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Ryder Cup 2021: Everything European captain Padraig Harrington must know to spank the Yanks

September 14, 2021

Long gone are those days when observers felt some pity for poor, undermanned Europe against the mighty Americans in the Ryder Cup. If anything, the sentiment has completely flipped. With nine victories in the last 11 matches played, it’s the Europeans who seem to enter these affairs with a greater sense of destiny and purpose. The captains and players over the last two decades are obviously doing something right, and between team bonding, the artful massaging egos and clutch play, Europe has created a winning road map. We've gathered their wisdom and created this dossier for Padraig Harrington to review so he can lead Team Europe to victory once more at Whistling Straits. —Compiled by John Huggan

Editor's Note: This story appears in Issue 7 of Golf Digest. Read our latest issue in its entirety through our digital-edition app.

1. LEAD FROM THE FRONT

There is no one way to captain a Ryder Cup team. Look at how the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sam Torrance and Ian Woosnam went about their business. They were all different, but they were all effective, and they all won. But given how badly Europe performed at Valhalla in 2008, it is surely difficult to deny the captain’s importance. “I’m not sure there is any need for a playbook,” says one player on that well-beaten team. “All we really have to do is look at what Nick Faldo did as captain. Then do the opposite.”

Down And Out: Nick Faldo took heat for his tactical decisions and lack of communication with players during Europe’s resounding defeat in the 2008 Cup. (Getty Images)

Still, the most important part of the job is equally apparent: clear and concise communication with the players. Make it your business to know the members of your team inside out, back to front and upside down. Not just their ability as players but their personalities.

That was one of the biggest criticisms of Faldo’s captaincy. Every player needs to know where he sits within the overall strategy. That didn’t happen in 2008.

The conclusion? Do what comes naturally—captain as you played. Woosnam is perhaps the best example of that approach. He didn’t make it tense with long meetings. He didn’t give his men loads of information. What he did give them was confidence and clarity. On the eve of the Match, he told them everyone was going to play the next day, no matter what the score.

That assurance gave those in the lower half of the team a huge boost. Woosie wasn’t speaking to Monty when he said those words; it was a brilliant strategy. You have to manage the players off the course as much as you have to manage them on it.

One last thing: Don’t get carried away with yourself. Many say the captain is only as good as the team. Brian Huggett feels that way. In 1977, he said he wasn’t a great captain because he didn’t have a good team. Just a thought to keep in mind amid all the adulation coming your way.

2. THE TEAMS BEHIND THE TEAM

This is the part of the job where you listen. Behind every great team lurks maybe three “others”—the assistant captains, the caddies and the WAGS (wives and girlfriends). You need to pay heed to them all. Fun has to be a big part of any Ryder Cup. The craic in the camp has to be good, not just for the players but for the caddies, too. Creating a fun, good-natured atmosphere is something that needs thought. It doesn’t just happen. It has to be provoked. The picking of the vice captains is part of it. But it’s mostly about “positioning” people around the team who will lighten the mood and create amusing banter.

Support System: Treat caddies as equals and ask them about the mind-set of their players. (Getty Images)

Dealing with the wives and girlfriends has to be managed well. Embrace the wives but in a low-key way. The players need calmness, and the wives are part of that. The caddies, too. Make sure they have the same quality clothes as the players. Give them a team room with the same food. Hold a meeting with them every night. Pick their brains. They are worth listening to.

In 2004 at Oakland Hills, caddie Mick Donaghy was working for Ian Poulter. Ian wasn’t playing the first morning, but Donaghy was watching guys tee off, and they were out way too early. They had too long to wait in that highly charged atmosphere. So Donaghy told Ian to arrive on the first tee with no more than 30 seconds to go. It was tee up and go so that Poulter didn’t stand there with too much to think about. Again, great advice.

Still, the most important members and sources of information among your back-up teams are clearly your assistants. It’s safe to assume you have picked men you know well and can trust to tell you things you need to hear, want to hear and, on occasion, don’t want to hear.

It is a role that has grown and multiplied over the years, not because there was a particular problem. It is more to do with the notion that, at every Ryder Cup, things have to be done better than last time. That is a key attitude. Although things may or may not have improved, the effort to do so should be made across the board. Maybe the only downside of more assistants is that the team room has to expand. There is a danger of guys getting “lost.” More is not necessarily a good thing. Keep that in mind.

