Listening to Padraig Harrington at Wentworth on Tuesday afternoon, you could understand why the words “daunting” and “trepidation” were deployed by a three-time major champion when describing his feelings about the job he had just accepted.
As you might have expected from an Irish sporting hero not given to glibness and always willing to go the extra few minutes in trying to get his point across, this was an unveiling of a European Ryder Cup captain that saw the principal character engage his considerable intellect rather than rely on a big reputation and coast through it with throwaway soundbites.
Sure, Harrington could have taken the easy route, rambled on about the honour of being appointed to lead Team Europe into the 2020 contest at Whistling Straits, had his lunch and then climbed back aboard a private jet without a second thought. But we all know that is not the way this Ryder Cup captain will operate.
— Ryder Cup Europe (@RyderCupEurope) January 8, 2019
This skipper will pour heart, soul and plenty of brainpower into the job for the next 20 months to ensure he puts his team in the best possible position to secure what would be a rare victory on American soil.
So why is he daunted by the captaincy?
You would have guessed he put as much consideration into whether or not to take the job as he will in every decision he makes in it between now and September 2020.
And chief among concerns was the possibility he could emerge from the experience with his reputation somehow tarnished should things go awry and the Americans inflict another defeat on their home turf as they did at Hazeltine National last time out to Darren Clarke’s team in 2016.
Harrington was one of the vice captains on that team, the second of three times he has served another skipper in addition to his six appearances as a player. He saw how the PGA of America wised up to a series of defeats and got their act together in terms of staging the course in patriotic red like never before.
He heard the raucous USA! USA! USA! galleries tip over the edge of acceptable behaviour, not helped by the own goal scored by the online comments of European debutant Danny Willett’s brother and he saw a major-winning captain’s side fail in the face of uncontrollable problems.
When that happens to a guy like Clarke, who Harrington grew up alongside in elite golf, the effects of such a defeat can hit home quite hard.
Another part of Harrington’s trepidation is precisely the fact that 2020 will see the Ryder Cup return to the United States on September 25-27 of that year and you can count the number of European victories on that side of the Atlantic on four fingers.
Great Britain never managed a win Stateside, nor GB & Ireland, and in the 10 meetings away from Europe since continental golfers joined the party in 1979,Tony Jacklin at Muirfield Village in 1987, Bernard Gallacher at Oak Hill in 1995, Bernhard Langer in 2004 at Oakland Hills and Jose Maria Olazabal eight years later in Medinah have been the only captains to return to these shores with the gold trophy in their mitts.
So Harrington was immediately behind the 8-ball when he accepted the job, his path to the captaincy facilitated, incidentally, by Lee Westwood stating his desire to be the 2022 skipper on European soil in Italy.
You cannot blame Westwood for wishing to pass on a Stateside gig but Harrington, having won the PGA Championship there in 2008 at Oakland Hills – the course in Detroit where he was a member of Langer’s winning dozen four years earlier – knows the time is right is right for him to lead the team away from home.
He has a profile as a much loved and respected champion over there, an affinity with a huge Irish-American golfing community and Whistling Straits on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin is within reach of a sizeable expat gathering of fellow Irishmen in Chicago, ever eager to fly the Tricolour when the opportunity arises, as was the case when Ireland beat the All Blacks in the Windy City in 2016.
Harrington also made a point on Tuesday of describing Whistling Straits is “at least European-style”.
That Harrington weighed all this up and still said “yes” bodes well for Europe. He referenced previous European captains who may not have been wholehearted in their approach, who may have rested on their laurels as former players and not devoted themselves to the cause of winning the Ryder Cup. Yet the Ryder Cup is littered with examples of great players not cutting it as captains, in both team rooms while not so great players have turned into excellent leaders.
Of the latter type, surely Thomas Bjorn, Europe’s winning captain last September is an obvious example and so too 2014 skipper Paul McGinley, both of whom Harrington served as vice-captain in the victories at Le Golf National and Gleneagles respectively.
It was McGinley who Harrington jokingly cursed on Tuesday for turning the role into a full-time job yet you get the feeling the 2020 skipper is more than capable of executing that role to perfection over the next 20 months. In fact, it is difficult to imagine anyone better suited to the European captaincy than Harrington.