Looking back on 2006: Woosnam - 'I was ready to resign after Bjorn's outburst'
In the second of our series of major interviews with pivotal sporting figures from the past year, Ian Woosnam reveals how a secret vote of confidence saved his captaincy and spurred Europe to glory in the Ryder Cup
Three months on and Ian Woosnam is still burning with anger, still resentful that he cannot look back on what he calls "the proudest triumph of my career" without the memory being marred by what he calls "the lowest point of my career".
"I was prepared to resign," he says, revealing for the first time how close he came to quitting as Europe captain before the Ryder Cup had even begun. "All it would have needed was for my players to show the slightest reservation about my captaincy and I would have walked. That's why I got them around a table and asked them." That table was in the clubhouse of the K Club, two weeks before that manicured patch of County Kildare became the focus of the sporting world.
The Welshmen had secretly whisked his side over to Ireland for a reconnaissance mission, or at least the half of his team who did not happen to be appearing in the European Masters that week. The playing party comprised Darren Clarke, Luke Donald, Jose-Maria Olazabal, David Howell, Padraig Harrington and Paul Casey, and arrived determined to work out the nuances of the Palmer Course, just like Tom Lehman's men supposedly had a few weeks before.
But before the answers came Woosnam's big question. "I had to know if any of them agreed with Thomas Bjorn," he says. "What he'd said really knocked me sideways. I was still reeling out there." That is hardly surprising. It was only a few days after Bjorn had reacted rather badly to being overlooked for one of Woosnam's two wild cards. In the hours following Clarke's and Lee Westwood's nominations, the Dane had launched a verbal attack on Woosnam that was unprecedented in the genteel world of golf. Among other things, he accused Woosnam of being "barmy" and "the most pathetic captain I've ever seen".
Bjorn claimed his main gripe, however, was not so much his own exclusion - although he did go on to detail a laborious explanation as to why he should have been favoured over Westwood - but Woosnam's "lack of communication". He said that the Welshman "hasn't spoken to me for six months, and then I find that I'm not in the team by watching it on television". Furthermore, Bjorn warned that some of the players who had made the team had told him that they had been similarly ignored and were also "uneasy about this man's captaincy". "That's the bit that worried me most," recalls Woosnam. "Not all the personal stuff, although that obviously hurt, but that members of my own team might be uneasy with me.
"I sat them down and said, 'If anyone's got a problem with me being captain and agree with Thomas in any way, then speak now'. Fortunately, there was a silence and to a man they backed me, as did the other boys I spoke to on the phone. That was the vote of confidence I needed. I could move on and concentrate purely on the match. Thomas Bjorn was forgotten then." In the European team room perhaps. But in the offices of Woosnam's solicitors, the details of Bjorn's broadside were still being pored over. "You know, some of what he said about me was actionable," says Woosnam. "And I did consider suing. But in the end I didn't want to put a shadow over the competition or what it should, and has been, remembered for."
But what of his relationship with Bjorn? Does a shadow still hang over that, an entire eclipse perchance? "Well, a few weeks later, I did bump into him at the Dunhill [Links Championship at St Andrews]," says Woosnam. "He apologised - we shook hands and I said ,'Don't worry, it's all water under the bridge'. But, you know, when people ask me if I'm OK with him now, I always refer to something he said in his rant against me - 'Things will never be the same between us again'. He's right. They won't be."
And neither, one cannot fail to deduce, will they ever be between Woosnam and certain golf writers, a fraternity he has always regarded with suspicion anyway. "Some of their articles in the wake of it all, confirmed to me why I've never trusted the press," he says. "They weren't content just to report what Thomas said, but a few had to twist the knife in further. It was like open season against me and anything and everything seemed fair game.
"They had a go about my intelligence, about me being rude and careless, about my height even, although what's that got to do with my suitability to being a captain, God only knows. What I did know was that, when the play got started, I'd be a good captain. I've never claimed to be a good speaker and all the way through was very honest about how nervous I was about that aspect of the job. But I never had any anxiety about my knowledge of how to get that little ball down the hole and the best way to give the players the best environment to make it possible.
"Yes, it was nice to prove that I was a decent captain and to stick the two fingers up." Except, Woosnam's digits rigidly remained the Churchillian way around. Instead of gloating, he sat in the media centre and accepted victory like graciousness in golf spikes. "To be honest I felt like it. I felt like doing a Zidane, if you like, but it didn't seem right and wouldn't have been right." he says. "We had just had such a marvellous and emotional three days that it was the time to act like a man and keep my dignity. Anyway, the result said it all."
Indeed, the record-equalling 18 1/ 2 - 9 1/ 2 scoreline was one giant statement, although perhaps not quite as gigantic as that of Woosnam's in those glorious moments of celebration. He grins when you remind him of his delicious hyperbole - "The greatest week in history ever" - and laughs when you tell him what one of the wags in the press room retorted - "Well Woosie's certainly put all that palaver in Bethlehem in its place".
