Behind McGinley’s ready smile is steel
From ’Stiff Little Fingers’ and ’The Clash’ to Gleneagles has been a long, varied journey
Paul McGinley seems to have been preparing for the captain’s role for years, making sure to read Paul Azinger’s book on his 2008 captaincy at Valhalla as soon as it was published. “You can’t get enough information. It would be arrogant to think you know all the answers. I certainly don’t,” he says. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire.
“Golf can be selfish, as we all know, and that’s possibly why it took Paul McGinley a little longer than most to get into the whole ethos and mindset of the game,” Brian Shaw says of his old friend and former team-mate at the Grange Club in Dublin.
McGinley will captain Europe in defence of the Ryder Cup next week and conversations with his old gang at the Grange reveal the diverse and inclusive background which shaped the man who has to outwit Tom Watson, his venerable counterpart on the US team.
Watson, at 65, is 18 years older than McGinley and it’s obvious that his past in Kansas, and a glittering career as a winner of eight majors, did not feature any of the quirks of life back at the Grange or in downtown Dublin. McGinley and his friends, like Shaw and Tony Judge, with whom he studied marketing for three years at the Dublin Institute of Technology, had a taste for golf as well as the Undertones, the Clash, the Pogues and Stiff Little Fingers’ raucous Alternative Ulster in the 1980s.
“We all were that way,” says Shaw, the club professional at Donald Trump’s course in Doonbeg, County Clare. “Dublin was a bit edgy then and we loved going into the city. We had a direct bus line from where we lived and we’d jump on the double decker and be in the centre of town in 20 minutes. And then the next morning we could go back to the Grange where you had that serene golf club feel. We loved the game but we had an escape from it. That’s exactly how Paul is today.”
Judge, the chief executive of a golfing business, Clubs To Hire, which features McGinley as its ambassador, recalls that, “back then Paul was probably a six-handicapper and I was an 18-handicapper. We were all pretty rubbish even if Paul was the best of us. We were about 19 and Paul’s Gaelic football dreams had ended after a bad knee injury. He started concentrating more on golf and dragged us along. We played every Friday either at Royal Dublin, where I’m a member, or the Grange, Paul’s club. We spent more time talking about golf than college.”
McGinley retains these amiable roots – but he is ready to stand up to a giant of the game in Watson. Donal Bollard, another close friend and Grange member who has helped sponsor McGinley for his 23 years as an unlikely golf professional, offers insight into the blunt interaction between the captains.
“I said to him the other day: ‘This Watson is an iconic fella ,’” Bollard remembers. “Paul said: ‘Yeah, he is, but he doesn’t know his fellas as well as I know mine.’ Tom Watson was Paul’s idol as a youngster. But Paul said Tom is a very tough man and he told me a funny story. Paul said: ‘The first time I met him, Tom turned to me and said: “How many majors did you win, Paul?” He was obviously out to get one up on me. So I turned round and said: “I won three Ryder Cups, Tom. How many did you win?”’”
Bollard laughs dryly. “The image people have of nice, cuddly old Tom is very far from the real Tom Watson. Paul said that, in his communications with Tom now, he only gets one-line answers. There’s no such thing from Tom like, ‘How you keeping?’ or ‘Hope all is well?’ It’s just a one-line answer. Paul said Tom is as hard as nails and he wants to win this Ryder Cup more than anyone ever wanted it for the US. Paul wants it just as much. This is the biggest thing in Paul’s life.”
The Grange and Dublin boys, with whom McGinley remains so close, are convinced that Europe’s captain is especially suited to his role. As an ardent follower of Gaelic football, and West Ham United, McGinley loves team sport. And, as a golfer both in amateur and professional competition, he has always been at his best as part of a team.
“Paul himself would say, talent-wise, there were a lot more players better than him when we were juniors,” Shaw suggests. “But he was more professional at 18 than any other junior in the country. His course management, practising and work ethic was beyond belief, and it spurred us all on. Our little three-man club team at Grange became All-Ireland champions three years in a row. That was Paul, myself and Leslie Walker – who won the British Boys. We had another lad, David Walker, and we’re all pros now. It’s rare that from a little club in Dublin, four kids should become pros.
