Trick of making the abnormal seem normal

Sat, Sep 22, 2012, 01:00

Lee Westwood defended Nick Faldo’s captaincy in 2008 by remarking, “we hold the golf clubs and we hit the shots, not the captain.” This is true . . . but not entirely right

WHY WOULD anyone want to be a Ryder Cup captain? When Mark James was Europe’s captain in 1999, the deliberations over his “wild card” picks – he chose Andrew Coltart over Robert Karlsson – caused such stress that he was, within days, diagnosed with shingles.

Ian Woosnam, ostensibly a laid-back fellow, captained the team at the K Club in 2006 and the following year was diagnosed with post-viral chronic fatigue syndrome.

Nick Faldo, who has earned a fine reputation as a commentator behind a TV microphone, stumbled over his words and got the names of his players wrong when introducing his team at the opening ceremony at Valhalla in 2008.

Stress!

And, yet, as Jose Maria Olazabal and Davis Love III head into the 2012 edition of the Ryder Cup at Medinah next week, there is a queue of candidates eager to assume such roles at Gleneagles in two years’ time and on into the future.

Why?

Is it purely about the honour and the glory of it all?

Is it about one-time players – past their best – seeking to re-immerse themselves at competitive golf’s cutting edge?

Is it an ego thing?

Or, perhaps, there is a part of it to do with the money?

Although captains aren’t directly paid for the position, with the PGA European Tour’s official line being that the captain is paid “all reasonable expenses” incurred in the carrying out of his duties during the captaincy, there is an indirect pay-off in terms of sponsorships, business opportunities, books, etc, that recent captains have taken full advantage of to the extent that it is estimated acquiring the high-profile role of captain is worth in the region of €2 million for a “home” captaincy and somewhat less for an “away” captaincy.

For instance, when Faldo was Europe captain for the 2008, he became a brand ambassador for Adidas/TaylorMade and luxury car maker Maybach as well as signing deals for newspaper and magazine columns. He may have been criticised for his decision-making as a captain, but – like Colin Montgomerie who succeeded him – the captaincy provided a high-profile platform that had knock-on value to his course design work and media deals.

But, then, given the perceived stress of the role, captains – albeit indirectly – probably feel entitled to whatever comes their way.

Tony Jacklin, who revolutionised the captaincy when assuming the role for no fewer than four occasions, once gave this advice to prospective captains. “Always be prepared to fly by the seat of your pants and trust your gut instincts,” said Jacklin, who was at the helm for Europe’s resurgence which was, in part, inspired by the so-called “Spanish Armada” of Olazabal and Seve Ballesteros.

Now, Olazabal has come full circle and will seek to bring his experiences as a player. Of his own debut in the Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island in 1991, Olazabal recalled recently, “I was shaking like a leaf as I walked from the practice green to the first tee. The noise was deafening. Seve walked next to me and said something I’ve always remembered. ‘Just play your own game and be yourself. I’ll take care of everything else’ . . . . it told me there is nothing wrong with being scared. In pressurised environments, it is not only natural (to be scared), it’s a good thing because it makes your senses sharper.”

What is certain is that, despite all the planning, Olazabal and Love will find what James describes as “utter chaos” once the week of the match arrives.

“People don’t know what they are doing. The most important thing any captain can have is a strong bond with the players . . . you have to be inspirational as well as quiet, depending on the circumstances,” remarked James, who fell on his own sword at Brookline where his decision not to play Coltart and Jean van de Velde until the final-day singles backfired spectacularly as the US – spurred on by a reading of William Travis’s letter from the Alamo about love, bond and country delivered by former US president George W Bush – claimed a most unlikely fightback victory.

Providing an insight into how he intends to combat the USA’s hometown advantage, Olazabal said: “The Americans have the flag, (they’re) very proud of the country they live in. Their flag means a lot to them. They are very intense when they have to defend their country or their image. And, in that regard, the Ryder Cup makes them fight really hard for it and they are very proud of that.

“We cannot access patriotism as a motivational tool to the same extent. That’s one card we don’t have. On the other hand, I think we can compensate with the desire to be as good as them and by emphasising the positive role diversity plays in the make-up of our team.”

What we do know from recent Ryder Cups is that the decisions of captains can be key to victory, or defeat. Lee Westwood made a salient observation in defence of Faldo’s captaincy in remarking, “we hold the golf clubs and we hit the shots, not the captain.”

True, but not entirely right.

After all, it was Hal Sutton who decided – against everyone’s better judgment – to pair Tiger Woods with Phil Mickelson, with disastrous consequences, at Oakland Hills in Detroit in 2004. It was James, with equally disastrous consequences, who decided to leave players as spectators for two full days before throwing them to the wolves. It was Paul Azinger who basically out-smarted Faldo in Valhalla and developed the pod system of playing groups of four players in foursomes and fourballs during practice with each one aware they could be paired with anyone from those groups.

