It was a misty autumnal morning a year ago when the Ryder Cup was due to begin at The Belfry. If there was an eerie atmosphere it was because all the grandstands were empty and instead of members of the Ryder Cup teams the first tee was crowded with lucky punters, who in normal circumstances would only have been outside the ropes, not swinging away.
Except that one of those punters was a Ryder Cup player. Paul McGinley took some mates along to experience playing the Brabazon course, but it is only next week that the Irishman will do it for real. Whether that will be in the first morning fourballs on Friday remains to be seen. If Sam Torrance goes for experience then Padraig Harrington will be one of those in front of the rookie McGinley. If McGinley gets on the course before the singles it will likely be in the company of his fellow Dubliner.
Torrance attended the Seve Trophy match at Druids Glen last April and saw Harrington and McGinley combine for three wins out of four, while both added singles victories in Great Britain and Ireland's win over the Continent. Their only defeat came in an extraordinary fourball against Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. The Spaniards played the last eight holes in six under with two chip-ins and six putts to win 2 and 1.
McGinley is one of those players whose form has suffered during the 12-month postponement of the match. This time last year he was comfortably in the world's top 50 but he did not qualify for the AmEx World Championship now being played at Mount Juliet.
Harrington is sympathetic. "When I played in '99, I got into the team late and I was still on a high when the match came round," he said. "The guys who are in the first time have had to spend a year justifying that they are Ryder Cup players. People have been judging their every round for the last year. It is unfortunate they have spent the year proving something they have already done by qualifying."
McGinley did so by becoming one of the most consistent players in Europe, earning 12 top tens in 2001 and winning the Wales Open. Harrington, known for his runners-up finishes, called McGinley the "unluckiest golfer in the world" after beating him with three birdies in a row at the Volvo Masters.
But following the Seve Trophy in April his form collapsed. After The Open, he returned to Bob Torrance, his earlier coach and the man who has helped Harrington into the world's top 10, and is feeling happier about his swing than all summer.
What McGinley brings to the team is enthusiasm for team sport. Until he suffered a broken knee cap at the age of 19, he was a promising Gaelic footballer. "I'm very comfortable in a team position," he said. "My record as a team player has been very strong. I think a lot of that emanates from my years as a footballer. I've always enjoyed team sports, being part of a package. Obviously, I won the World Cup with Padraig and we've always performed well in the Dunhill Cup."
It was the undoubted highlight of both their careers when Harrington and McGinley won the World Cup at Kiawah Island in 1997. McGinley, having turned pro first and being almost five years older, was probably then still the senior partner. But Harrington made more progress afterwards, making his Ryder Cup debut at Brookline in 1999, and McGinley took note.
"Padraig and I were at a similar level a few years ago but then he got into the world's top 20 and now the top 10," he said. "I looked at what he was doing, analysed what he was doing differently. He has improved enormously. When he came on Tour he was a very average player. He chipped and putted majestically but now he has become one of the best ball strikers in the world.
"Why we make a good team is a lot to do with our backgrounds. We're both from Dublin and were brought up within a mile of each other. We went to the same school and played for the same football team. We know the same people and the same places. I find him a very easy person to get on with."
If McGinley wants to know what to expect this week he need only ask Harrington. "I had never experienced anything like it," he said of his debut. "It was very intense. It was not much fun. It was like a going on a roller-coaster ride – you only think it was fun afterwards. The Ryder Cup is pretty gruelling and the last thing you want to do the week afterwards is play in another match. But six months later you want to play in the next match and a year afterwards you actually think you enjoyed the last one."Reuse content