Magical memories of Medinah inspire McGinley as he warms to his new task
“It was in doubt right up until the day of the final meeting,” Paul McGinley says as he remembers the dramatic conclusion to a complicated process which saw him, earlier this month, announced as Europes captain for the Ryder Cup next year.
Fifteen members of the European Tour tournament committee met in Abu Dhabi and, as McGinley reveals, he was anxious that the momentum had swung away from him to Colin Montgomerie.
“By all accounts Montgomerie was in pole position. Of course I was deflated. I kept thinking: ‘What’s going to be the reaction of the players if they don’t get their way? Where’s that going to leave team spirit?’ I didn’t say that to anyone but those words were going round in my head: ‘Wow, with all the vocal support I’ve had from Poulter and Rose and Rory and Lee and Luke , what will it mean if they don’t get the captain they want?’”
Montgomerie proved himself a successful captain at Celtic Manor in 2010 but he remains a divisive figure – and McGinley’s contrasting popularity was plain. Yet the United States’ unlikely choice of Tom Watson as their leader at Gleneagles had startled Europe’s decision-makers.
Watson’s majestic feats in the Majors, and the affection felt towards him in Scotland, seemed to have sent the European committee rushing back towards Montgomerie. His superior playing record and Scottish roots edged him ahead of McGinley.
“The word I had from the players in South Africa was that it was going to be Montgomerie,” McGinley says. “But then, totally unprompted, at his Nike press conference, Rory came out very strongly for me. That’s when things turned in my favour and I got back some momentum.”
McIlroy’s influence, as world No1, was decisive as he also tweeted his support for McGinley. “There’s no doubt Twitter played a big part in this selection,” added McGinley.
“On Twitter Luke Donald could have his say even if he was sitting in America. He could still say something very powerful because, once he puts it out on Twitter, it’s on the ground in Abu Dhabi within minutes and everyone’s talking about it.
McGinley was tempted repeatedly to speak out but he also knew that a dignified silence would be more appropriate. “It was hard and difficult for me, no doubt. I really wanted to get involved in the arguments but I realised at Medinah , after the guys spoke privately to me, that they all wanted me as captain. So I knew I had that support. I didn’t want to be beating my own drum. The players’ drum was going to be a lot louder than mine.
“But I wanted to say that we don’t have anyone of Tom Watson’s stature in Europe, so whoever goes against him is going to be an underdog in terms of their playing record. If you look at the great managers in football, few of them were great players. Show me the correlation between a brilliant player, whether in football or golf, and a brilliant manager? But I couldn’t say that in public.”
McGinley stresses that the 63-year-old Watson was his boyhood hero while also suggesting that there may have been some desperation in the US’s reappointment of him.
“I was surprised. I think they felt they had to do something drastic and different because their strategies weren’t working. So I admire their bravery. But the bravery is born out of the fact they’ve lost seven out of the last nine Ryder Cups.”
The 46-year-old Dubliner believes he holds a clear advantage over Watson.
“One of the facets I’m quite strong about is that players who are still competitive on tour have an insight that others don’t. I have that advantage over Tom because he’s not playing the main tour any more. I am.
“But, as a boy, Tom Watson was my hero – not just because he used to win but because of the way he won, the class he personified, his endurance under pressure. That authority was very impressive – as was that air of destiny when he walked down the fairway. That always appealed to me. And I devoured what he had to say in the golf magazines. If there was one player I tried to model myself on, it would have been Tom Watson.
“I wrote down his words about ‘desire, dedication, determination and a little bit of talent’ being needed to succeed on the back of my copy books. He made talent insignificant and I identified with that. I wasn’t born to play this game. I’m not 6ft 2in, I don’t hit the ball a million miles and I felt those words summed me up.”
It is fitting that McGinley should identify so strongly with another understated man, Sam Torrance, as the Ryder Cup captain who taught him the most about leadership.
“It was my first Ryder Cup in 2002 and it had been delayed a year because of 9/11. Sam had four players, me included, who were off form. Twelve months earlier we were in the midst of a great season but a year on I was very mediocre – languishing about 40th in the order of merit. I was really worried but Sam helped me come out flying. I played to a level that week that I hadn’t come close to doing all year.
