Rory McIlroy was straight on the tweet button volunteering his support for Paul McGinley as the man to lead Europe against Tom Watson’s Americans at Gleneagles yesterday.
The appointment of Watson to the role of Ryder Cup captain adds an intriguing element to European deliberations ahead of the formal vote taken by the tournament committee next month.
That the world’s No 1 golfer should be bothered to voice an opinion at all via the ether reflects the growing importance of a role once considered ceremonial. That was in the days when the United States would routinely spank the Anglo-Saxon rear and the event had to beg broadcasters for airtime. Not in the European epoch.
The return of Watson is designed not only to halt a run of just two wins in nine events but to fulfil the Hollywood component the Ryder Cup has acquired in recent years. It is both a ratings winner and commercial powerhouse, with estimates putting its value to the Chicago region at $130m (£80m). The opening ceremony is only a firework or two shy of a state occasion. Indeed, Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond was an early responder to the Watson announcement, offering the congratulations of a nation and pledging a warm response in 2014.
So how do Europe respond? The two candidates at the head of the queue are diametrically opposed in terms of character and achievement. Darren Clarke has the record and the profile, McGinley the love of Europe’s most important player, McIlroy, and its talisman, Ian Poulter, who raised the flag for the Dubliner at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai last month. The recent selection pattern has followed the American practice of rewarding tour loyalty and outstanding achievement. Captains have tended to range in age between 45 and 51 and boast at least one major on their résumé. The only European captain since 2004 not to have a major in the bank was Colin Montgomerie, but he was a runner-up five times, won the European Order of Merit seven times on the spin and reached No 2 in the world rankings.
Clarke has the major, bagged memorably in the wind and rain of Royal St George’s last year, more than 20 tournament wins around the world and a unique Ryder Cup narrative associated with the death of his first wife, Heather, to cancer on the eve of the 2006 tournament at the K Club in Dublin, where he won the hearts of the nation.
Thus Clarke has the Hollywood credentials to pitch against Watson at Gleneagles. McGinley, who sank the putt that won the Ryder Cup at The Belfry 10 years ago, is a popular figure on tour, and successfully captained Great Britain & Ireland at the Vivendi Trophy in Paris last year, but has nothing like the wider appeal of Clarke.
No smoke signals yet from the European Tour indicating which way the vote might go, only recognition of the stature of the American leading the foe. Richard Hills, European Ryder Cup director, said: “Tom is one of the most highly respected individuals the game of golf has known and will bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the role.”