If things were to go the wrong way in Paris next September then there would be more than just the odd call for Paul McGinley to get another crack at the Ryder Cup captaincy. You could forget the 40-somethings like Lee Westwood or Padraig Harrington, for a player who won just four times on the European Tour, and only played in two Masters, the Irishman would be the name most would shove forward to get Europe back on track.
The 50-year-old Dubliner is something of a lucky charm in the team arena, his three appearances as a Ryder Cup player coincided with a pair of record-breaking victories while his debut was climaxed by holing the winning putt.
His captaincy was equally as spectacular. People muttered and coughed about how he would struggle to match the superstar appeal of Tom Watson back in his beloved Scotland, even the home crowds would supposedly show a softness for the Kansas legend – then we all left Gleneagles wondering whether the Dubliner might have been our best ever captain.
Lucky charm and, these days, now rightly regarded as a tactical genius…
Away from golf what was the best team you played on?
That was a local Gaelic football team, Ballyboden St Endas. We had just finished in school and it was the centenary year of the GAA, 1984. We basically won everything – the Dublin Championship, league and Centenary Cup.
We had a guy called Jim Stynes who was a six-foot-seven midfielder. He got headhunted to play Aussie Rules and won the Brownlow Medal which was the biggest award you could win, it was basically the player of the year, and became a big, big star in Australia.
Do you still keep in touch?
I probably see three or four of that team. I saw quite a few last year, the club won the All-Ireland. I like to get back and stay in touch with my roots, Gaelic football a big part of my childhood.
And golf wise?
It is obviously hard not to talk about Ryder Cups but in 1990 Ireland played the Home Internationals at Conwy in Wales.
A guy called Liam McNamara holed a 10-foot putt for us to win, it was the first time we had ever won outside of Ireland. Liam holed this putt in the last match on the last day.
I was the Irish champion and played No 1, I think I played Gary Evans of England, Wales’ Stephen Dodd, who was the Amateur champion, and Jim Milligan of Scotland and won all three.
What were you like in the team room?
As a player I was relatively quiet, I love listening to others talk. I was a sponge in all the teams I played in and I was so lucky to be involved with Seve, Woosie, Faldo, Monty and Olly who were all team-mates at some stage and I soaked it all in and learnt so much. That was a real learning curve for my Ryder Cup captaincy.
I also loved the sense of responsibility and I would thrive on that. Sam Torrance identified that in me at the 2002 Ryder Cup before I knew it myself and that’s how he communicated with me. He would tell me I was going to be playing such an important role.
What do you remember of the 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock?
I played in one Walker Cup and the course was baked, I had never seen weather like it. We had seven days in the mid 20s with a maximum of two or three mile-an-hour winds. That obviously suited the Americans, we would have loved it a bit more blustery and cold.
The crowds sold out and it was a great week, it was the first time the competition had come to Ireland. The whole country invested in it and it was a huge deal. It was the biggest driving force in my career in 1989 to 1991 to make that team.
They were incredibly strong, everyone went on to play on the PGA Tour or the Champions Tour. Phil Mickelson and David Duval were the stars but there were also the likes of Allen Doyle, Jay Sigel and Bob May. It was one of the strongest American teams ever.
And you were paired with Padraig Harrington on the first morning?
We had four Irish on the team with Garth McGimpsey, Liam White, Padraig Harrington and myself. Padraig was a late addition to the team after coming strong late in the process.
I played a lot of international golf with him, he was nearly five years younger than me and was coming through. He was a very different to the golfer he is now, he hit a low cut ad he wasn’t a big hitter but he was a ferocious competitor and that’s how he made the team. I always enjoyed playing with him. We lost at the 17th to Sigel and Doyle.
And then you came up against Phil Mickelson and Bob May the following afternoon, with a different result. How do you see Mickelson as a team player?
I played with Liam and we beat them one up. We all know what happened at Gleneagles and Phil helped implement a lot of changes, he has a lot of experience of playing in teams, I don’t think he has missed a Presidents or Ryder Cup match since turning pro. He also had a lot of success with Arizona State winning three NCAA individual championships and the National Championship with the Sun Devils the year before the Walker Cup.
Phil has a huge amount of information and he certainly took responsibility for Hazeltine and was a big part of their success.
Maybe it is a maturity thing but you see it with Tiger too, they have got more engaged in the team thing as they have got older. Their views might have changed a little bit and they have come out of their shells a little bit and understood the value and importance of team events in golf. They were both very engaged in 2016 and, from what they say, they both want to be engaged going forward in both Presidents and Ryder Cups.
You generally played in the final fourball or late in the singles, is that what suited you?
