By PJ Cunningham
There is something in the Irish psyche that has qualities that are not cultivated in most other nationalities – we are friendly, interested, winsome, charming and even manipulative …but also incisive when the need arises.
The reason I raise this is because when Pádraig Harrington is announced this week as Ryder Cup captain for next year’s showdown against the USA on foreign soil, he will become the third Irishman to lead the European team into action over the past four picks – Thomas Bjorn being the other to get the nod.
Paul McGinley was successful five years ago in Gleneagles when his ability to finesse a squad left no less an adversary than Tom Watson looking like an amateur – a point that was emphasised by Phil Mickleson when he criticised how his captain had been so out his depth for such an ordeal.
Working with the European Tour, McGinley was painstaking in how he went about the job – not least of which is how he set up the course to suit his team.
That is one of the big advantages when it is your turn to host this mega-event and Darren Clarke faced the perfect storm of a Hazeltine course designed to suit big-hitting Americans, as a team bristling from the memory of how they had collapsed against the Gleneagles challenge sought revenge at all costs.
Clarke was always fighting a losing battle as the Americans regrouped under the second coming of Davis Love III to wrest back the cup into their possession.
Last year, Bjorn had to endure what looked like a successful US Sunday ambush before finally raising his arm in triumph.
So Harrington, as the next European captain, will head across the Atlantic knowing that the job of winning on foreign soil has not been achieved since Jose Maria Olazabal in 2012.
Even then, it took the spirit of Seve and the sensational late birdie blitz on Saturday by Ian Poulter, playing with Rory McIlory, to snatch an important point that made Sunday’s comeback in the singles a possibility rather than a remote hope in the heart of diehard fans.
There are two main reasons why Harrington is being asked to plot victory on foreign soil – Lee Westwood has let it be known he would prefer to lead in 2022 when Europe is hosting, while the Dubliner has the personality to relish an occasion where he and his side will be cast in the role of total underdogs.
He has a good record as a player in the competition but it is his persistence to constantly improve, to the point of winning three majors, that will give the European players a real reason to believe in his captaincy.
That point was made by Westwood who in declaring his preference to lead at the Rome tournament was candid in describing Harrington as “the better candidate” when it came to naming a field marshall for Whistling Straits.
Such an endorsement will ring true across the European team but most especially with the senior players such as McIlroy, who see his fearless attitude as something that will be required to stymie the vociferous American crowds.
The remarkable thing about the 47-year-old – currently out of action after breaking his wrist practicing over Christmas at his home – is that he is seen as an icon by the younger golf set as well as those of his own vintage.
He is a close friend of Shane Lowry (who has yet to play Ryder Cup fare) and players like England’s Matt Wallace see what he has achieved as something they would like to emulate in their own careers.
Wallace, who almost got into the frame in Paris last autumn explained the Harry aura thus: “I’ve spent a bit of time with him over the past few months and even just practising with him, doing short game and putting stuff, he’s just someone who grinds and works tirelessly and I’m sure he’d be like that as a captain to try and get the best performance and ultimate goal of winning the Ryder Cup.”
So with that type of mentor at the helm, the Stackstown man brings to the table a lot more than maybe Darren Clarke had to offer when he took on the away duties at Hazeltine.
When you look at the successful captains from the European standpoint, they possessed more than just good records – they also had the sort of character that galvanised their footsoldiers into winning battalions.
The ones who were unable to deliver away wins included Nick Faldo, who for all his time as the world’s top golfer failed to find the right buttons to press in the locker-rooms.
Clearly it is a hard task to win, particularly at a time when McIlroy himself says the European Tour is inferior in quality to what America has to offer. I hope that statement doesn’t come back to haunt him as it was Ireland and Europe which turned him into the superstar he now is.
In fairness to the Northern Irish man, he has always played his heart out in the blue colours but giving any oxygen to an opponent (even praising their set-up) is not something designed to help the cause of maintaining Europe’s supremacy.
— Justin Rose (@JustinRose99) January 8, 2019
He is slowing beginning to realise that his ‘right’ to get back to No 1 in the world will be a long battle as once again last weekend he failed to deliver when well placed in the Sentry Tournament in Hawaii.
Xander Schauffele showed the McIlory form of old by coming from six back to shoot a 62 and win. That could be a problem facing Harrington if it exacerbates through another season in 2019.
Let us savour the moment though and then watch our man go about working on what he has to do to get Europe over the line in 2020.