“Sam wasn’t about team speeches and speaking like Braveheart for half an hour. His captaincy was much more subtle. His first step with me was to offer a real sense of inclusivity. Lee Westwood was also off-form and there was a big world event we hadn’t qualified for. So we went and played with Sam at The Belfry. All the stands were up and everything was in place the week before the Ryder Cup. We got a real feel for the magnitude of the event.
“Afterwards we got in the car and Sam brought out a bottle of champagne and two glasses in the back of his big 7-series BMW that he had chauffeur-driven. During that car journey back to London he told me his plans for the week.
“My role was to play three matches and I’d start on the afternoon of the first day. It was a sign of the trust he placed in me as a rookie player and I clearly benefited.”
McGinley famously sank the putt which won the Ryder Cup that year and he remembers being inspired by Torrance’s simple phrase – “Do it for me” – as he prepared to make golfing history. “The sense inside me grew so strong – that I wanted to do it for Sam. I love looking back at the psychology of it and, if you study that putt, you’ll see the first thing I did afterwards was to put my arms in the air and turn straight to the players and Sam.
“I jumped up in the air – looking at them. I don’t understand football players who score and then run away from their team-mates towards the crowd. Surely you’re doing it for your team-mates and not the crowd? Look at Poulter. When he holed that putt at Medinah last year he immediately turned to the team. That’s the body language of a great team player.”
McGinley’s unbeaten record in the Ryder Cup is exemplary for he has won three as a player and two as vice-captain – but he singles out the last victory as the most important.
“Medinah was a massive learning curve and a humbling experience. I don’t think we got a million things wrong in terms of our tactics but the Americans came out so strong and we slightly underestimated them. As much as we thought we were on a wave when it came to winning the Ryder Cup we got battered for two days.
“If Medinah had been a boxing match, the referee would have been thinking of stopping it. And if we had lost the Saturday afternoon session, it would have been all over – but we didn’t because Luke and Sergio managed to get through and Poulter followed that with his absolute heroics. There’s a lovely and poignant story – and I haven’t seen it told before.
“Poulter holed his putt on the last to mean we were only four behind going into the last day’s singles. We knew teams have come back from four points down. They’ve never come back from five. Twenty minutes later, in our locker room, the music was blaring, the caddies were jumping around, the players were bear-hugging. I thought: ‘Wow, is this team winning or losing by four?’
Poulter came in and said, ‘We have a pulse.’ I thought that was so powerful: ‘We have a pulse.’ Before then we were basically on life support. And now we had a pulse. The boys were flying. For the first time we could see light. We didn’t need to say much in the team meeting that night.”
Narrowing it down
McGinley will wait until this time next year before he announces his four vice-captains. Montgomerie is unlikely to be one of them but McGinley says: “Everyone’s under consideration. I could probably list 20 guys I’d be happy with as vice-captain. My only problem will be narrowing it down.”
His immediate task is to decide how much he might change the selection process of the team – which currently uses two wild-card picks to supplement the leading 10 golfers on the European order of merit.
“I have to present my ideas at the Scottish Open . If I’m going to change the qualifying system I want to see what impact it would’ve had on previous Ryder Cups – so I’m doing lots of research. I’ve got a whole load of permutations going on and I’ll formulate them into a plan and make my recommendations.”
Could he suggest something totally fresh? “Absolutely. I have carte blanche to come up with a whole new qualification process but we’ve won seven out of the last nine. So if it ain’t broke, why fix it? I would say you’ll see a tweaking to the system rather than a radical change.”
McGinley’s enthusiasm is as obvious as his success in team competitions. “As a professional I’ve won everything as a team member. But I’ve had brilliant team-mates and been involved with great teams.”
As a captain, McGinley also steered Britain and Ireland to successive victories against Europe in the Seve Trophy in 2009 and 2011.
“In the first one we were real underdogs and Rory and Graeme McDowell hadn’t won Majors at the time and weren’t the players they are now. Rory wasn’t even in the top 50 in the world then. So it was a monumental achievement to win it and, to me, that was a very important week for me becoming Ryder Cup captain. Before then I didn’t know whether I was going to be any good or if I was going to enjoy it. But we got such a team bond and we thrived on that and had great fun together. If we do that again, in the Ryder Cup, we won’t go wrong.”