I didn’t have a dynamic golf game, I was never going to intimidate anyone with how I played golf. I was never a big hitter, I was never going to make eight or nine birdies in a round, I didn’t have that extra level of skill to dominate and you see that at the top of the order. They tend to gravitate towards there.
Then the sticky guys who are hard to beat are in the middle or towards the end. That was me. My strength was my competitiveness.
The only time I bucked that was at the Home Internationals and I was the Irish champion and that’s where you played.
What was your strategy for managing the big names
Rory McIlroy was my superstar in the team at Gleneagles, he had just won two majors and was the world No. 1. Rory is very strong-minded and has very strong opinions but he showed a lot of respect to me as a captain. He was happy to be guided by me. I didn’t see him as the No. 1 in the order even though he was the best. I didn’t see the benefit of going out top in any of the orders, I saw him as our best player and I could get more value in playing him just off the boil at number two or three.
Playing top would put him in a position where he couldn’t win, everyone would expect him to get a point.
So the emphasis was that every point and match had its own merit?
A lot of our strategy was based on wave upon wave of attack, it wasn’t about just the best players at the top, I wanted wave after wave as a team and Rory was part of the second wave. I didn’t want Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose to win and that would be that, I wanted real strength at number three.
Historically the top and bottom are the strongest partnerships and I didn’t want to be predictable. One of the things I wanted to do was mix it up a little bit.
How much did the players know what the plan was?
When I was captain I wanted my team to know that everyone has a different role and I would explain that to everyone. Some players would be playing three matches, some I wanted to play all five. I had a clear idea well in advance of the matches who they were and who might even play two.
I was very open and honest and they all knew in advance what cog in the wheel they were going to play – Rory knew he was down for five so he could prepare to play in every series, Graeme McDowell knew he would be playing in three so he was mentally prepared for that. He also knew he was the number one in the singles, it was all very confidential and they weren’t to share it with anybody.
And wave after wave?
Wave after wave was the plan, it didn’t matter how we got the points but I wanted to hit them hard and relentlessly. It wasn’t a case of bursting out the blocks and holding on, I wanted to build on the lead every day and relentlessly come at the Americans. That was the plan.
How much did the plan from before the matches change throughout the week?
It was important not to deviate, I had set my stall out and, when you believe in it, you stick to it. There will always be tweaks but in general 85 percent of my original pairings were implemented, I had a lot of confidence in my players and just because they might have lost a game that didn’t mean they weren’t any good any more.
Lee and Jamie lost on the second morning 4&3 and I put them out again in the afternoon. And they beat Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar. Sometimes you play some of the best players in the world and lose.
Your vice-captains are so important in reading the games for you, you might know the score but why had they lost? Had the dynamic gone? Was the energy down? Was there still chat between the players and caddies? If that was still a yes then you put them back in and that’s what happened.
Sam Torrance was the one who said give them another go. Tiger played a similar role at Hazeltine – Reed and Spieth halved on the Saturday morning and Davis wanted to rest them. But Tiger said ‘no, you’re not dropping my guys’ and they beat Henrik and Justin in the afternoon.
What is the best team talk you have been given?
There isn’t one that stands out in a Braveheart beating-of-the-chest nature, the best captains are more subtle. In golf you have to temper the passion and your mindset, you’re not in the front row of a scrum and the more wound up you are the better. Golf is so subtle mentally, too hyped up is often a bad thing. You need that balance.
My first Ryder Cup captain was Torrance. His meetings were quick and snappy and a lot of his captaincy was done on a man-management level. What he would say to me was very different to Sergio or Lee and that is what impressed me so much about Sam and I learnt a lot from him.
What did you learn from your other captains?
Bernhard Langer had the body language of somebody who was in control. You thought he was thinking ‘I have a plan, you don’t need to know all of it but I know we’re going win this’.
He exuded self-confidence and assuredness and, when he saw us going off the boil, he would have a little jab to get us back on the money again. Ian Woosnam was very much along the lines of Langer, he had confidence in the players and he kept saying that his job was not to over-captain, his job was to let our talent come through and, when that happened, we would win. His simplicity stayed with me and I wanted to have that, applied a lot from all three.
How special is it to play on a great team?
I have this misty-eyed idea that in 30 years time we will all meet each other and remember Gleneagles or Oakland Hills. Every time I see Phillip Price or Pierre Fulke there is a bond that goes straight back to 2002 and The Belfry. That bond lasts forever because of the highly charged emotional setting that the Ryder Cup is.
Paul McGinley was speaking from the Abu Dhabi Invitational at Yas Links where he was captaining a winning team, again, against Peter Schmeichel’s Celebrity All-Stars. The tournament saw 19 professionals, each playing off a +5 handicap and including Thomas Pieters, Matt Fitzpatrick and Ian Poulter, and 19 celebrities paired with a special VIP guest.