Monday, 8 October 2018

Captain Fantastic

Yet again the Ryder Cup was fantastic entertainment, keeping Mrs H and I riveted to the TV for many hours the weekend before last. It was great to see the Poulter roar, perhaps for the last time in a Ryder Cup. And yes, Democracy Man, I was proud to be a European, even if "Ode to joy" sticks in my craw a bit. But there isn't really an alternative to that, or the blue and yellow EU flag, even though golf's team Europe comprises 44 nations, not just the EU 28. At least theoretically 44 nations as only about a dozen nations have ever provided players for the European team, with most historically coming from England and Spain. This is one area where Brexit really isn't relevant, including the Irish border which basically doesn't exist in golf (or rugby).

I wasn't sure about Thomas Bjorn as Europe's captain. I'd always thought him a rather gruff and uncommunicative type from what little I'd seen when he was a feature on the European tour. I couldn't have been more wrong. Thomas came across as warm and very human and not just when he went all twinkly after Europe won. I'm not surprised the team bonded and wanted to do well for him.

It's easy to assume Europe always bond as they tend to do so much better than the Americans, but the captain's role does matter in that regard. For example, Nick Faldo was a fabulous golf player but I don't think the team atmosphere was anything like as good when he was captain compared to Bjorn, or most other recent captains come to that. Bjorn's team mastered all of the marginal details and motivational triggers which Paul McGinley was so good at but seemed to add extra warmth.

And the results spoke for themselves when it came to comparison of the two captain's numbers. Bjorn's four captain's picks produced six and a half points for the team*, while Furyk's produced one and a half, all of them from Tony Finau, with the lamentable Mickelson**, the serial Ryder Cup non-peformer Woods and the rookie DeChambeau contributing nix. As Europe's margin of victory was 7 points, one can argue that the performance of the captain's picks was critical.

But critical also was the performance of the two European stars of the touranment, Italian Francesco Molinari and Evertonian Tommy Fleetwood, who looked the partiest of party animals crowd surfing after the win was sealed.

At the last Ryder Cup Mrs H commented that the player Europe looked to as its leader, Justin Rose, looked completely exhausted at the end of day 2 after playing all four legs. He duly went on to lose his singles match the next day. She correctly, in my view, said that the captains should never ask players to play five times. This time Bjorn put that burden on Molinari, who did look tired but pulled through (though only against Mickelson) and Fleetwood, who looked brain dead after his heroics of the previous two days. I suspect Fleetwood's party antics were partly born of relief that his singles defeat to Finau hadn't mattered. Molinari became the first European to win five points at a Ryder Cup and the first player to do so since USA's Larry Nelson in 1979.

It's become standard captaincy practice to make sure all of the players play at least once in the team rounds on the first two days, before they go out on their own in the singles round. But playing on all five occasions also looks to be unadvisable.

Rose looked tired again by the last day, but then he'd had a big weekend at the PGA Tour Championship a week earlier, winning the FedEx $10M jackpot. But not as big a weekend as Woods, who won the Tour Championship. The TV commentary told us that Woods had played in 19 tournaments this year, as many as he played in a year in his pomp. Woods looked exhausted, out of sorts and, worryingly, occasionally seemed in pain, or at least looked very stiff. I don't doubt that Woods wants to do well in the Ryder Cup. But it was a tournament too far this time and he only made his lamentable Ryder Cup record even worse. But I don't blame Jim Furyk for picking him as it hadn't seemed plausible beforehand that Woods could make a poor record worse. And it would have been a brave call indeed to leave Woods out after the comeback year he's had. I don't think you can blame Furyk for picking DeChambeau either as he was in a rich vein of form, having won twice in the last four Stateside tournaments: an unusual achievement given the breadth and depth of competition at those events.

However, Furyk was culpable in selecting Mickelson for his team and even more culpable in picking the player ranked 192nd out of 193 on the PGA tour this year for hitting fairways to play in the foursomes on day one. In that format, called "alternate shot" by the Americans, there is nowhere to hide. Why didn't he pick Lefty in the fourballs, where each player plays his own ball and the better of the team's scores counts on each hole? (Not hindsight on my part, Mrs H will vouch that I said this when I saw the day one pairings on the Thursday evening). With the course set up with narrow fairways (though surely not as narrow as one American claimed afterwards - 15 yards!? - maybe at a pinch point I suppose) and punishing rough to counteract the American players advantage in how far they can hit the ball, Paul McGinley repeatedly pointed out in TV commentary that you couldn't play the wonderful Le Golf National course from off the fairway. Now it's a truism that hitting fairways and greens makes for a good score in golf, as it's always the best way to play a golf course. But accuracy was certainly favoured and many of the American team failed the test, though none as badly as Phil Mickelson, whose day in the golfing sun has surely run.

The European team will face a different test in the States in 2020. But, whatever the course set up and form of the players as the event unfolds my advice to the European captain is: don't ask any of your team to play in all five legs.

* I'm crediting each player in a fourball or foursome team with half a point here with a full point for a singles win to make the points difference between the teams work. I don't think this tallies with the normal player records which gives players credit for a win whether on their own or with a partner.
** 'lamentable' enough to have won $4.5 million in 2018, mind!

P.S. Paul McGinley takes the opposite view on playing your best players all 5 times. He noted that at Medina US captain Davis Love III rested the all conquering Mickelson and Bradley combination, who'd won 3 points out of 3, saving them for the singles. Europe gained momentum, Lefty and Bradley both lost their singles and the Miracle of Medinah unfolded with Europe coming back to win from 10-6 down. I agree that momentum is important in these tournaments: Molinari and Fleetwood's win to hold the Americans to 3-1 on the first morning at Paris and Casey's half second out in the singles felt important at the time. But there's no way of knowing what would have happened at Medinah or Paris if those aspects had played out differently. Sport, eh?

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