Paul McGinley: 'It would be a huge honour to be the first Irish captain'

The Brian Viner Interview: He sank the winning putt in 2002, and has ambitions to lead the team in 2012. But first, as Monty's lieutenant, he has work to do this week, and he knows it won't be easy

Paul McGinley, three times a Ryder Cup player, three times a winner, and now one of the European team's quartet of vice-captains, arrives on the sunlit terrace at Wentworth Golf Club 35 minutes late for our interview, a misunderstanding for which, over the ensuing hour, he apologises 14 times.

The 43-year-old Dubliner is the most affable and engaging of men, and yet on this occasion a slightly reluctant interviewee, so keen is he not to do or say anything that will divert attention from captain Colin Montgomerie. "It's Monty's show," he says, almost as often as he says sorry for keeping me waiting.

But what kind of show will Monty's show be? I tell McGinley what Nick Faldo once said to me, that the significance of a Ryder Cup captain is vastly overblown, that it really doesn't make that much difference who the captain is because he's only as good as his players, and besides, any captain can send out two major champions only to see them lose 4&3 to a pair of rookies. A few years later Faldo was anointed captain himself, and doubtless changed his mind, although he might have changed it back again after the walloping Europe got on his watch two years ago. Whatever, I don't expect McGinley to agree with the theory that the captaincy role has been exaggerated and nor does he.

"It's huge," he says. "My first Ryder Cup captain was Sam [Torrance] at the Belfry in 2002, and it was because of Sam that we won. The US team was much stronger than us, in better form than us, but Sam's strategy was great. He'd learnt lessons from [the 1999 defeat at] Brookline, and he made sure all the rookies played before Sunday, which didn't happen at Brookline. Then on the Sunday he loaded the strength at the top [of the singles matches], which again didn't happen at Brookline. Sometimes you learn more from your losses than your wins. I think the loss there was the foundation for all the success we've had in the last 10 years."

With, of course, the notable exception of Valhalla in 2008. Does McGinley ascribe that defeat as much to Faldo's strategy as he does the 2002 win to Torrance's? A cautious smile. Keen as he is to atone for his lateness, he's not going to play along with any Faldo-bashing. "All I'll say about '08 is that [US captain] Paul Azinger did a great job, in the way he motivated his team, the way he played the media. I don't think we lost so much as they won. Azinger was the difference in '08 just as Sam was the difference in '02."

More than anything, he adds, it was Torrance's man-management eight years ago that lifted the players, giving them the self-belief to go out and play well, and none more obviously than McGinley himself, who in securing a half in his singles match with Jim Furyk struck the 10ft putt that won back the Ryder Cup.

"A lot of the passion I have for the Ryder Cup comes from Sam. But the part I played at The Belfry that week is overplayed. I was in a position to put the icing on the cake, but the heavy work was done by Monty, Lee [Westwood], Darren [Clarke], whereas in '04 I was one of the players who did the donkey work. I played great that week. Me and Padraig [Harrington] beat Tiger [Woods] and Davis Love in the Saturday fourballs, and in the singles I beat Stewart Cink 3&2."

His captain that memorable weekend at Oakland Hills was Bernhard Langer, very different from Torrance, but a formidable operator in other ways. "He was very clever at breaking down those vociferous Detroit crowds. He wanted us pally with them during the practice rounds, and because the US had a policy of no autographs, Bernhard told us to do the opposite. I had three brilliant captains. Woosie [Ian Woosnam] in '06 was great because he didn't over-complicate things; he felt the template was there from our success in Detroit. There was no ego with Woosie, and he played everybody on the first day, which was a real vote of confidence. He said, 'no matter what the score is, the guys not playing in the morning will play in the afternoon'. Mind you, we had a strong team that year. The two rookies were [Robert] Karlsson and [Henrik] Stenson."

The team for Celtic Manor, however, McGinley considers even stronger, maybe the strongest ever fielded by Europe, although it will need to be. "We're really up against it, playing a strong US team in form. But I'm confident we will win." And so to captain Monty; not as universally popular as Torrance and Woosnam, and certainly not as unflappable as Langer, but in McGinley's view, unequivocally the right man in the right job at the right time. "He commands a lot of respect from everyone. And he's very, very motivated to win."

Maybe this motivation stems partly from the near-certainty that he, Monty, will never now win a major championship. Those eight European orders of merit, seven of them consecutive, and those 23 and a half Ryder Cup points, seven of them garnered from six wins and two halves in his eight singles matches, surely add up to a substantially greater achievement than winning a single USPGA, for example, yet people still bang on about the majors. Reclaiming the Ryder Cup as captain would armour himself even more against that old jibe. Which is not to say that Monty is on a personal crusade this week. Clearly, he loves the team thing, and so does McGinley.

"When I captained the [Great Britain and Ireland] boys at the Vivendi Trophy last year I told them that the most fun I've had playing golf is being part of a team. I love the energy you get from it, the banter." But Jack Nicklaus said not so long ago that team golf, and specifically the Ryder Cup, is a frippery, that only the majors really count. "That's easy for Jack Nicklaus to say, he's won 18 of them. But look at Monty's passion for the Ryder Cup. Is that why he hasn't won majors? No, he's just been damn unlucky. Sport's like that sometimes. And majors are not the be-all and end-all of being a successful golfer."

True enough, and there's no better example than Montgomerie, but let's play hypotheticals. McGinley has had six top-20 finishes in major championships. Would he exchange outright victory in one of them for all three of his Ryder Cup wins?

A moment's reflection. "I'd love to have won a major, of course I would. But look at the way some majors are won. You can play two hours before the leader and end up as the winner coming up on the blind side. Is that something to be prouder of than playing a part in three Ryder Cup wins? That's a debate to have over dinner, and a few bottles of wine."

