Golf: The art of losing friends and influencing matches

Ryder Cup: Andrew Longmore studies the curious complexities of the captain's cup role
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The Independent Online
MARK JAMES, the idiosyncratic captain of Europe's Ryder Cup team, has already discovered that winning the Cup might be one thing, winning friends quite another. Not that James has ever been noted for courting popularity either with fellow players or Press, but it can probably be said with some certainty that, come Christmas, no cards with "Best wishes, from Bernhard" or "Have a happy new millennium, from Nick" will drop on to his doormat. Faldo's omission from the team was a surprise to no one other than the player, but the strange decision to prefer Andrew Coltart to Langer, while typical of James, could yet be a source of regret.

The history of the Ryder Cup is littered with broken relationships, most of them nothing to do with the opposition. Tony Jacklin picked Jose Rivero over Christy O'Connor Junior for the 1985 Ryder Cup at The Belfry. O'Connor had missed qualification by a few pounds and was devastated by his omission from a team led by a close personal friend. "Christy was very upset," Jacklin recalled recently. "In fact, he only spoke to me once in the next four years and that was when my wife died. He came up to me and said he was sorry."

Jacklin did pick O'Connor in 1989 over Philip Walton and the friendship was revived. He defends both decisions to this day, arguing that Rivero had won at The Belfry before and that O'Connor's experience gave him the rightful edge over Walton. Singularity of mind has always been one of the requirements for one of sport's more curious jobs, along with judgement, patience, humility, the ability to inspire, console and cajole, sensitivity, determination, authority. It is captaining a cricket team without being able to bat or bowl. Golfers spend 23 and a half of every 24 months worrying solely about their own form; by the nature of their profession, they are happy in their own company. For roughly a week they are pitched into a communal bath, asked to bond with players they probably don't know particularly well or, possibly, like very much. The captain has a week to forge a sense of collective which extends beyond the matching colour co-ordinates of the slacks and sweaters. It is a subtle art. Some players demand attention, some like to be left to their own devices. "Captains are funny things," as Neil Coles said. "Some inspire you, others don't." Bernard Gallacher's calm authority proved as effective as Seve's impression of Sonic the Hedgehog.

Ballesteros would have hit every ball for every member of his team in every match. As it was, he had to content himself with being Michael Schumacher in a golf buggy, managing to be in so many places at once; Tom Kite, his implacable opposite number, was convinced there were two Ballesteroses on the course. The hands-on approach did not find favour with the elders. Ian Woosnam was less than impressed with being told how to play his approach shot to the 18th, while Montgomerie, who had to get a par on the last hole against Scott Hoch to win the cup, responded to similar interference with a muttered "Buggy off, Seve."

So nervous did the captain's presence make Thomas Bjorn, a Ryder Cup rookie, he lost the first four holes to Justin Leonard only to pull back to all square once Seve had rushed off. Yet Ballesteros enthused his side with an overwhelming will to win, as much by his verve as by his insistence that all practice matches should be played for pounds 100 stakes.

How James, an intense individual, will react to the varied pressures of captaincy will be one of the more intriguing sub-themes of an event which generates its own thundering headlines. Judging character is as critical as judging form. It is widely presumed that Coltart has been selected as an all-Scottish partner for Montgomerie, the mainstay of the European team. But, with seven Ryder Cup rookies in his team, James's instinct will be tested to the limit in the selection of his pairings for the first two days and the order of his singles in the last. Having been one himself on the 1979 team - Ballesteros reputedly wanted to break down a hotel door and thump him - James should know about disruptive influences at least.

Water under the bridge, James terms that Ryder Cup, and, once on the course, his tenacity was never in question. Opposite him will be Ben Crenshaw, a contrast in almost every way. Crenshaw's respect for the traditions and etiquette of the game should ensure that the jingoism which is an essential element of the three days does not spill over into the golf. Both captains are united in opposing payment for playing in the Ryder Cup, which is an encouraging start. At some point over the three days at the Country Club in Brookline, the spotlight will fall full on to the face of one player. "I didn't see the crowds," Monty recalled of his final hole against Hoch two years ago. "All I could see was my 11 team-mates looking back at me."

The simple skill of the captain is to get the right man in the right place at the right time.