A bearded Padraig Harrington sat on the dais, sporting a Europe 2020 pullover, the gold Ryder Cup trophy to his left. The picture of unbridled joy, he was not. He appeared solemn and clear-eyed, using words like “trepidation” and “daunting” to describe the monumental task ahead.
The first tee shot at Whistling Straits won’t be struck for another 627 days, but Harrington, the newly appointed European captain, already understands the difficulty of what’s coming and the significance of what’s at stake, not least of which is his professional legacy.
“I am putting something on the line going out there,” Harrington said.
Lee Westwood had his reasons for waiting until Rome, for giving Harrington a clear path to the 2020 captaincy. Westwood will be 47 next year, and, sure, maybe he thinks he has one more run in him, especially after snapping a winless drought late last year. Perhaps he thinks Harrington truly is, as he said, the “best man for the job,” a three-time major champion who is still in touch with today’s players and maintains a high profile in the States. But it’s also possible that Westwood realized the challenge that awaits Harrington or any other would-be European captain in 2020 and wanted no part of it.
Can you blame him?
No matter who’s in charge, the visitors will be massive underdogs against a U.S. team that has lost at home just once since 2004 (and only after a record-tying final-day collapse). Stinging from an embarrassing loss in France, the Americans will send their titanium-denting power hitters to another sprawling ballpark in Whistling Straits, determined to prove that their process isn’t flawed, that their blowout victory in 2016 wasn’t an anomaly.
Nearly two years out, Harrington knows that he needs to pitch a near-perfect game to have a chance … and yet he still embraced the opportunity.
“It’s possibly easier to be the Ryder Cup captain at home,” he said, “but it was good timing in my career and it probably was the best chance for the team in an international setting having me as their captain at this time.”
Harrington’s job is further complicated by a European team that appears to be in transition, with questions surrounding their aging core.
Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia will be 40 next September. Will they still have top form?
Paul Casey will be 43. Can they count on him for another appearance?
Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter will be 44. Will their bodies betray them?
By next fall, Europe’s best players will continue to be Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood, but Harrington must identify and incorporate a handful of newcomers – something the ’16 captain, Darren Clarke, could not – while also overcoming the Americans’ significant home-course advantage.
“We’re going to a new venue, it’s an away match, we’re going to have on average three more rookies coming into the team, and I have to be a part of that team and ensure that I find an edge to perform to the best of their abilities and hopefully get a win,” Harrington said. “I’m really conscious that I have to find that edge and add to it. It’s something I don’t take lightly.”
Harrington said that he didn’t seriously think about backing out of consideration for the gig, but he’s also mindful of the risk. With Ryder Cup captains, there’s little room for nuance. Harrington knows how simply it works, how the captain is lionized in victory and lambasted in defeat:
Thomas Bjorn: Good captain.
Nick Faldo: Bad.
Paul McGinley: Good captain.
Hal Sutton: Bad.
And so on.
“It’s a win or nothing – that’s the way it goes. It’s daunting,” Harrington said. “I’m aware that I could have passed up on this and kept on going as a nice tournament golfer.”
Instead, he willingly signed up for the toughest assignment in golf: away Ryder Cup captain. He has 20 months to engineer an upset for the ages.