Point/Counterpoint: Do captains even matter?
BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- Jack Nicklaus has played in six Ryder Cups and captained two others. When asked the secret to leading a team, he replies, "Just show up, keep up and shut up."
Is it really that easy, or will this year's captains
-- Hal Sutton and Bernhard Langer -- have more of an impact on the final result than we'll ever know?
We posed this question and argued ad nauseum. The only way to settle this spat was to play 28 matches in a three-day span, winner take all.
But it seems that format has already been created, so instead the argument was made in Point/Counterpoint form, and the following are its results.
The Ryder Cup captain does far more than make two wild-card picks and decide on pairings which, by the way, are two crucial tasks. The captain sets the emotional tone for his team.
This is one of the most nerve-racking competitions in all of sports and when concentration is consumed by panic the captain becomes the rock his players look to for support.
This was never clearer than at the 1997 Ryder Cup in Spain. While American captain Tom Kite was cruising around in a golf cart chatting up Michael Jordan his European counterpart, Seve Ballesteros, was magically appearing at what seemed like every crucial moment of the competition. Seve provided a "you can't beat us" attitude to his side that translated to victory over a U.S. team that was much better on paper.
And in 1999 at The Country Club a seemingly beaten American team rallied around a seemingly disoriented Ben Crenshaw to win the first seven singles matches on Sunday for an unprecedented rally that produced a 14½ to 13½ victory. In what appeared at the time like the ravings of a madman, Crenshaw on Saturday night guaranteed victory. Somehow he transferred that confidence to his team.
The most important player for the U.S. side this year might be captain Hal Sutton. On a team that lacks a clear emotional leader, that task falls to Sutton. In the past, U.S. captains have worried too much about being nice guys, playing everyone equal amounts, while the European leader would eagerly bench weak players.
Sutton will need that resolve this year to defeat Bernhard Langer's European team.
Superior coaching can make all the difference in sports. It's the main reason Bill Belichick's Patriots won the Super Bowl; Larry Brown's Pistons won the NBA championship; and Joe Torre's Yankees are competitive every year.
There's only one problem: Ryder Cup captains may be overseers, organizers and officers, but coaches they are not.
No, for all the assiduity Hal Sutton and Bernhard Langer have dedicated to these positions, they are no more than glorified high school gym teachers, separating their pupils into teams, then rolling out the balls and watching them play.
The job of captain is half-shrewd golf analyst, your thumb on the pulse of your players, pushing all the right buttons to bring home the coveted trophy ... and half-dart thrower. In fact, had PGA of America President M.G. Orender and his gang neglected to name Sutton to the post, they perhaps could have tossed darts to finalize wild card picks, pairings and even wardrobe (you think a dartboard would have picked something as ghastly as Ben Crenshaw's ill-conceived snapshot shirts of '99?). Each of these is random in its proclivity for success, and since the Cup is only played once there is never any telling of whether something else may have worked better.
Think about it: If Sutton and Langer simply didn't show this week, what would their players do? Well, they'd simply pair off and go play some golf, each trying to put the ball into the hole in as few strokes as possible.
Ryder Cup captain is a time-consuming, ill-fated, pressure-packed position. But integral? Hardly.
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