Nobody ever said captaincy was fun

Updated: September 12, 2004, 4:09 PM ET
By Jaime Diaz | Golf Digest

Vijay Singh is a perennial challenger, Darren Clarke's tailor now has a legitimate claim, and so does anyone building new tee boxes at the future sites of major championships. But for a while now, the title of hardest-working man in golf has been held by the captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

From the moment the PGA of America breathlessly announces its choice, it's basically two years of one thing after another. Press conferences and dinners, phone calls and meetings, choosing the wardrobes, setting up fittings (and measuring motivation by who shows up at the fittings), dropping in at tournaments to scout players (making sure to leave personalized motivational notes in lockers), pondering the pairings, coordinating the week's events to include wives and children, recruiting guest speakers for team meetings, deciding on two captain's assistants, pondering the pairings, working on the course setup, approving menus for team meals, deciding when to sign the opposition's menus at the gala, avoiding providing motivational material for the opposition's bulletin board, making sure Tiger is happy, pondering the pairings, equipping the team room with the right toys, wondering about the wild-card selections, picking the wild cards, worrying about what to tell the players who weren't picked, deciding on personalized gifts for the team, and, yes, pondering the pairings.

Ben Crenshaw
Perhaps Ben Crenshaw received too much credit for the U.S. win in 1999...

When did it come to this? When did a position of dignity and diplomacy turn into gonzo go-fer? Shouldn't we be a little surprised that 1999 captain Ben Crenshaw still hasn't fully straightened up from kissing Brookline's 17th green? "You have so much to think about," says a solemn Crenshaw. "It aged me quite a bit."

Sorry, but it has to be said: Ryder Cup captain -- in terms of having an effect on winning and losing -- is the most overrated job in sports.

The PGA of America and the various conscripted captains may argue that everything being done is in the interest of team unity that will, by extension, lead to greater performance. But let's get real.

The NFL wouldn't think of asking a coach in the Super Bowl to help with the halftime show. A professional football coach has a huge influence on how his team performs in a game. There are plays to be sent in and matchups to manage and tendencies to exploit. But golf remains the most capricious game in the world, and the most individualistic. There's a reason Ryder Cup captains look strangely helpless and insignificant as they sit in a cart holding a walkie-talkie; as far as the golf being played in front of them, they are.

Still, as the Ryder Cup keeps getting bigger, the captaincy does, too. An outsized stewardship serves two purposes. First, by keeping the captain in the public eye for two years, the PGA of America gets to hype its flagship event. Second, the captain's Q-rating goes way up, which translates into fame and its accompanying rewards. It's that opportunity -- which includes becoming part of golf history, representing one's country and bonding in an unforgettable week of competition -- that has players working the back rooms to become captain. There are risks -- getting run ragged, loss of playing skills, and taking serious heat in defeat. But the commensurate amount of glory that is available for winning makes seeking the prize a no-brainer.

With more at stake, too much has been made of the job and its growing minutiae. Ask Jack Nicklaus about being Ryder Cup captain, and he pulls out the time-worn job description for a caddie: "Just show up, keep up and shut up," he says. "You have to know when to be there, know what's going on, and keep your mouth shut until it's time to talk. Being captain is kind of easy."

It wasn't always like this

Historically, that was the job, and everyone seemed fine with it. From the time Walter Hagen and Ted Ray became the first captains in the inaugural Ryder Cup in 1927, the position was considered an honor but not an overwhelming task. The players surely felt the stamp of their captain's personality, but the public largely didn't. Ben Hogan had the largest presence, withering the Great Britain & Ireland team in 1967 with his famously spare introduction: "Ladies and gentlemen, the United States Ryder Cup team: The finest golfers in the world."

In the days when the Americans dominated the Ryder Cup, the model captain was Dave Marr, who in 1981, upon being given what is still considered the greatest team ever, made it clear his main objective would be to get out of the players' way. "Dave was a lot like Perry Como, a very smooth guy," remembers Johnny Miller. "He put us at ease."

