NEWPORT, Wales – Seven decades ago, University of Michigan football coach Fielding Yost gave a pregame speech so dizzyingly good he got lost in the moment.
Legend has it, Yost leaped up afterward and opened the wrong door of the locker room before kickoff and sent his frenzied troops sprinting into a swimming pool.
Motivation’s a funny thing.
Football coaches will tell you it’s overblown, that the emotions stoked in hopes that they can get their players to “win one for the Gipper” are burned off in the first few plays of a game. But they’ll tell you this while they are clipping some insult from a newspaper to plaster on the bulletin board they keep in their locker room. As a group, football coaches are famous for their belief in motivation’s power to elevate athletes to perform beyond their perceived limitations.
That brings us to this week’s Ryder Cup matches at Celtic Manor in Wales.
Golf isn’t anything like football. You can’t compete if you’re worked into a frenzy at the first tee. And yet, you can make a pretty good argument that motivation and inspiration are more effective in team golf than they are in football.
You can make that argument because momentum’s such an important phenomenon in Ryder Cup matches.
The winner of the opening morning session has won the last four Ryder Cups.
The notion that you can create momentum before the first putt is stroked was the fuel behind American captain Paul Azinger’s pod system before the United States won at Valhalla two years ago. He grouped his team into pods of four players of similar personality traits and nurtured the bonding process.
Skeptics will tell you that hot putters win Ryder Cups. Azinger will tell you that you can heat those putters up in the team room before the matches even begin. You can create an atmosphere that puts players in a confident and comfortable state that makes putts easier to hole.
“I would think that this week the teams are so evenly balanced that a lot is going to come down to the quality of decisions from the captain,” Ireland’s Padraig Harrington said.
Harrington was talking about tactical decisions European captain Colin Montgomerie and American captain Corey Pavin will make this week. He was talking about the partners they’ll put together, their choices in who goes out first and who sits. But both captains are also moving chess pieces in their players' hearts and minds, even as they deny their teams need extra doses of motivation.
On Tuesday night, Montgomerie connected his team with Seve Ballesteros by speakerphone. Ballesteros, the Spaniard who was the heart and soul of Europe’s rise to Ryder Cup prominence, is fighting brain cancer.
“The whole team spoke to Seve for about 10 minutes,” Montgomerie said. “That was very motivational, very passionate, and also very sad to hear him, to hear the way he is. Still, the passion is very, very strong with Seve. That was an inspiration, especially to the rookies in the team.”
Montgomerie also arranged for former Wales rugby star Gareth Edwards to speak to his team.
“Gareth Edwards is a legend in these parts and has to be Wales most famous sportsman of all time,” Montgomerie said.
While Montgomerie insists his team doesn’t need to be motivated, he appears to be pulling out all the stops in seeking to give his team the motivational high ground when these matches begin Friday.
“The only motivation this team needed was to lose the Ryder Cup two years ago,” Montgomerie said.
And yet Montgomerie will unveil a speech in Thursday’s opening ceremonies that he hopes will put his team 1-up before the matches even begin. He said he believes the speeches captains give on the eve of the matches are factors in who wins.
“It seems to make a difference psychologically, as to what happens when the action begins,” Montgomerie told the Daily Mail. “It's part of a trend, where the team whose captain gives the best speech tends to start well the next day and that sets the tone for the match itself.”
Pavin isn’t buying it. In fact, he questions motivational manipulation. He wants his team confident, but he doesn’t believe his words can dictate who wins or loses matches. Apparently, he doesn’t want to send his troops racing into a swimming pool before they hit their first tee balls.
“I don’t think the guys need to be motivated,” Pavin said. “They are as motivated as they are going to be. I’m more concerned about keeping their emotions in check, having it relaxed in the team room at night. There’s plenty going on, plenty of emotional stress. I just want them to relax and conserve their energy.”
That didn't prevent Pavin from bringing a special guest into the team room Tuesday night to inspire his team.
Pavin brought F-16 fighter pilot Dan Rooney into speak. He’s the man behind Patriot Golf Day, a program designed to help families of soldiers killed in war.
“It wasn’t so much a motivational speech, per se, but maybe a little more awareness of what’s happening in the world, what’s going on,' Pavin said.
“I want these guys to be accountable to each other and have each other’s backs. Basically, that’s what happens in the military.”
Basically, that’s what Azinger wanted to do with his pod system.
Pavin believes his players need to work in an atmosphere that emboldens their confidence, but he doesn't believe he can motivate somebody to make a putt.
“You can’t inspire someone to make a 20-foot putt,” Pavin said. “You have to be under control. And that’s what I’ve been talking to the guys a lot about, is staying emotionally under control, and to conserve your energy, because you’re going to use a lot of it Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“I’ve played in tournaments where I felt like I was really nervous, and it was really hard to play, and I couldn’t relax, but I’ve done OK. At other times, I just felt like it was the easiest thing in the world to go out and play. If I could bottle that second part up and keep it all the time, it would be great. We don’t even know how we do it.”
But as captains, Montgomerie and Pavin are trying to figure it out this week.