"Hey, it may have been over the top," he says. "But in that atmosphere, after what happened on the 16th green and everything, I can tell you it was easy to be. You know if someone had asked me at the start of the week if I believed in destiny I would have said, 'Get away with you'. But the way everything panned out for Darren, I'm now certain that it was destiny. It was the ultimate tribute to Heather..."
Woosnam's voice tails off. He is still liable to well up when discussing Clarke and all of the emotion surrounding the grieving husband playing in memory of his recently lost wife. It was Woosnam who had the poise and class to quieten the triumphant scenes for long enough to dedicate the week to Heather, which was appropriate on all counts.
After all, it was Woosnam who had been brave enough to allow Clarke the chance. "I never doubted Darren for one second," he says. "He's much like me, a born fighter who tells it like it is and when he said he was ready and able that was good enough to me. As a captain I had to keep an eye on him, though, and there was no way he was going out on the first afternoon after how much the morning had taken out of him. But Darren was the first to accept that. He is a great, great Ryder Cup player, just like Lee is, and they have one hell of a partnership. One goes with the other, especially this time as Darren needed his best mate next to him. I would have been daft not to take both of them." Indeed, their selection in the opening fourballs was taken as read, although the exclusion of three of his four highest ranked players was somewhat of a surprise.
Donald and Howell would certainly have been expecting to have been involved from the outset and were obviously taken aback not to be. It was here that Woosnam produced the instant of leadership he is plainly most proud of. "It was the last practice round on the Thursday and Peter Baker [my assistant] was out with the boys who were not picked for the fourballs. He buzzed me on the walkie-talkie saying, 'Woosie get over here, we've got a problem'. I arrived at their hole, only to find four of the worst cases of bad body language you'll ever see [Paul McGinley and Henrik Stenson were the other players].
"They were just so miserable at being left out. That's when I made my mind up - everyone's going to have a game on the first day, nobody's going to feel excluded. I walked across the fairway and told them they were all playing in the afternoon foursomes. The effect was immediate; suddenly they all had a spring in their step."
Meanwhile, the Americans only had a dull thud in theirs, a contrast so glaring that the Cup's destination was known a long way out. Not for Woosnam, though. "It all goes in such a blur," he says. "The putts keep going down and cheers keep coming and you're barely able to have a reality check and stand back to take in exactly what's going on.
"In fact, it never really hit home how far clear we were until I was in a buggy with Pete [Baker] heading towards yet another green where we were about to win another singles match. He said, 'Woosie look at all that blue on that scoreboard. Imagine how Lehman's feeling now'. And it was incredible, there was the blue of Europe all over it, with barely the red of the States to be seen. I really felt for Tom then.
"He's a good bloke and a good captain. Granted, there were a few of things in the match itself which he may have done differently but it wouldn't have made much difference. I'm glad that Paul [Azinger, the new captain] has got them to change the qualifying system and his four captain's picks will ensure they get the best guys there. But I honestly believe it didn't matter which team they arrived with in Dublin. The end result would have been the same whatever. Our team was so much stronger. Both on and off the course."
Evidence of the latter is perhaps best encapsulated in Woosnam's recollection of the after-match party. "We were all there in our team room, at the bar, drinking, dancing, generally having a laugh when Tom came in and asked us if we'd like to join them in their team room," he says. "Fair enough, they're all nice guys. But when we got in there, they weren't at the bar but were playing ping-pong. Now where I come from ping-pong is not how we party. Each to their own, I suppose."
Woosnam stops short of launching a full offensive on the American character and not necessarily just because he has tentatively put himself forward to resume as captain in Newport in four years' time.
"You know, it would be fantastic to do it in Wales," he admits. "I've seen what the Ryder Cup did to Ireland and to be involved when it brings all that excitement to my own country would be a dream. But I probably have to accept that it isn't going to happen. There are some great men out there who deserve the chance to. I've had my shot."
So, too, did Bjorn. Fortunately for Woosnam, Europe and yes, even Bjorn, it did not cause the damage it just might have.
Year by year: Woosie's quick hits
Where did you watch the World Cup final and what did you make of it?
I watched it in Ireland as it was the European Open that weekend. I just felt it was such a shame to see one of sport's genuine greats like Zidane, go out in such controversy.
What was your funniest moment of 2006?
It's got to be Tiger Woods's caddie Steve Williams trying to clean his boss's nine-iron on the seventh during the last day of the Ryder Cup and dropping it to the bottom of the lake. Tiger showed what a good bloke he is by laughing himself silly.
Apart from golf, what was your favourite sporting event?
Was there another sporting event? I didn't notice. Although I do remember super-middle-weight Joe Calzaghe's annihilation of that American [Jeff Lacy].
What is your target for 2007?
To master the conventional putter and win one last tournament on the regular tour.
Tomorrow: Andy Murray on his 12 months
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