the No. 12 guy [and Ryder Cup rookie]. You know, just to take it out of play. Things like that you actually have to think about and make a decision on.”
In 1999, U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw closed a Saturday evening news conference at the historic Country Club in Brookline, Mass., with his team trailing by four big points. Choked with emotion, he jabbed his finger in the air, saying he believed in fate and his team. The next day, his front-loaded singles lineup won seven of the first eight matches and the Americans reclaimed the Cup by afternoon’s end.
Seventeen years later, Crenshaw vows he was sincere, that he had faith in sacred golfing ground where American amateur Francis Ouimet beat British pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a 1913 U.S. Open playoff. That also was where Americans won the 1963 and 1988 U.S. Opens.
“I just thought that place was going to take care of us,” Crenshaw said. “Boston, the Country Club, the most historical place for golf in America. It was the most amazing thing going out and watching my team play the way they had to. The emotion flipped. It was just a wave that went over the place. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was strong.”
The blame game
Five years later, Sutton sent a Woods-Mickelson four-ball pairing out first thing Friday morning. They lost, the Americans lost two other matches and halved one that morning and Woods-Mickelson lost again that afternoon.
Gone was any momentum the Americans might have had all weekend.
“That obviously didn’t turn out very well, but at the time I thought it was good for golf,” said Sutton, who played in four Ryder Cups. “To be honest with you, I did something bigger for the game. That’s what people wanted to see and if they had left friends, they would have been a lot better off. [Jack] Nicklaus and [Arnold] Palmer weren’t the best of friends, but they became really good friends at the Ryder Cup. It didn’t work out. Either they’re there or they’re not.”
Mickelson said he loved Sutton’s decisiveness in 2004, calling it a sign of “great leadership.” But he criticized the lack of preparation, saying time he spent practicing for foursomes play with the brand of ball Woods played took away from his normal prep.
“That’s an example of starting with the captain that put us in a position to fail and we failed monumentally, absolutely,” Mickelson said. “But to say, well, you just need to play better. That is so misinformed because you will play how you prepare.”
Genius or failure, there sometimes isn’t much in between for a Ryder Cup captain in the court of public — or sometimes player — opinion.
“Davis didn’t lose in 2012, their guys went out and won it,” Funk said. “Davis also wouldn’t have been the guy to have won it.”
This time around, Love and Clarke are longtime friends. They have played each other four times in Ryder Cups, including a 2004 Sunday singles meeting. Clarke won two of those matches, lost one, halved the other.
This week’s pairing — Love a captain the second time around, Clarke in the job for the first time — trumps them all.
“If on Monday morning I wake up and it’s not a successful team, I can look myself in the mirror and know I’ve done everything I possibly could to help our team succeed,” Clarke said. “If it doesn’t quite happen, that’s golf. That’s the way it is. You go in there wanting to win, but the best team will win it.”