MEDINAH, Ill. – Captains are either heroes or goats. It goes with the territory.
When someone signs up to lead a team – especially one as significant as the Ryder Cup – they know every move will be scrutinized. If a previously successful pairing teams together to play poorly, it’s the captain’s fault. If the Sunday singles lineup works, it was perfectly crafted. If it fails, it was a miserable strategy.
There is no middle ground.
When history is made here Sunday at Medinah and the 39th Ryder Cup is in the books, how will Davis Love III and Jose Maria Olazabal be remembered as captains?
Can Love rally the troops and instill unity into a group that often has been accused of being selfish? Can the non-confrontational man make a difficult decision to sit a player if it means an ego could be bruised? With bigger names like Fred Couples and Michael Jordan surrounding the team, will Love even receive proper credit if the Americans are victorious?
As for Olazabal, can he channel the late Seve Ballesteros and use that Spanish machismo to be the ultimate leader of men? How will he use Martin Kaymer, the one-time stud who has turned out to be the weakest link for Europe? How will the Europeans react to the partisan American gallery?
Looking at past Ryder Cups there seemingly always is an indication of how the week will unfold for a captain.
Let’s start with the bad. Hal Sutton thought he was a genius in 2004 when he paired Tiger Woods with Phil Mickelson in the first two sessions on Day 1 at Oakland Hills. They lost both matches and the U.S. got smoked 18 1/2 to 9 1/2.
“I’m not too worried about being second-guessed because this whole world is about second-guessing,” Sutton said on the eve of the Woods-Mickelson debacle. “Everybody else has got the answer but nobody’s been walking in these shoes.”
That same week, European captain Bernhard Langer was the difference maker. The steely German had always been known to give a monotone interview but he shed that stereotype and charmed the American gallery by insisting his squad sign autographs for at least 20 minutes each day. The fans appreciated the gesture and never were a major factor in favor of the U.S. In fact, they almost seemed thrilled Europe won.
Corey Pavin was the fall guy for the leaky rain gear two years ago in Wales. That surely wasn’t the sole reason why his squad lost, but that – combined with his failure to inspire his team – led to his downfall. Even before the rain gear issue, Pavin forgot to introduce Stewart Cink as one of his team members at the opening ceremony. Too many gaffes.
All these incidents seem petty, but each foreshadows a sign of what’s to come.
Curtis Strange’s American team was tied at 8 heading into Sunday singles in 2002 at The Belfry but he put Mickelson and Woods in the last two positions and they were irrelevant because Europe jumped out to a hot start and won the cup by 3 points.
Paul Azinger is known for his well-documented pods system where he put his players together in small groups to form tight bonds and become invested. Each player was paired only with someone from his respective pod all week. The result was the only U.S. Ryder Cup victory in the last 13 years.
Ballesteros took the captain position to a new level in 1997 at Valderrama when he willed his team to victory and never envisioned a scenario where Europe would not win his beloved Ryder Cup in his native Spain. Europe took a 5-point lead into Sunday singles and easily won although the score ended much closer than the matches really were. Seve captained the Ryder Cup like he played in the Ryder Cup.
So far neither Love nor Olazabal has had the sort of moment that would predict success or disaster. That’s a good thing.
Love is a smart man who has listened diligently to past captains and drawn upon his own experience as a player who collected a 9-12-5 career record in six Ryder Cups. He distinctly remembers playing in his first Ryder Cup in 1993 when Tom Watson was captain. Watson never told any of the players who they were going to play with before the matches. That made Love uneasy and he made it clear that wouldn’t be the case with this squad.
“Familiarity is key,” Love said.
There are egos to deal with on the American side but Love also made it clear that each player will play at least three matches and that it’s likely that no player will play in all five matches. He wants players fresh.
“We’ve got some guys on this team that realize the ultimate goal is to win, not to play five and be 5-0,” Love said.
Olazabal was asked Tuesday if he was going to bring any guest speakers into the team room Thursday evening to set the mood and rally his troops.
“You would have to have a guy that really knows what the Ryder Cup is to get into the hearts of those players,” Olazabal said. “So, in that regard, I never thought of anyone that could really get to the guys that way.”
Good point. Olazabal is that man.
A veteran of seven Ryder Cups with an 18-8-5 career record, Olazabal was 11-2-2 with Ballesteros as his playing partner, earning them the “Spanish Armada” nickname. Olazabal’s friendship with the late Ballesteros was so strong that Seve’s silhouette is emblazoned on the bags of Team Europe.
Both Love and Olazabal seem to be at peace and have a game plan for most situations. All the proper buttons have been pushed to this point, but there are still two more days of hype before the matches begin.
We don’t know the ultimate result, but we do know that one man will be a hero, the other a goat.