Goodbye to Hill 16 has meant hello Ryder Cup captaincy for Paul McGinley
A career-ending knee injury forced him to switch to his other sporting passion: golf. And the rest is Ryder Cup history
Paul McGinley, European Ryder Cup captain, at a Ryder Cup press conference on March 6th in Dublin. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Getty Images
Paul McGinley celebrates with the team on the 18th green after their victory over the USA at the 35th Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills in Michigan. Photograph: Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Recently, Paul McGinley sat perched in the front row of the Allianz box close to the Hill 16 end at Croke Park. As he looked down from on high to the pitch below, Dublin outplaying Kildare, he could have been forgiven for thinking of what might have been. As a young child, even into his teenage years, his sporting dream was to wear the famed sky blue jersey. This was a time before sponsorship logos were even allowed on the front of such garments. Another sporting world.
Fate, as we know, took McGinley – the son of Donegal parents and raised in the south Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham where, as it happened, Pádraig Harrington and Peter Lawrie had followed him into the same primary school – in a different direction. A career-ending knee injury forced him to switch to his other sporting passion: golf. The pain of that injury brought with it the sweetener of a life as a professional golfer, even if the eight operations he has had on the knee serve as a constant reminder of those football days.
Who, in truth, could have foretold the then five-handicapper would mature into a Walker Cup player as an amateur or go on to a professional career that would bring honour and glory in the World Cup and three times as a Ryder Cup player? Who would have dared to predict McGinley would become the first Irishman to captain Europe in a Ryder Cup, as he will do in Gleneagles in Scotland in September?
McGinley’s pathway into the professional game wasn’t typical, even back then. Although these days fledgling professionals are inclined to jump into the paid game and its seemingly bottomless pit of money with alacrity, McGinley got a marketing degree in Dublin Institute of Technology, worked in the heart of the European Union in Brussels and furthered his education at university in San Diego, where he got a degree in international business. Only then, did he jump into the bear pit of the pro game.
Now, here he is, a history maker: the first Irishman to captain a team in the Ryder Cup, an event where the Irish have, time and time again, come up trumps when cast down the order of the final day singles where fortitude and courage are required. O’Connor Junior. Darcy. Walton. McGinley himself. McDowell.
Getting the captaincy was no certainty, even if McGinley – a two-time vice-captain in the Ryder Cup – seemed to tick so many boxes. A campaign of sorts unfolded in the run-up to the decision-making, which took place in Abu Dhabi in January of 2013. Darren Clarke threw his hat into the ring before, seeing the writing on the wall, taking it back out. Colin Montgomerie, captain at Celtic Manor in 2010, began to subtly make his case through the media. The argument went that Europe needed a strong man to counteract the experience and legend of Tom Watson, seen as a somewhat surprising choice by the PGA of America when awarded the US captaincy.
In the end, McGinley, who diplomatically and bravely kept his own counsel, was given the job with the help of others going public. Rory McIlroy, then the world number one, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose were among those to support McGinley’s candidacy.
‘The right choice’
“It will be a very disappointing day for the European Tour if Paul McGinley doesn’t get it. I’m afraid politics is getting in the way of making the right choice. Monty has done it already. He’s been a winning captain. I don’t think he has to go back and do it again,” said McIlroy.
The job went to McGinley, and he has moved into the captaincy role like a hand into a well-fitted glove. A ready laugh comes from McGinley as he recounts the text messages that did the rounds after his elevation to the captaincy. It coincided with the horse meat controversy. “Great month for Ireland. McGinley made Ryder Cup captain. Shergar found in Tescos.” Boom boom.
Last September, he – and Watson – attended the Year to Go celebrations where they were taken on a steam train to Edinburgh Castle and given a history of the country where golf was created.
“Obviously, I’m very proud to be a Ryder Cup captain anywhere, but to be captain in the Home of Golf, it’s an extra layer on top,” McGinley remarked.
More recently, in Dublin to name Sam Torrance and Des Smyth as vice-captains, McGinley used the Taoiseach’s office in Government buildings to make the formal announcement. It signified, again, that McGinley – who has lived in Sunningdale, outside London – for much of his professional like, has never forgotten his roots.