“We palled around together but Paul would also say: ‘All right lads, we’re practising.’ We’d say: ‘Sure’ – thinking we’d do half an hour. Paul meant 2½ hours. We’d be thinking: ‘Right, time to go,’ and Paul would say: ‘No lads, we’ll hit another bag of balls.’ Even though he wasn’t our strongest player, he was the leader of the team. He had no fear taking on Darren Clarke and any of the other superstars of the Irish junior scene. Paul was just interested in winning.”
As Judge adds: “He was very dedicated. At college, in his third year, he entered the more serious amateur tournaments as he got his handicap down. We all graduated from college and Paul got a golf scholarship in the States. He did two years in San Diego and got his masters [IN MARKETING]. When he came back you could see the difference and we started to think: ‘This guy is a serious player.’”
In Ryder Cup terms McGinley, then an obscure Irish rookie, confirmed he was “a serious player” on his debut at the Belfry in 2002. By the end of it, as he drained a nine-footer to win the Cup, having just rammed home a longer putt at the 17th to square his match with Jim Furyk, McGinley had become a cherished hero of European golf. He once told me that, “It seemed as if the world simply stopped and there was nothing but this rush of emotion – joy, relief, adrenalin and excitement. Pure ecstasy.”
McGinley loved the fact that his team tossed him into the water and, since then, his record in the Ryder Cup has remained flawless. His three victories as a player have been bolstered by two wins as vice-captain. And so his friends appear certain when describing the kind of captain McGinley will be at Gleneagles. “He will be a successful and winning captain,” Shaw says. “But the result is one thing. I think he’ll leave a real positive mark on the Ryder Cup itself. He’ll not be running down the fairways pumping his fist but he’ll be very respectful and the players will rise to his leadership.
“He is incredible in the way he holds a team together. That why our team always excelled as juniors – because of Paul. Leslie and myself knew Paul would never let us down and so we could freewheel. Paul loved that. I also remember watching him follow Padraig Harrington against Sergio García in the Open playoff at Carnoustie [IN 2007]. Most tour pros would have left the course. But Paul was walking the fairway. He was part of the crowd – just like he would go to Lansdowne Road, Croke Park or Upton Park. He loves that camaraderie. He loves people. That’s why Paul hangs out with the caddies – because their stories are fantastic. How true all these yarns are no one knows but he’s giggling away. That’s Paul.”
Bollard adds: “Loyalty would be his middle name but he’s also steely. He showed that in his decision to pick Lee Westwood over Luke Donald. If he was asked who do you want to go on holiday with, or have dinner with, you know who it would be – and he didn’t pick him. So he has that steel. But he won’t do big speeches. He’ll do one-to-ones. Paul is very popular with the players but he is very fair. They know he’s a team man. It was funny at the local shops up near the Grange, they had all Ireland bunting and Paul took the mic and said: ‘I’m here as a European. Let’s park the Ireland bit and let’s get behind Europe. He’s very conscious of that.”
As Bollard cautions, Europe’s overwhelming recent record, winning seven of the last nine Ryder Cups, could galvanise the US to produce a fierce effort under Watson. “If Paul wins this Ryder Cup it will be a super achievement because the odds are quite wrong. The Yanks have to be very close. For their pride they are desperate to win again. So they got Tom Watson to help them win it. There’s no doubt about it. The Yanks are really up for this one.”
McGinley’s friends are just as ready for Gleneagles and Judge can barely contain his excitement when he explains how, “three of us guys who played Friday golf with Paul back in our college days are going over to watch him captain Europe. I was fortunate to be at the Belfry when he jumped in the water and we had a great time then. Paul’s a great man for getting us in the team room so we can share in the fun.”
Bollard and Shaw will also be at Gleneagles. “You have to go, don’t you?” Shaw says. “I had a great chat with him on Monday and, typically, Paul was asking more questions about my work. I’m sure he’s calling lots of his pals to get his release because, knowing Paul, all the work is done. It’s the way he operates. He leaves no stone unturned and that’s a great way to go into any testing moment in life – whether it’s college exams or the Ryder Cup. Whatever happens next weekend he’s going to be very influential in the world of golf. I think this is just the start for Paul. I’m lucky to have him as a friend but the sport is lucky to have him as our ambassador.”