But it was after the rout administered by Marr's team that the style of captaincy began to change. Tony Jacklin took over the Europeans in 1983, and behind the burgeoning talent of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam, won the Cup in 1985 and held it through 1989. It made him the Ryder Cup's first superstar captain.

Jacklin strongly believed that instituting "first-class" treatment -- arriving in the U.S. by Concorde, wearing the finest clothing, etc. -- was vital to building the self-image the Europeans needed. Jacklin took pride in his knack for putting together synergistic pairings such as Ballesteros and Paul Way, and he considered his most important contribution the creation of the "team room" where players and their families could gather and bond. His success fostered a Ryder Cup culture of creature comforts in which the players' every whim is the captain's command.

Conversely, losing placed a harsh glare of scrutiny on U.S. captains. When Lee Trevino's team was beaten in 1985, several players hinted the captain was not sufficiently engaged. ("I teamed them best I could," Trevino shrugs, "but I couldn't play for them.")

Curtis Strange
...just as Curtis Strange may have taken too much of the blame for the loss in 2002.

When Nicklaus' 1987 team was embarrassed at Muirfield Village, the conventional wisdom was that the Europeans were tougher and wanted the Cup more. Ever since, every U.S. captain has erred on the side of overpreparation, making sure he could never be accused of mailing it in.

Accordingly, Raymond Floyd took a discernibly proactive role in 1989, to the point of reprising Hogan's 1967 introduction, although this time it fired up, rather than deflated, the Euros. The matches were halved and the Cup stayed in Europe, but by now the PGA of America had figured out that the event was a potential gold mine. With the Ryder Cup coming to the U.S. in 1991, the captain could become the marketing point man.

Enter Dave Stockton, the right man at the right time. The two-time PGA Championship winner unabashedly called his appointment the greatest moment of his career. Stockton was also the king of the Monday outing, and as such actually enjoyed touring the country and promoting the Ryder Cup as energetically as the PGA of America wanted him to. Finally, the intensely competitive Stockton was fully attuned to how much the U.S. team had to prove and how much it had to lose. More than at any time before or since, it simply had to win. Stockton willingly became the feisty general in The War by the Shore.

As a Ryder Cup competitor in 1971 and 1977, Stockton had closely studied the captains he played under, Jay Hebert and Dow Finsterwald, particularly appreciating Finsterwald's close eye. He believed matching compatible personalities in pairs competition was crucial, and he used data from tests administered to individual players by Dr. Deborah Graham, a sport psychologist, to help determine his pairings. He also dispensed with diplomatic niceties. Early in the week, Graham was riding with Stockton in an elevator when she encountered Ballesteros and casually mentioned that she would get her test to him. "When the door closed, Dave gave this very hard look and said, 'You will not talk to him this week,' " Graham recalls. "I'd never seen him that intense, and it really surprised me."

Stockton makes his case

Stockton believes the captaincy is both vital and difficult to do well. "Overrated? I don't think so," he says. "I think it's one hell of a hard job. I think you have to be hands-on. I think you have to be involved, and I think the team will respond to that."

Stockton deserves credit for leading his team to victory in the most pressure-packed Ryder Cup in history. But consider: If Langer makes rather than misses the final six-footer, Stockton is remembered as an overly intense huckster. Or if the Sunday miracle doesn't occur at Brookline in 1999, Crenshaw goes down as a frazzled, obsessive captain who had completely lost it when he pointed his finger late Saturday and said, "I'm a big believer in fate."

The best example of conflicting sentiments on captains is the European victory in 1997 at Valderrama, when Ballesteros was hailed and Tom Kite was bashed. Before and during the matches, several members of the European team found Ballesteros meddlesome and mercurial. Yet because Ballesteros was everywhere in his cart and his players narrowly won, he was proclaimed a genius leader. Kite, meanwhile, was lambasted for letting Michael Jordan into his cart. Of course, if the Americans had won, bringing the world's greatest competitor inside the ropes would have been remembered as an inspirational move.

