The Captains Matrix: Passion + Humility = Victory

By John Barton Photos by Getty Images
October 01, 2014

I used to think Ryder Cup captains were irrelevant. They choose the uniform (who cares?), make a speech or two, and do the hardly-rocket-science pairings. On the day, they flit around the course in a cart looking anxious. Meanwhile, the real action is taking place on the fairways and greens. As a result, I've always thought the captaincy should be an honorarium, bestowed on one of the game's elders in recognition of their lifetime achievements.

This year's Ryder Cup showed such foolish beliefs to be wildly out of bounds. The two captains couldn't have been more different. Europe got it right: Paul McGinley was deeply passionate about wanting to win, and as a result was meticulous, smart and relentless in his preparation. At the same time, while certainly not lacking in confidence, he is a humble man. He recognized that his team were the stars of the show -- it wasn't about him. The best Ryder Cup captains -- or coaches, bosses or parents, for that matter -- know that while they are there to lead their charges, they are also there to serve them. They nurture greatness through love, respect and attention, mixed with an ability to be tough and disciplined when needed, and plenty of inspiration and humor thrown in, too. McGinley knew all that. He created a team. It's not just the 12 men that need to be managed but the 66 one-on-one relationships between them. As Al Pacino says in Any Given Sunday, you either win as a team, or die as a collection of individuals.

Which brings us to Tom Watson. Perhaps he thought his stature alone would carry the day. He seemed tired, and detached from his players, who he treated like minions. He was quick to blame them. ("It's up to the players," he said on Saturday night. "It's up for the actors to go out there and act. They haven't acted well enough to get that standing ovation at the end in the last two Ryder Cups.") The semi-mutiny at the closing press conference was extraordinary.

This year's Ryder Cup thus cracks the code, revealing the two vital ingredients for success. A captain who is passionate, engaged and deeply motivated to win. And a captain who is also humble, who cares deeply for his players and who isn't blinded by the size of his own ego.

If you plot the 15 American and European skippers since 1985 on a graph, with passion on one axis and humility on the other, it's clear that the humble, passionate men generally win (McGinley, Olazabal, Woosnam, Langer, Torrance, Crenshaw, Stockton), while detached captains with big egos always lose (Watson, Faldo, Nicklaus, Trevino).

And so, since close contests make for good sport, my nominations for the 2016 Ryder Cup captaincy are . . .  Steve Stricker for the U.S. of A. and Padraig Harrington for Europe.