Ryder Cup 2021: What makes a winning captain? It’s not an exact science

The odds are stacked against Padraig Harrington’s players – but captains have defied predictions before

Tom Kershaw
Thursday 23 September 2021 14:17
USA Ryder Cup captain Stricker surprised by closeness of his team

In the early hours of Sunday morning in Brookline, knowing his flagging team were staring down the barrel, Ben Crenshaw played his Hail Mary. He called his close friend, George W Bush, then the governor of Texas, to deliver a speech to those in the fractious and frayed US locker room. And so, with the players waiting quizzically, Bush read aloud a letter sent by Colonel William Travis before the Battle of the Alamo, replete with pledges to “to never surrender or retreat”.

A few minutes later, after his final three words – “victory or death” – Bush promptly walked straight out the door without a moment’s hesitation. Overcome by hysterical patriotic pride, what followed amounted to a sporting massacre as the Americans won all of the first six singles matches and completed one of the most remarkable and contentious comebacks in Ryder Cup history. “I’ve never seen such firepower going out,” Crenshaw said afterwards, his clothes stained by champagne, as his players waved US flags from the balcony.

Numerous factors wield influence over the outcome of Ryder Cups, but the role of the captain sets the tone long before and after he’s established his team of 12. They are the strategist, the motivator and the mediator, capable of breathing life into an upset or suffocating all joy from the occasion. And Crenshaw has hardly been the only US leader to lean on the ideals of war. In 2008, Paul Azinger adopted a navy Seal strategy of dividing his players into like-minded pods, strengthening bonds and separating those who might cause friction. His side resoundingly humbled a confused European team, led by the aloof Sir Nick Faldo, whose questionable tactics saw him unkindly – but not altogether untruthfully – dubbed by one newspaper as the captain who failed from start to finish.

The captaincy is a highly charged mantle, an honour bestowed upon only the most respected players, but one that also forces them to wager a portion of that legacy. Padraig Harrington has publicly admitted as much in the build-up to Friday’s first tee-off, in spite of the fact that the odds seem so firmly stacked against his European team. On paper, they are underpowered on away soil and facing an American side that, although still sewn by implosive egos, contains eight of the world’s 10 best players and is younger than ever before, a new generation unburdened by a predilection for capitulation. What Harrington can do, though, is create a spirit that nullifies the gap and, in turn, stirs an irrepressible momentum.

“Without trying to send out the wrong message, I always say that a good Ryder Cup captain will make his players have the best time of their lives, whether they win or lose,” says Thomas Bjorn, who orchestrated Europe’s triumphant success when the tournament was last held in Paris. “Obviously, you want to win, but what you’re trying to do is create an environment that can bring these players together at the peak of their careers and make sure they give their best and utmost for the result.”

Bjorn and Harrington discussed the succession of the role at length, from the rigorous admin it requires to the small issues that crop up. The Dane relied heavily on experience with his wildcard picks and was accused of an old pals’ act when announcing Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson. But that quartet delivered a remarkable 9½ points that were instrumental to Europe’s lopsided victory. Harrington has somewhat followed suit, again calling on Poulter and Garcia, even if Shane Lowry was chosen at Justin Rose’s expense. Their presence has an almost hereditary advantage, too, passing down the famed sense of team spirit that’s spurred Europe to victory in seven out of the nine Ryder Cups this century. Beyond that, though, Bjorn’s best advice to Harrington was simply to “be true to yourself”.

“That’s how he’ll get the most out of himself, the team, and be able to enjoy it the most,” he says. “He already has the credibility as a golfer on both sides of the Atlantic. He just needs all 12 players to perform and that goes back to creating the environment.”

Harrington has been meticulous in those efforts, some of which became visible this week, even in small gimmicks such as playing to the Wisconsin crowd on Wednesday by attaching cartoon blocks of plastic cheese to the players’ hats. “We had multiple phone calls a week to plan,” says Graeme McDowell, one of Harrington’s vice-captains. “He’s incredibly into the Ryder Cup. It might sound cliche, but he wants to make sure every box is ticked, that the process is the best it can be so the environment is there to help these guys be winners.”

Those atmospheres have now been established and the scene is set, even if melding the rift between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka will have caused the US captain, Steve Stricker, undue stress. The pivotal role that remains is how a captain will set out their pairings. They have a wealth of painstakingly precise data at their disposal, provided by a team of professional analysts, who’ve assessed every strength and weakness imaginable. What they cannot determine, though, are the human intangibles – perhaps, the most important variable of all. They are the relationships between players, the emotions they draw from one other, and how those might strengthen or strain under such scrutinising pressure.

Team Europe captain Padraig Harrington during the second preview day of the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits

“It’s not about stats or equipment, it’s about what makes the players tick, their personalities and who fits with who,” says McDowell. “Take [Ian] Poulter for example. He’s going to thump his chest and have his eyes pop out of his head and that’s going to work with some players but not everybody. Someone like Tyrrell Hatton is already quite intense and creates a sort of flatlining mood on the golf course. He doesn’t need massive amounts of energy. Rory [McIlroy] is one of our flex players. He plays to the mood of who’s he with a little bit.”

It’s far from an exact science, although it wouldn’t have taken a genius to warn Hal Sutton that pairing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, arch-rivals at their peak in 2004, was a gamble more closely resemblingly a game of Russian roulette. Needless to say, it backfired explosively and resulted in a record-breaking defeat for the US.

It’s a matter of perception but also luck, risk but without being too reckless. In the end, though, ultimately, it’s about the dozen players who walk through the cauldron. Inevitably, some will rise to the occasion and others will sink. A captain can influence those fortunes, but he can’t control them. Yet, in such a nail-biting format, where the margins are so finite and matches and tournaments can turn on a stray bounce, one impassioned speech can still be the difference-maker. “Padraig’s a grinder, he’s intense and he leaves nothing behind when he plays,” says McDowell. “That’s what he wants from this team, to leave it all out there.” That gusto may not quite match Crenshaw’s mode of warmongering martyrdom, but it is a refusal to surrender all the same.

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