The deepest dive yet into just how important a Ryder Cup captain really is
GolfDigest.com will regularly highlight a book that it finds of interest to readers. This week’s is:
The Captain Myth: How the Ryder Cup Is Won, By Richard Gillis, Bloomsbury, $26, hardback, 258 pages
One of the constants in the unrelenting European dominance of the Ryder Cup is the American captain’s winning genius or losing incompetence, depending on whether the U.S. won or lost. The open-air analysis of the American leader’s effectiveness is usually done by the media post-event, but after Phil Mickelson’s dismal critique of Tom Watson in the 2014 loser’s press conference, even the players feel free to openly talk about how bad they thought the captain was.
This new book is a departure from others in the Ryder Cup library. Until now, books on the fervent and emotional biennial battle were either complete histories or focused on a single year, the exception being Paul Azinger’s Cracking the Code, his 2010 effort that was a combination event history and strategy explanation all in one regarding the 2008 Ryder Cup and the lone U.S. victory in the last 17 years.
This is a good time in the Ryder Cup’s history to look at the captain’s role, not just because things reached a boiling point in 2014, but because it helps assess the streak Europe is on, having won eight of the last 10 and the last three in a row. Gillis has a mixed-topic writing background, and that’s how he assembled the book. There are plenty of examples brought in from the sports world (golf and others), sports psychology, and a focus on models from the business world, which makes some sense because the Ryder Cup is a business and money-making event even though there is no prize money but a charity aspect instead. Despite a few errors (calling Doug Sanders a major winner, for instance), I found Gillis’ facts, figures and analysis trustworthy and the book a fascinating, insightful read.
Gillis applied his research to key captain “beliefs”:
The winning captain must have done everything right; the losing captain did everything wrong; teams that win are said to take on the personality of the captain; captains enter the fray wondering, Do I matter?; do teams in a comfort zone play better than teams that are not?; by and large captains get too much credit for a win and too much blame for a loss; and how can a captain have much of an impact when usually they are one and done and don’t have a lengthy period of time to mold a team on a day-to-day basis?
In looking closely at these areas and more, the author brings in some examples from the early days when the event started in 1927, citing how the style the teams played with was dictated by geography as compared to today’s global game where players have similar schedules on similar courses.
He also contradicts some popular beliefs, such as the Euro team’s closeness and that some recent U.S. captains were not up to standard, calling Corey Pavin (shown from 2010), Tom Kite and Tom Lehman better captains than they’re given credit for.
There are many interesting characters in the book, not least of which is Mickelson, who is portrayed as Davis Love III’s over-active protector in 2012 to Tom Watson’s zealous dissenter in 2014.
If there’s a summary, it’s that the captain aspect is overstated, and that in the aftermath of an event there is a need to place blame or credit when perhaps they can’t be accurately placed. And in reality, the captain has become a larger marketing tool than anything else. His total influence on the course can come down to the simplest uncontrollable element: a missed putt.