Since we're only having morning coffee, this is no time to develop the debate further. But here's a valid question: is it right that the first British golfer to win the Open since Tony Jacklin, and the first Brit ever to win the Masters, namely Sandy Lyle, was not rewarded with the Ryder Cup captaincy? "I feel sorry for Sandy, yes. His window just didn't open at the right time. But we were unanimously for Monty, and it's important we re-establish ourselves as winners. You know, during the Ryder Cup every pub in Ireland is packed, every golf club. If I holed a putt to win a major those fans would be happy for me, but in the Ryder Cup they're happy for themselves, and that's a more intense emotion."

It is neatly put, a reminder that here is a man with many of the qualities required to be a good European captain. He's bright, thoughtful, eloquent and popular, and even more significantly, he wants it. "I wouldn't want to convince myself that I'm going to get it. But yes, it would be a huge honour to be the first Irish captain." In the meantime, he is still coming to terms with having only a supporting brief in team golf. "It is unnerving as a current player to wake up at 6.30am and realise that you're not going to play, that you don't have to structure the morning around your tee-time. I found that at the Vivendi, and it will be the same once the Ryder Cup begins."

Another quality of McGinley's that would be useful in a captain is that he's not scared of confronting difficult issues. He has been blunt in his criticism of the so-called "FedEx Four" – Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Luke Donald and his old mucker Harrington, who went to the same secondary school as McGinley – for chasing the buck in the States rather than attempting to qualify for the team over here. Presumably he offered Montgomerie his advice in the tricky business of deciding which of those players to leave out?

"We're there to bounce ideas off, but Monty makes his own decisions, and that was a very tough one. He would have been criticised no matter what he did. But you cannot get away from the fact that Paul put himself in a precarious position. There is certainly an argument for changing [the selection process]. Instead of three picks would you go with one, encouraging the guys to qualify? If there'd been no picks at all would those guys have played the last two events? We'll probably never know."

Probably not, and in any case it is a discussion to be had looking back rather than forward at this 38th Ryder Cup. For now, McGinley has his vice-captaincy duties to discharge, and while he's made it clear that he wants no share of the limelight, what does he think he will bring to the party? What can he offer that Montgomerie doesn't have himself?

"Well, one example is that Monty's played in eight Ryder Cups and always been a top player. He doesn't know what it feels like to just about make the team, to feel as though you're 10, 11, or 12 in that team. I kind of do. I've always been at best six or seven, but normally between eight and 12, so if there's a situation with a certain player, then I might be able to say things to him that he'd find relevant, things Monty couldn't. That's why, if I'm ever lucky enough to be captain, I'd want a top player helping me, because I don't know what it's like to be number one or two in the team. I think that's how Monty has picked his backroom [of McGinley, Clarke, Thomas Bjorn and Sergio Garcia]."

Whatever, let us hope that the 17 men in European Ryder Cup uniform cause the right kind of splash in South Wales these next few days; that is, the kind of splash that McGinley generated at The Belfry in 2002, when as part of the celebrations by the 18th green, he was chucked into the lake. "Darren and Harrington were the two culprits," he recalls with a huge grin. "They lifted me from behind while I was doing a radio interview, and knowing what was coming, all I could think was that David Feherty had given me a gold marker he'd used in his first Ryder Cup. He'd given it to me as an Irish rookie, saying 'this might bring you a bit of luck'. So all I could think of was Feherty's marker, which somehow I managed to get out of my front pocket and into my back pocket with the button down, before I went in. Afterwards, Feherty said to me 'is my marker at the bottom of that lake?' And I was able to say no, and pulled it it out of my wet trousers."

It is a suitably soggy story with which to raise the curtain on what seems likely to be a soggy few days in South Wales. Soggy but victorious. Just how McGinley likes it.

The men in charge...

Europe

The captain

Colin Montgomerie The Ryder Cup was Monty's major at the Belfry in 2002, and he sank the winning putt at Oakland Hills two years later. After eight appearances as a player, he has the chance to sign off in style by reclaiming the trophy Nick Faldo's team lost two years ago.

Vice-captains

Paul McGinley The likeable Irishman will always be remembered for holing the winning putt in 2002, sparking wild celebrations that included a dip in the lake at the Belfry.

Darren Clarke Match play suited his aggressive approach to golf, but his finest hour came in 2006 when he was the emotional heart of Ian Woosnam's team following the death of his wife Heather to breast cancer.

Sergio Garcia A surprise choice as assistant but when Garcia offered, Montgomerie was only too grateful to accept. He brings energy, enthusiasm, and is sure to annoy any American within a range of 100 yards.

Thomas Bjorn Bjorn has played in two Ryder Cup Matches and was on the winning side each time in 1997 and 2002. The Dane was also one of Bernhard Langer's assistants when Europe won at Oakland Hills.

United States

The captain

Corey Pavin The 50-year-old is a tough competitor, with eight points from a possible 13 in his three appearances. He has played Monty three times in the Ryder Cup, winning once and losing twice.

Vice-captains

Paul Goydos The reason Pavin chose a journeyman with no Ryder Cup experience is because he is one of his best mates. Outspoken and unconventional, Goydos could be an inspired appointment – or a stinking one.

Jeff Sluman Another assistant who has no experience of the Ryder Cup, Sluman is close to captain Pavin but not to the players on the team.

Tom Lehman The losing captain in 2006, the last time Europe hosted the event, returns as an assistant. His time as a player is best remembered for his unsporting celebrations on the 17th green at Brookline in 1999.

Davis Love III Love's record is modest, having played in six Ryder Cups and lost four. The youngest of Pavin's team, he is hardly the type of character to bring the players together.

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