3. FEELING GOOD IN THE TEAM ROOM

Come Together: The 1963 European team members and their wives depart for Atlanta. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

History is on your side here. By almost every account, European team rooms have been home to some of the happiest groups in any sport. That’s something to be proud of. Keep doing what your predecessors have been doing. Create the atmosphere that welcomes rookies and feels familiar to the experienced. It’s not just the team room that matters. In 2016, captain Darren Clarke did a great job of personalizing the bedrooms. In each one, there were pictures that meant a lot to each player. In Englishman Chris Woods’ room, there was a huge photograph of him standing in front of the Clifton suspension bridge in his hometown of Bristol. That provided a huge boost to his ego and confidence. He realized he wasn’t there just to play for himself, a fact underlined by the iPad on his bed. In it were video messages from friends and family. It was goosebumps stuff—and a great idea.

It is the ambiance of the team room that matters most though. You need to create a cozy place players can call home. In 2004, Bernhard Langer held his first team meeting of the week in a generic boardroom in a hotel. It was a rare mistake by the most meticulous of men. There was no energy in that room; it could have been anywhere.

Langer’s slip-up was odd; Sam Torrance had shown him how two years earlier. The Scot’s meetings were no more than 10 minutes. And they were in his bedroom. Players were lying on the bed and sitting on the floor. That feeling of intimacy worked and was something McGinley recreated in 2014. There was a U-shape couch in the team room. Strong imagery and energetic quotes dotted the walls. One was from Seve. But no player was featured more than any other. Stephen Gallacher and Rory McIlroy had the same number of pictures.

Behind the podium was a scroll on which the score from every Ryder Cup was highlighted with the winner’s flag. The players could see Europe had won seven of the previous nine matches. But the rest of the list was dominated by the stars and stripes. The point was obvious: Europe was the underdog, which is exactly the psychological position you want your guys to be in.

4. CREATE ORDER WITHIN CHAOS

Handle With Care: Captain Paul McGinley deftly managed his players’ egos in winning the 2014 Cup in Scotland. (Getty Images)

Stuff happens at Ryder Cups, stuff you often can’t plan for, even when things are going well. As far back as 1957, when the then-Great Britain side last beat the Americans, preparations for the singles were disrupted by team member Harry Weetman. The big Englishman took exception to being dropped by skipper Dai Rees and publicly announced he would never again play under the wee Welshman’s captaincy. Cue negative headlines and distractions at the wrong time.

Twenty years later, the final Great Britain and Ireland team captain, Brian Huggett, fell out with former Open and U.S. Open champion Tony Jacklin. The key, however, is that their problems were kept from the rest of the side. Only afterward did they hear that there was an issue. No good can come of disputes within the camp.

They happen though. In 2014, captain Paul McGinley was careful not to take sides in a lawsuit featuring teammates and fellow Irishmen Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell on opposite ends of the argument. Follow McGinley’s lead. Be Switzerland when things like that crop up.

Most recently, of course, there was the case of Danny Willett’s older brother, who penned what can only be described as an anti-American column in a magazine just before the 2016 matches at Hazeltine. It was a diatribe that saw captain Darren Clarke’s pre-match planning descend into disarray. Meant to play in the opening foursomes, the younger Willett was benched and then a long way from his best form when he did appear.

As for those things you can control, perhaps the biggest is not allowing the members of your team to get caught up in all the “other stuff” that goes on in Ryder Cup week. There are a few don’ts to take note of here.

Don’t “over team” things during Ryder Cup week. Don’t bond too much. Don’t have too much craic. Don’t have too many games of ping-pong. Don’t all have dinner at the same time. Don’t create too much of a pally atmosphere. That’s not what goes on from week to week on tour. That’s not the sort of environment in which everyone has excelled to make the team. So why should it happen at the Ryder Cup?

The players are individuals playing an individual sport. They are trained to be selfish. You want that. Any softening of that approach, and you can lose the dynamic that got them there in the first place. Preserve the selfish attitude they have in tournament play.

5. ALL FOR ONE? NO, ALL FOR 12 ACTUALLY

Emotional Leader: Jon Rahm, who defeated Tiger Woods, 2 and 1, in his 2018 singles match, is a vital player for Team Europe. (Getty Images)

Christian Petersen

As the owner of one yourself, you’ll be aware of the need to gently massage the collection of large egos. To be fair, European teams have done a great job on the bonding front. Any of the almost inevitable personality clashes have been papered over nicely.

It’s all about a simple principle really: No stars. Treat everyone the same. Ah, but not necessarily. The real key is finding the right ways to treat each player.