Kite was considered the best prepared captain ever, loaded with statistics. Alas, no one could predict that Tiger Woods, Davis Love III and Justin Leonard, all major winners that year, would go a collective 1-9-3. Laments Kite: "A guy can do a really good job and get beat if his guys don't play well. And a guy can do a bad job and win." Either way, a number of past captains remain frustrated by the entitlement some of today's players feel in dictating the pairings. "I mean, you work your tail off, especially now, trying to please the guys," says 1995 captain Lanny Wadkins. "It's unbelievable. Everybody thinks, 'I want to play with my buddy.' Bull----. For two years the captain's been thinking about who should play with who. These guys just made the team, and now they want to play with their buddy and have a big time. It's not about having a big time. It's about winning the damn match."

Sam Snead also heard from players during the halved matches in 1969. "Sam had a bunch of guys who didn't want to play with one another," says J.C. Snead, his nephew. "Dave Hill didn't want to play with somebody because they hooked the ball, and somebody else didn't want to play with somebody else because they did this. Then they blame him as a bad captain."

When Nicklaus is asked if he would do anything differently today from his approach in 1983 or 1987, he replies, "Zero." At the notion of a two-year diet of captain-related commitments, he scoffs: "Oh, that's absurd," before trying some half-hearted damage control. "It's a great honor," Nicklaus says, "and the guy who has it, Hal (Sutton), is so excited and wants to do the right thing."

Nicklaus made up his mind a long time ago: The Ryder Cup remains primarily a goodwill event, hard-fought, but ruled by the spirit of fellowship. He wants to win, but as captain essentially ceded the element that made him such a great player -- control. "The only thing as captain you want to do is make sure you do as many right things as you can diplomatically, so you don't embarrass yourself or your country," he says. "As far as the players, generally speaking, the captain's going to get out of the way of the pairings. I mean, he's going to make the pairings, but the guys are going to tell him who they want to play with or who they don't want to play with." He sighs. "I don't think the captain's role really affects the result very much. I mean, the guys are gonna have to go out and play golf, and whoever plays the best golf usually wins anyway. So that's basically it."

Stockton, just as stubborn, counters. "Nobody's a better thinker about the game than Jack, so I respect his view," Stockton says, "but all I can say is, when Jack lost at Muirfield Village it shook me to the bones. If they could beat him there, they could beat anyone anywhere. So I was determined to pay attention to every detail."

Tom Watson, whose 1993 captaincy incorporated elements of Nicklaus' sportsmanship and Stockton's zeal, is old school on the role of the captain.

"Yeah, it's overrated," he says. "No question. You're just there as an organizer, and you hope the players do all the work. You really don't manage any play. The main thing is the mental aspect, trying to create a sense of stability and a sense of humor. The players can use it in the middle of the storm, because there is a lot of pressure."

Watson gets to the root of a captain's importance. An effective leader is one who through some ineffable quality helps bring out the players' best. Doug Sanders remembers Hogan walking up to him in 1967 and saying in an even voice, "Doug, you will win today, won't you?"

"I'd answer, 'Yes, captain,' " says Sanders. "One thing you did not want to tell Ben Hogan was, 'I lost.' He put so much desire into us to win." When Nicklaus in 1983 made it clear he did not intend to become the first U.S. captain to lose on home soil and demanded in the team room that the players "show me some brass," his charges responded by defeating an inspired group of Europeans. (Four years later, however, a Nicklaus-led team would lose the Cup at Muirfield in Dublin, Ohio.)

For all the credit and blame given to captains, it's players who win and lose Ryder Cups. If the trend holds, the players at Oakland Hills will be the most evaluated and indulged group in the history of the event. In the end, it will come down to the playing, and that will have less to do with either captain's moves than what the fortunate Crenshaw pointed to at Brookline: Fate.

Additional reporting by Peter McCleery.

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