Azinger’s clever ploy showed that, even after all these years, it was possible to think outside the box. Yet, as it transpired, Woosnam had made an even braver call ahead of the match at the K Club in 2006 when picking Darren Clarke – in Medinah next week as one of Olazabal’s vice-captains – as a “wild card” just six weeks after the death of the player’s first wife, Heather.

Of that decision, Woosnam would recall: “I never had any doubts. He is a born fighter and once he told me he was ready, that was good enough for me. And once I had picked Darren, Lee (Westwood) was a definite to partner him. Lee is his mate and was the perfect person to be around Darren under the circumstances . . . the way it turned out, it was Darren’s ultimate tribute to Heather.”

Another influence which home captains have in advance of matches is in how the course is set up. Torrance, for example was conscious of setting up the course at The Belfry in 2002 to suit his men.

“We lengthened the rough around the greens midway through the week, also changed a couple of tee positions to bring bunkers into play for real big-hitters such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The speed of the greens is also vital. The Americans are used to playing on faster greens, while in Europe they tend to be a bit slower. Making home advantage work is important.”

If Torrance – or Woosie for that matter – didn’t hesitate about using home town advantage, it would seem that Love is more reluctant to influence course set-up at Medinah.

“You don’t have to tailor Medinah, you know what you’ve got,” said Love at the time of naming his four wild-card picks. “It is a big ballpark and it is perfect for us. I love our whole team on that golf course because we have a great driving team. It’s a big, long golf course that’s going to have fast greens and it’s going to look like a Major championship. I think a lot of guys on our team are really used to that kind of golf.”

Olazabal, though, could argue the same thing. His players are no slouches when it comes to driving the ball long.

In providing his own insight into how he will prepare his team, Love recalled sitting down with Bob Rotella and fellow tour player Tom Kite in 1986 for what was his first ever session with a psychologist. The basic instruction hasn’t changed.

As Love put it, “one shot at a time, get into the process, not the result. It sounds easy, but it’s hard to do. Each shot has the same level of importance. Well, we are going to preach that at the Ryder Cup. How are we actually going to do it?

“That’s the trick. When you walk out on the first tee and there’s 30,000 to 40,000 people and they’re all chanting, all the Bob Rotella stuff goes out the window really quick when you get really nervous and you start thinking about winning or losing. The secret is going to be: how do you turn that off?”

And, that, is the captain’s conundrum and will be the challenge that faces both Olazabal and Love.

“It’s the responsibility of the captain to make a very abnormal situation as normal as possible. Everything is so structured, (with) very little free time. It is up to the captain to prepare the players to get the best out of their games . . . then, you hope they do their jobs,” said former US captain Curtis Strange.

The legacy of Olazabal and Love will, however, be determined by the outcome.

As Torrance put it when asked when made a great Ryder Cup captain, he replied: “Winning!”

AROUND THE CAPTAINS' TABLES: SUPPORT TEAMS

Team Europe

Captain: Jose Maria Olazabal.

Vice-captains: Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Thomas Bjorn.

What they bring to the table: One big plus is that all four vice-captains are still currently playing on tour. Clarke and McGinley – who are favoured to fight it out for the captain’s role at Gleneagles in 2014 – and Bjorn were all part of the backroom team to Colin Montgomerie at Celtic Manor two years ago.

Jimenez was on the team in 2012, but actually featured as a vice-captain to Seve Ballesteros at Valderrama back in 1997 before using that experience to go on and make a debut appearance as a player in 1999, his first of four appearances.

As a collective, there is a good balance with loads of experience. McGinley, who has captained two BI teams in the Seve Trophy, has played on three winning Ryder Cup teams and showed his input recently when sidetracking “rookie” Nicolas Colsaerts at the recent Dutch Open to advise him on what to expect: from what to do if he wakes up at 2am hungry to how to cater for ticket requests from family and friends.

Team USA

Captain: Davis Love III.

Vice-captains: Fred Couples, Mike Hulbert, Jeff Sluman and Scott Verplank.

What they bring to the table: Couples – seen as the man in waiting for the job at Gleneagles – was entirely expected, but it is perhaps an indication of Love’s conservatism that old-timers Hulbert and Sluman, both 54, also form part of a grey generation backroom team.

At 48, Verplank is the youngest of the vice-captains and you have got to wonder if there will be some sort of generation gap in the team-room.

Against that, there is a growing and formidable back-up to the backroom team with basketball legend Michael Jordan officially drafted in.

“Rather than him (Jordan) sneaking around in the gallery, I want him to be seen and I want him to be in our team room and be hanging around and be a great influence,” said Love, while singer-actor Justin Timberlake and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps are also set to be on hand.

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