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Ryder Cup 2023: Vice captains no longer the butt of all jokes, each playing a crucial role toward team success

September 30, 2023
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Andrew Redington

ROME — Especially for those of a particularly cynical mindset, it has never been difficult to make fun of Ryder Cup vice captains. Many have done so, varying degrees of contempt running through the jibes. Whatever, a particular theme tends to develop. The phrase, “cart drivers” crops up often, a lazy description of those employed to back their leader. Lazy and out-of-date that is. The role that began in the 1980s has evolved into one of the most important aspects of the biennial encounter between the U.S. and Europe and has played a key role in the success—5 points up with 12 to play—enjoyed so far this week by Old World captain Luke Donald.

Gone are the days (1985, ’87, ’89) when Bernard Gallacher unofficially filled the position of assistant under captain Tony Jacklin but was never actually invited into the team room. Creating the indolent narrative that has plagued the position, the Scot was employed solely to steer the skipper’s cart. Nothing else.

“I was involved in a way,” says Gallacher, who went assistant free during his own three-match tenure as captain (1991, ’93, ’95). “But I wasn’t privy to what went on in the team room. Tony called me a vice captain only when he came to the end of his captaincy. I was never more than a helper, a supporter and yes, the buggy [cart] driver. Driving those isn’t as easy as everyone thinks though. It’s important that the captain is where he needs to be when he wants to be seen. The players like to see him at the right moments.”

The first semi-official assistant did not arrive until 1997, when Miguel Angel Jimenez was captain Seve Ballesteros’ right-hand man in a winning cause at Valderrama. But things have moved on hugely since then. Five has become the accepted figure, their views and voices valued by the skipper both before and during the matches.

Nowhere has that ever been clearer than this time round. Donald has chosen well. Each one of his assistants—Nicolas Colsaerts, Thomas Bjorn, Jose Maria Olazabal and the Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco—brings his own distinct character to the role. Which is why all five were on-site during the team’s pre-match sightseeing jaunt to the Marco Simone.

“The practice trip we took here a couple of weeks ago was incredibly important,” confirms Rory McIlroy. “I couldn't believe we'd never done it before. We got familiar with the golf course but the time we spent off the course was really great. Just sort of sharing stories around the fire pit and sort of describing our journeys in golf and what the Ryder Cup means to us. Luke and his vice captains have really tapped into that emotional connection around Team Europe this week. And we have all bought into it. It's been an amazing experience.”

Importantly too, each of the five assistants brings something different to the table.

“Tyrrell [Hatton] and I have had Chema [Olazabal] following us,” says Jon Rahm. “To have somebody with his experience and charisma is always motivating. He's seen it all and he's got incredible stories. Whenever we need to rely on him, he's somebody we can depend on. We have past winning captains [Bjorn and Olazabal] as vice captains, Ryder Cup champions as vice captains [Colsaerts and both Molinaris]. So everybody has a little bit of something they can share with the rest of the group.”

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Andrew Redington

Certainly, approachability is a big part of any assistant’s required skillset.

“Luke told me I was almost uniquely ‘socially equipped’ to function in the role of assistant,” says Colsaerts. “I’ve always been able to mingle with the range of nationalities and personalities you typically find on the DP World Tour. I am comfortable crossing borders. Plus, I’ve been on tour for a long time now. So I am well equipped to cover the range of ages out there. I am here to help as much as I can and in any way I can.”

And he seems to be doing the job in just the way Donald envisioned. Rahm is only one who thinks highly of the man who almost single-handedly defeated Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods in an opening day fourball at Medinah in 2012.

“Having somebody like Nicolas here has been great for the rookies,” said the Spaniard of the Belgian. “He had an incredible rookie performance in his first-ever match. So he can really put it in perspective for the new guys. It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but there are some guys you can depend on to do and say what the right thing might be—and Nico is definitely one of those.”

In the big picture, a lot of credit for the continued evolution of the European assistant must go to the much-vaunted template established by Paul McGinley, European captain at Gleneagles in 2014. Much remains of the Irishman’s blueprint, but almost as much again has been built on.

“For me, the selection of the right assistants was huge,” says McGinley, who was first to add a fifth vice captain in order to communicate with the four players left out of the foursomes and fourball matches. “I laugh when some of the U.S. media refer to then as cart drivers. They are only cart drivers if you treat them as if you expect only that from them. But there is so much more to the job. The ability to read games and the psyches of players is the most important aspect of the role. The captain needs that feedback when there are four arenas all going on at the same time. He needs help in assessing body language and attitude.”

Still, above all of the above, Donald is making the final decisions. The Englishman is clearly a good listener, but he’s been doing things his own way this week.

“I approached this captaincy like I approach my own individual game,” he says. “I use technology and analytics when I feel like I need to. But I also use a lot of feel and gut instincts as well. It's got to be a balance. I’m certainly not going 100 percent on stats when doing my pairings. Personality matchups are really important. But when it comes to the course and what we've learnt over the last three years of Italian Opens, yes, I'm using statistics.

“Edoardo has given the team a whole packet of stats from the last three Italian Opens, what was necessary for success around here,” Donald continues. “It's up to them how much they take that in. Some guys have looked at that and used it, others have relied on their own feel. It’s up to them. I'm not trying to change anything. But the information has been there for them.”

So far at least, the European players are clearly learning fast from their captain—and just as much from his five-strong band of assistants.

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