Hal Sutton’s Cowboy Hat.
Four little words that stand as an eternal rebuke to those inclined to dismiss the Ryder Cup captaincy as an irrelevance in a contest where no-one driving a golf cart or holding a walkie-talkie to his ear has ever holed a 20-foot putt with a continent’s hopes on the line.
Dear old Hal, a sensational golfer in his day, was captain of a 2004 US team beaten by a record margin on home soil, in large part because of his ill-preparedness and hat-induced hubris. Remember the famous photograph of Tiger Woods staring with undisguised contempt at his partner Phil Mickelson after big Lefty had fired a drive out-of-bounds at Oakland Hills? That was Hal’s idea.
Tiger and Phil – the two dominant players in the world at that time – lost both of their matches on the opening day of the 2004 contest and with that went any chance of a US victory.
At least Hal didn’t have to wait long for company in the Ryder Cup pantheon of dunces. Four years later, Nick Faldo – another sensational player, of course – offered a master-class in useless captaincy. Self-absorbed and ill prepared in equal measure, the Englishman gave Sutton a run for his money in the bumbling idiocy stakes, from a mis-judged speech at the opening ceremony to a week of truly appalling man management.
Europe lost that year to a US team featuring Boo Weekley and Kenny Perry, which really did take some doing.
Lessons can be learned from the 2004 and 2008 Ryder Cups, one of which is that great players don’t necessarily make great Ryder Cup captains. Another is that captains matter, even if only put an anchor on their own team’s chances.
All credit to Bernhard Langer, who’s team beat Sutton’s squad in 2004, and to Azinger, who led the Yanks to victory four years later, but they were helped by their opposite number. Jimmy Krankie would have out-captained Sutton in 2004. Likewise, Shania Twain would have done a number on Faldo. But the stoic German and the feisty Yank helped themselves by being brilliant in their own, individual ways.
Langer captained like he played – calmly and with the emphasis on logic rather than emotion. By 2004, the European team operation had developed system of detailed preparation and mature man-management that had first started under the captaincy of Tony Jacklin back in the 1980s. All the German had to do was not mess up and he more than obliged.
Azinger, for his part, re-wrote the book in the aftermath of the two crushing defeats for the US in 2004 and 2006. He introduced new team management techniques, not least a “pod” system which divided his squad of 12 into three smaller groups, with the powerful effect of strengthening the team bond and giving the players greater responsibility.
Azinger’s methods were absolute genius so naturally the US team abandoned them for a few years, which allowed Europe to win three Ryder Cups on the bounce. Tom Watson’s catastrophic leadership in 2014, allied with Paul McGinley’s brilliant stewardship of the Europe squad, caused a Phil Mickelson-led mutiny among the American players, forcing the creation of the infamous Ryder Cup task force.
After a long and detailed examination of the issues, the task force came up with an ingenious idea – copy what Europe does, which is to say, ensure continuity of ideas and leadership by selecting captains from the ranks of previous vice-captains, give greater voice and responsibility to players in all team matters, and leave nothing chance when it comes to preparation. Low and behold, the US won in 2016.
This brings us to 2018, which will be something of a curiosity in that both teams will arrive in France with broadly similar preparation and game-planning. On paper, the US might have the marginally better team but that advantage will surely be offset by the local knowledge acquired by European players over the years on playing the French Open on the Ryder Cup course. That leaves us with the captains, Thomas Bjorn and Jim Furyk, whose contributions in the context of such parity are destined to be the deciding factor.
It’s a fascinating contest this year because the two men cut such different figures – Bjorn is passionate bloke whose emotions can be judged from the other end of a par-five. Furyk is harder to read than a book written in visible ink.
Both men will be supported by a vast support network so it’s unimaginable that they will mess up the small stuff (remember the 2010 US team’s “waterproof” suits that let water in?)
But when it comes to pairings, to managing egos and building team spirit the captains set the tone, they are the final arbiters. History suggests that the winner will be one who approaches the job with calmness and authority, who avoids taking risks and enjoys a little luck. Sounds like Furyk to me.