His passion for sport, and life, has always been there.
There is something about team sports which greatly appeals to McGinley. It is a throwback to his own Gaelic football days, pulling on the Ballyboden St Enda’s jersey.
“I have always loved team sport, always been into the psychology of team sport. I didn’t know if I could take that and turn myself into a leader of people.
“In some ways of course I’m a rookie Ryder Cup captain but in other ways I’m also a very experienced Ryder Cup captain. Aside from my playing career, I’ve had two vice-captaincy roles and two captaincies (in the Seve Trophy), so I’m probably the most experienced rookie captain there’s ever been; I know it’s a contradiction, but I do have a lot of experience.”
In a golfing context, there is no greater – or harsher – team environment than the Ryder Cup. When you talk to McGinley about his Ryder Cup playing career, you might think that holing the winning putt at The Belfry in 2002 or, perhaps, the emotion of a home Ryder Cup at The K Club in 2006 would top his list. Both are high, but the match in Detroit – where he was a pivotal player – edges things for him.
As McGinley put it of that match at Oakland Hills, “I was very much part of that team, played really well with Pádraig (Harrington). I actually played with Luke (Donald) the first day. Luke was as nervous as a kitten in his first Ryder Cup match. I believe I had a hugely important engine room role there, whereas at The Belfry I was the like the guy who came on with 10 minutes to go and scored the winning goal in the cup final. I wouldn’t say I was man-of-the-match in Detroit but I was certainly part of a powerful midfield that was part of setting up that victory. I played a role at a couple of different levels there.”
Indeed, McGinley would nominate the Saturday afternoon of that match in Oakland Hills as his “most passionate moment in golf.” It came after he teamed-up with Harrington in the afternoon foursomes to defeat Tiger Woods and Davis Love III.
“Scoring the goal at the Belfry (in 2002) was great, but to be honest, as an Irishman, the most proud moment I have ever had was behind the 15th green (in Detroit). The Irish (supporters) wouldn’t let us go. We were at least an hour there, the crowds singing You’ll never beat the Irish . It really was a special moment.”
A player then, a captain now: captain of Europe! This is a huge year for McGinley, not least the fact the man in the opposite corner, so to speak, is one of the legends of the game. Watson, an eight-time Majors champion with no fewer than 71 professional wins worldwide, is a heavy-hitter. He carries a powerful presence.
McGinley has always been an admirer. As a youngster, Watson was his hero. The two met for dinner last year during the British Open at Muirfield and their paths have crossed since. The two plan to meet again at Augusta next week, where Watson will be playing and McGinley part of Sky Sports’ commentary team.
The battle lines have been drawn. As Watson observed, “the one thing that Paul and I really did agree upon is the manner in which these matches are played is probably paramount. We know there’s going to be an edge . . . . he’s going to go in his corner and I’m going to go in my corner as managers of these teams and try everything possible to create a winning atmosphere and let the actors go out and win it for us. There’s going to be an edge. But, beyond that, the way we’ll handle it is the important thing.”
McGinley hasn’t got transfixed by the qualifying process, who is where on the tables. It will be around the time of the British Open at Hoylake the numbers will start to add up, for who will get one of his three wild cards. A long way away.
Ticked all the right boxes
Harrington believes that, so far, McGinley has ticked all the right boxes in his captaincy. McGinley, as he puts it himself, believes he is “qualified”, for the task ahead.
“The Seve Trophy captaincies have stood me in good stead. The daunting-ness of standing in front of your peers for the first time and addressing them as a captain is no longer there because I have had two chances to do it at the Seve Trophy, which were massive for me as far as experience.”
Ultimately, though, McGinley, as much as anyone, knows that a manager is judged on results.“In boxing parlance, (it’s) two heavyweights going toe-to-toe, 15 rounds. That’s the way I see it.”
PAUL McGINLEY: Fact File
Date of birth: December 16th, 1966
Turned professional: 1991
Career prize money: €11.2 million (on European Tour)
Wins on tour: Austrian Open (1996), Oki Pro-Am (1997), Wales Open (2001), Volvo Masters (2005)
Team wins: World Cup (with Pádraig Harrington) 1997; Ryder Cup 2002, 2004, 2006