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Battle of the Captains

Are the US and European Ryder Cup Captains up to the job

Posted Sep 17, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece


During the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, Mark O’Meara sparked quite a rumpus by enquiring publicly as to where all the profits went from the event, and why the players didn’t share in the considerable loot.  Had he kept his mouth shut, he would probably have earned about $2 million as captain of the US team at The K Club in 2006.  So, where O’Meara scuppered his own prospects, what sort of captain will emerge at Medinah next week from the quietly-crafted aspirations of Jose Maria Olazabal?

He will certainly fill one American requirement in that he is the winner of a Major championship.  In fact he has two Masters green jackets to his credit.  And in terms of potential leadership qualities, he possesses the advantage of having showed himself to be a doughty fighter in the heat of Ryder Cup battle.  US skipper Davis Love, on the other hand, is probably too nice a man for the job.

It is no coincidence that the most successful US captains of recent decades, Dave Stockton and Paul Azinger, were not overly concerned about the niceties of matchplay.  They had the simple objective of recapturing a trophy which Americans seem to believe is theirs by right.  And they proceeded to see the task through to a satisfactory conclusion.

From a European perspective, Olazabal is different from those leaders who have gone before him.  Though probably not as competitively tough as Faldo, he is far more passionate about the task and more conscious of the necessity of motivating his troops. He is also a lot more devious than he might appear.  You don’t play 15 Ryder Cup matches as a partner to Seve Ballesteros without picking up some tricks of the trade along the way.  Indeed I can recall the infamous confrontation with Azinger and Chip Beck in the opening foursomes at Kiawah Island in 1991, when Olazabal showed himself to be a very capable provocateur while Ballesteros quietly provided the ammunition.

Love is a very different animal.  Mild-mannered by nature, he has achieved success in golf because of remarkable skill at the game, rather than competitive steel.  This is illustrated by the fact that he won only nine out of 26 Ryder Cup matches between 1993 and 2004.  And during that period, he figured in only two victorious American teams, in 1993 and 1999.   Which would suggest he is unlikely to bring anything like the fire and passion into the team-room that the European players may anticipate from Olazabal.

In fact it appears that the only really positive thing from a European perspective to emerge from the last American adventure at Valhalla in 2008, was Olazabal’s speech to the players in the team-room on the Saturday night.  Graeme McDowell recently made a particular point of highlighting it as a seriously positive consideration heading to Chicago.

Though he claims not to like public speaking, the Spaniard is remarkably good at it for someone using a second language.  I remember a Golf Writers’ Open Championship dinner a few years ago when, as a guest speaker, Olazabal easily stole the honours of the evening, not least for his warmth and wit.  In short, he is a very bright man who has no difficulty in expressing his views in English.

He will also have the benefit in Chicago of a decidedly mixed back-room team of Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Miguel Angel Jimenez.  As he said himself, they come from very different points of the golfing spectrum and will have the ability to pick up and interpret every nuance from the 12 European team members.

Between 1987, when he made his Ryder Cup debut in Europe’s first away victory at Muirfield Village until his competitive swansong at The K Club in 2006, Olazabal played a total of 31 matches of which he won 18 and halved five - a success rate of 63 per cent, compared with the decidedly modest 44 per cent achieved by Love.  He will also expect absolute honesty from his players,  just as he displayed himself on his debut.  Deeply concerned with how he was striking the ball in practice, he went to his captain, Tony Jacklin, on the eve of the battle and suggested it might not be such a good idea to pair him with the great Seve the following morning.  To which Ballesteros famously interjected: “Don’t worry Jose.  I play good enough for both of us.”  And, of course, Olazabal did play, giving birth to the Spanish Armada.

In the battle of the captains, he seems to have a clear advantage of his US counterpart.  And will it be enough to tilt the balance in Europe’s favour.  That remains to be seen, but it is definitely a hell of an edge to bring to the first tee.

- Dermot Gilleece

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