Ryder Cup success hinges on a 'captain' in each group

U.S. captain Hal Sutton, left stands with Tiger Woods after the Europeans beat the Americans and retained the Ryder Cup at the 35th Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Mich., on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2004.

U.S. captain Hal Sutton, left stands with Tiger Woods after the Europeans beat the Americans and retained the Ryder Cup at the 35th Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Mich., on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2004.

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MEDINAH, Ill. – There was a buzz in the air, a standing-room-only crowd at the first tee and a sprawling cowboy hat upon Hal Sutton’s head.

It was as if a heavyweight championship fight mentality had arrived on the golf scene that Friday morning at Oakland Hills Country Club outside of Detroit. Sutton the afternoon before had announced his lead pairing in the opening four-ball session for the 35th Ryder Cup: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

They may have been ranked Nos. 2 and 4 in the world order, but they were easily 1-2 in star power, mega attractions and overwhelming personalities. Mickelson that year had won his first major, Woods already had eight major titles in the bank, and it was as if Sutton had arranged for The Beatles and Rolling Stones to share the stage.

“I told these two guys that I felt the perception of the world was that the U.S. team didn’t bond and didn’t come together as a team,” said Sutton, who then added an emphatic exclamation point to the moment before he headed to the opening ceremonies.

“I said (to them), ‘I can’t think of any other message that we could send any louder than to put the two of you guys out first.’ "

Later, before he left the media center to attend the opening ceremonies, Sutton added: “It's a match made in heaven. It could be one of the greatest teams in U.S. history. They might shoot 58 – if it gets that far.”

So quickly did reporters rush out of the interview room, you would have thought the free buffet had opened. It was delicious fodder at an event that is naturally confrontational and the us-versus-them atmosphere prevails.

Sutton was putting his two aces on the table right off the bat. What did Europe’s lead team think of that?

“We were up for it,” said Padraig Harrington, who was paired with Colin Montgomerie in that opener against the two American rock stars.

Up for it? How? Why? Harrington was ranked eighth in the world, yes, but Montgomerie was 62nd, and both at that point were majorless. The answers were simple, Harrington said. He had an ace that trumped Sutton’s dynamic hand.

“You’ve got to understand. It’s Monty’s career. That’s the key here,” Harrington said. “It’s Monty’s career. It’s him. Everything about him is that Ryder Cup. It means so much to him. At the time I’m playing with Monty, I’m obviously higher in the world, but I’m playing to Monty.

“He’s my captain in that match.”

• • •

Sitting on the outside looking in, you might think that Harrington is a bit overboard. With but two players forming a partnership, how in the name of Walter Hagen can you designate one of them as the “captain”? And why would you want to? Can’t two professional players handle these four-ball and foursomes assignments without leaning on one guy to take charge of the pairing? Isn’t it just golf?

Well, yes, it’s golf. But it’s golf of a different flavor.

“You need that one guy to make the quick decision out there, to decide the shot selection, to determine things off of their ball, to say, ‘Be careful; they’re in the (junk) over there,’ “ said Curtis Strange, who played in five Ryder Cups.

“It’s someone more inspirational than emotional. He’s the one coach of that twosome, but it’s never offensive.”

Sometimes, it’s quite clear as to which of the two takes the lead role. Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, the most productive team in Ryder Cup history? “I’m sure Seve was leading him down the road,” Steve Stricker said.

And when Stricker joins with Tiger Woods? Again, no surprise there.

“I feel that Tiger is the leader,” he said. “If I play with him, I defer to Tiger.”

Sometimes, it’s not as obvious, since it may not revolve around who is considered the better of the two, but the one who possesses the intangibles. Like Montgomerie taking charge in that legendary four-ball match at Oakland Hills. His passion for the Ryder Cup by that point in time was all-consuming, and Harrington deferred to that.

“You’ve got to understand,” the Irishman said. “I was very happy to pander everything to what Monty wanted. I knew with him playing well, we were going to win the match. He gets so into it.”

Memorably, Harrington and Montgomerie scored a 2-and-1 victory, and later in the day, Woods and Mickelson also went down in foursomes, 1 up to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood. It was a double dose of humility dished out to the Americans, who were down, 6 1/2 to 1 1/2, after the first day and on their way to a humiliating defeat.

Harrington was never surprised that the Woods-Mickelson pairing didn’t work.

“Maybe that’s your issue with Tiger and Phil. Who’s your captain? Who’s leading? You’ve got to have responsibility in match – who is going to decide, ‘We’re going to give that putt; we’re not going to give that putt; we’re going to take this order.’

“Sometimes, equals work, but in general you’ve got to have a captain in each four-ball or foursomes. It was clear Seve was the boss. When I played with Monty (they were 3-2), Monty was the boss.”

Strange played 15 team matches and had nine different partners. Always, he felt similarly to Harrington, that one of the two had to be in charge.

“It happens naturally,” he said. “The alpha male takes charge.”

Six of his team matches featured Tom Kite as a teammate. “I’m not going to say who was over who, but you can probably guess,” said Strange, who certainly would have been considered of “alpha male” stock.

Harrington has enjoyed both sides, too. More than happy to follow Montgomerie’s lead for their matches in 2002, '04 and '06, in 2010 the Irishman was put out with Ross Fisher in a second-session foursomes and a third-session four-ball.

They won both, crucial points in a competition that was tilted Europe’s way, 14 1/2 to 13 1/2.

“He’s a lovely player,” Harrington said of Fisher, “but I dominated the group. I wasn’t playing as well as Ross. Ross was playing some lovely golf, but I took control of the match. If there was a decision to be made, it was me talking. It was me who was in his ear. You need someone like that.

“(Fisher) didn’t need to do anything (but play) because you’re taking the responsibility.”

Eight years later, one can only wonder: How many captains were in that Woods-Mickelson pairing?

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