Why the Ryder Cup captains are vitalOctober 15, 2018 Opinion
Dan Murphy looks back on Europe’s memorable win at Le Golf National and concludes that Ryder Cup captaincy can and often does decide the outcome
If you want to know how important or otherwise the role of Ryder Cup captaincy is then consider this. I reckon the outcome of this year’s match was shaped to a large degree by the pairings selected for the opening fourballs.
The USA won the session handsomely, 3-1, but if there were ever a case of winning a game but losing the set and ultimately the match too then this was it.
Jim Furyk seemed to have learned very little from his 10 Ryder Cups in terms of strategy. He went down the peculiarly American shock-and-awe route of simply picking his eight best players.
Thomas Bjorn, by contrast, was playing the long game and left out Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Alex Noren and Ian Poulter.
This wasn’t a slight – it was recognition that this was merely the first of five sessions.
In addition, I would strongly argue, it is much more important to get the partnerships right in foursomes, which was coming up that afternoon.
In foursomes, for a start, you both have to be comfortable with the same ball. That’s a major factor for elite players.
You can theoretically win a fourball without speaking to your partner – just make five birdies each. I don’t think that applies in foursomes.
Bjorn got four of his rookies straight into the game and that left him with options. He picked his foursomes pairs first and then worked back to his fourball pairs. He knew this might cost him a flying start but decided this would be worthwhile in the longer term. And he was right.
Furyk’s foursomes pairings in the afternoon were nothing short of odd. Two out-of-form fourball specialists in Watson and Mickelson plus a clearly exhausted Woods.
Essentially, he was trying to give his four weakest players a game in the afternoon.
By Friday night the whitewash that followed had shredded any sense that he was in control.
Bjorn, by contrast, had different headaches. How could he drop any of his foursomes heroes for the next morning? You knew that the following day’s foursomes pairs for Europe picked themselves while Furyk admitted that the USA were effectively starting from scratch.
It became apparent in the immediate aftermath that Furyk’s man-management also left much to be desired. In Sunday night’s losing team’s press conference (and what an odd tableau that presents – see below for more) you only had to look at the faces of Reed and Watson – two complex characters – to see that they had simply not been engaged by their captain.
I am not saying for a moment that it would be easy to immerse them in into a team but surely you at least have to try.
Chris Wood told us recently how he felt at a distance from the European team at Hazeltine. I find it hard to understand that either Darren Clarke two years ago or Furyk in France could allow that to happen.
Is this merely a case of history being written by the victors? Perhaps, to an extent. It still feels to me that the USA leadership team have much to learn about the essence of team golf, especially on foreign soil. And that Ryder Cup captaincy is of vital significance.
The strangest press conference in golf
Within an hour of the winning putt being holed – or, in this case, the losing tee shot being hooked into the water – the vanquished American team were filing solemnly into the media centre at Le Golf National.
All 12 of them – plus their captain. Needless to say, none of them exactly looked like they wanted to be there.
Fair enough, Furyk knew it was coming and bravely fronted up to some unpleasant questions.
As for the players, some zoned out and gazed into the distance presumably in the hope no question would come their way, some put on a brave face, some looked angry, some fiddled with their phones.
At either end of the long table were Reed and Watson – and you can’t tell me that was a coincidence.
Phil Mickelson is rarely short of something to say. It was of course in this exact setting four years earlier that he had turned on his captain, Tom Watson. This time he was keen to absolve the man in the middle. But then again it was his friend in the hot seat.
Tiger Woods looked practically asleep. He was presumably shattered.
Justin Thomas behaved with class, but then he had won four points out of an American total of 10.5 so he was in the clear on a personal level.
Jordan Spieth, you could tell, did not want to answer the question about why his partnership with Reed had been broken up. Eventually, Furyk stepped in to take responsibility. Just in time because Reed was preparing to full the void. Now that would have been awkward.
It was gripping to watch. I doubt it was much fun to participate in.