Centers Of Attention
The role of Ryder Cup captain has evolved and expanded through the years, but one thing hasn't changed: They get too much credit for a win and too much blame for a loss
Abe Mitchell, a British golf professional and friend and mentor to Samuel Ryder, was so meaningful to the man who started the Ryder Cup that it is his likeness atop the trophy that gets so much attention every two years. Mitchell was supposed to be the playing captain for Great Britain in the first Ryder Cup, at Worcester (Mass.) CC, in 1927, but was stricken by appendicitis before the match and never got there. Mitchell's fate was an omen for every captain who would follow, regardless of era, team or format. The position is unique, a blend of responsibility and helplessness, joy and disappointment.
Dave Marr cried happy tears when he was asked to captain the United States team in 1981. But after a first day at Walton Heath GC in England in which his golf dream team -- 11 major champions, nine hall of famers -- surprisingly trailed Europe, he sat down with a glass of red wine, a lit cigarette in each hand, and agonizingly wondered what to do next.
Tom Watson, the winning U.S. captain in 1993, admits, "I was more nervous playing and being a captain at the Ryder Cup than I ever have been on a golf course playing for myself. I always felt if the captain could lend an air of confidence and humor to the whole situation, basically his task is to do that." From the time his team left for Europe, Watson kept track of how many hours needed to pass before the Ryder Cup trophy was back in America, counting down the number and posting it on his door at The Belfry.
A captain has everything to do with the outcome, and nothing to do with it. Credit flows a captain's way if he wins, and blame sticks if he loses. Sometimes there can be too much of each, but, says Bernhard Langer, who led Europe to an 18½-9½ victory over a Hal Sutton-captained U.S. team in 2004, "at times there are things to blame on a captain and things that are very positive. I had a wonderful time and made a lot of good decisions, and the team responded phenomenally."
In contrast to Langer's seamless week at Oakland Hills, Sutton went against conventional wisdom and paired Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods for what turned out to be two disastrous matches on the first day. The far-from-dynamic duo lost both of them, and the U.S. fell five points behind en route to a lopsided defeat. Along with European captain Mark James' curious singles order in 1999 at Brookline -- when he topped his final-day lineup with less heralded players and Europe lost the cup -- Sutton's decision was a field day for critics.
It is up to the captain to set the table, but the players have to be able to pick the right fork. "If the team plays well, he looks like a hero. If it plays poorly, then he gets badgered," says Mark O'Meara, who played on five American teams, including 1997. "I thought Tom Kite actually did a very good job at Valderrama, but he got blistered in the press." Michael Jordan had been photographed sitting next to Kite in a golf cart, and it became an (erroneous) symbol that Kite was being out-captained by Seve Ballesteros, who, darting everywhere in his cart, seemed to be three places at once, directing -- if not assuring -- victory. The day after Europe's one-point win, however, the Spaniard, whose outward confidence belied the fact that he hardly slept on his team's five-point lead going into singles play, spoke of the fragile journey any captain takes.
"Many people will say I am a great captain," Ballesteros said, "but if we lost, the whole responsibility and criticism would go on my shoulders."
Much has changed about being a captain over the competition's history. The tradition of playing captain, which began with Walter Hagen and Ted Ray (Mitchell's stand-in) in 1927, breathed its last in 1963 when Arnold Palmer led the U.S. to a whopping win at East Lake GC. "I was paired with Arnold the very first match," remembers Johnny Pott, a Ryder Cup rookie that year, "and he made me run out and hit the first ball because he was doing some other stuff. I wasn't quite ready for that."
It is mythology, though, to believe that only in the modern era of multiple vice-captains, two-way radios and dedicated team rooms (introduced in 1983 by influential European captain Tony Jacklin, who believed such a space would contribute to camaraderie better than huddling in a corner of a locker room), have captains not busied themselves trying to get an edge.
Great Britain and the United States might have been allies in World War II, but in the first two post-war matches there were protests about illegal grooves in the irons of opposing players. Henry Cotton questioned the equipment of Americans in 1947, and Ben Hogan did the same about the Brits in 1949.
If one wants to pinpoint a Ryder Cup that presaged the biennial intensity and captain-centric cups that would follow decades later, it clearly was the 1957 match at England's Lindrick GC. Great Britain hadn't won since 1933, and captain Dai Rees wanted to change that. The event was then just two days -- a session of foursomes followed by singles. Aware that the Americans weren't used to bump-and-run golf, Rees orchestrated fluffed-up tall rough beyond Lindrick's firm putting surfaces.
"Between the foursomes and singles they brush-harrowed the rough at the backs of the greens so that, if a ball slipped through, it was going to be difficult to play," Rees told Golf Monthly in 1967. "And indeed the Americans did have difficulty. It wasn't jiggery-pokery. It was there for all to see."
As a strategy, it was the same as when fairways were pinched to practically nothing at Valderrama in 1997 and The Belfry in 2002 to neutralize American length, and the way Paul Azinger, unique among American captains, took control of Valhalla GC in 2008, working with superintendent Mark Wilson to ensure a bomber-friendly set-up. "I was busy working with Mark Wilson trimming a branch here or there for J.B. Holmes, or clipping a little bit of rough," Azinger says.
The course tweaks weren't the only things Rees was up to. He sat one of his players, Harry Weetman, for the singles, prompting Weetman to protest and earn a suspension from the British PGA. When American playing captain Jack Burke Jr. told Rees that Ted Kroll was incapacitated by a "chafed rear end" and would have to be pulled from the singles lineup, the GB&I skipper was skeptical.