Colin Montgomerie was a perfect example. As you know, even in his pomp the big man was a notoriously fragile character. But he was also one of the best players for the Old World squad. So everything was done to get him feeling like a million dollars. If he was feeling good and making all the right noises, it would trickle down to the rest of the team. He ended up playing great on five winning teams. It was important to get him going. The feeling here is that Jon Rahm is your guy to fill that role.

Forget this '12 equals' nonsense. Treat them all as individuals. Just don't include them in selection decisions.

Another common issue is the possibility of a captain’s pick feeling like he hasn’t really merited his place on the team. You need to watch out for the warning signs here. Back in 2010 at Celtic Manor, assistant captain Paul McGinley flagged up the fact that Luke Donald wasn’t really engaged in practice. So he was given a bit of TLC. On the eve of the Cup, captain Monty walked a par 5 with his arm on Luke’s shoulder. It was made clear to him how important he was to the team. Luke ended up the top-scorer on the European team that week.

So forget this “12 equals” nonsense when dealing with your players. Treat them all as individuals, but don’t include any of them—even your best performer—in any of your selection decisions. They don’t need that responsibility. Think about it. If you ask three people who you should pick or pair, you are more than likely to get three different answers.

There are other implications, none of them positive. Let’s say the guy your star recommends doesn’t play well and loses. He is then going to feel responsible. Conversely, if you ask top players what to do and you don’t do it, their noses are going to be out of joint. They might think you didn’t have respect for their opinions. That’s why you should tell your players you won’t be asking for any advice. Stick to your vice captains for that.

6. COURSE SETUP

Home-Field Advantage: Expect Whistling Straits to play to the strengths of Team USA—wider fairways, less rough and soft greens. (Getty Images)

Come closer. I need to keep my voice down. As has become clear over the years, course setup is the Ryder Cup’s dark art, used by captains on both sides to emphasize and exaggerate home advantage. It nearly always works, as recent results show. It will surely be used again this year.

Steve Stricker isn’t stupid. With an unprecedented six picks because of the pandemic’s disruption to the point system, he can choose half his team to suit course conditions he has been manipulating for months. My money is on wide fairways, not much rough and soft greens, which will allow the likes of DeChambeau, Johnson, Thomas and Koepka to whale away with impunity. You have been warned.

My mind goes to Le Golf National in 2018 and Steve Stricker standing with captain Jim Furyk and assistants Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar. All four had games that were better suited for the penal course setup than any American playing that week. We can assume he took note of that ludicrous situation.

Without saying anything publicly in 2014, Paul McGinley asked for Gleneagles to be set up as it would be for a European Tour event with different fairway widths and a second cut of semi-rough before the heavy stuff. In the end, McGinley wasn’t involved in the course setup. All he did was tell his players what to expect.

Other captains have been more specific. At The Belfry in 2002, Sam Torrance offset the American advantage off the tee by growing rough just beyond fairway bunkers at around the 285-yard mark.

Ian Woosnam followed that lead in 2006 at the K Club in Ireland. He had a few extra trees installed on the corner of doglegs, and fairways were narrowed—all to take the driver out of the hands of the longer-hitting Americans. Also, green speeds were set at 11 on the Stimpmeter, just a little bit slower than the PGA Tour norm.

You can’t indulge any of the above this year, of course. But know for sure that Whistling Straits is unlikely to play to typical European strengths.

7. PICKS, PAIRS AND PLAYS

OLÉ OLÉ OLÉ: Sergio Garcia, Europe’s all-time leading scorer, has 25½ points in nine Ryder Cups. (Getty Images)

When it comes to the doubles matches, pairing like-minded individuals with similar games is the way to go in foursomes and four-balls. You’d be crazy to mess with a formula that has produced so much recent success. But silly mistakes have been made. For goodness sake, don’t mess up like Bernard Gallacher did in 1995 at Oak Hill. He sent Per-Ulrik Johansson and Bernhard Langer out late one morning, then early after lunch. They had only 25 minutes between matches and played a right load of rubbish after lunch. Still, weird things happen, so don’t be panicked by a loss.

Should every member of your side play on day one? The generous view is that everyone “deserves a game.” But not necessarily. The collective good is what matters. Don’t pander to egos. Be ruthless. Then there is the order of singles. If you’re chasing, go with your in-form guys early. In 2002, Sam Torrance sent out Monty, Sergio and Darren Clarke 1-2-3. In contrast, the Americans placed their strengths—Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods—in the last two games. Too late.