LET ME first emphasize that I would not be a good pick to captain the U.S. Ryder Cup team. My record in international play is spotty—I failed to break 90 on a windswept tour of Scotland—and since I carry a well-worn nine-wood, I generally lack the golfing gravitas necessary to hold the respect of the individual FORTUNE 500 companies who would be under my command.
Still, being a Ryder Cup captain is not nearly as difficult as the golf press makes it out to be. There is much hand-wringing over the qualities necessary to captain (guile, charisma and decisiveness among them) when in fact the main attributes are having a functioning walkie-talkie and a chauffeur who won't steer your cart into a tree.
Paul Azinger, the 2008 U.S. capo, has already made one major move, changing the format (the province of the home captain) so the competition will begin with alternate shot, a presumed U.S. strength. So what? They still have to play better-ball and singles. Yet if the U.S. goes on to victory, I guarantee that Zinger will be proclaimed a genius, and if the U.S. flops again, the press will wail, "Why change the format? It smelled of panic."
Hal Sutton sent out Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to play as a team in the '04 match at Oakland Hills, and they proceeded to act like junior high girls who were chasing the same boy. But it was Sutton who got crucified when Tiger-Phil lost 2 and 1. What could he have done? Gone to the pen early? Furyk! Get in there for Lefty!
Baseball managers traffic in double switches, football coaches make alterations to carefully constructed game plans, NBA coaches juggle personnel to exploit matchups. But once the first tee goes into the ground, neither Azinger nor Europe's captain, Nick Faldo, can do much except appear peevish or pleased. Yet if you believe the press accounts, Seve Ballesteros won the 1997 Ryder Cup for Europe at Valderrama merely by looking so damn mah-velous.
As U.S. captain in '99 Ben Crenshaw was held largely responsible for the unseemly stampede onto the 17th green that followed Justin Leonard's 45-foot snake at Brookline that all but clinched the Cup for the U.S. But short of body-blocking people to the ground, there was nothing he could've done. Crenshaw's main offenses, after all, had already been committed—doing a creepy impersonation of a golf-worshipping TV evangelist and selecting those ghastly patterned maroon shirts that were "complemented" by the maroon sweaters and cream-colored skirts worn by the wives. (It was like watching an Ozzie and Harriet episode on hallucinogens.)
Azinger, that rare golfer with a sense of humor (acerbic though it might be), seems to have a firm hold on the limitations of the job. "My belief when these guys were captains in the past and talking about how much it obsessed them was, Jeez, what do you do?" Azinger said in a recent interview about his captaincy. "Pick out the clothes and decide who's going to cook the food. What else is there?"
At any rate, if Zinger finds the responsibilities too overwhelming, he can always call on his three assistant captains. With all due respect, I have to think that's a job even I could handle, as long as I keep the nine-wood out of sight.
GOLF PLUS will next appear in the Sept. 1 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
by JIM GORANT
In the battle for buzz, the Ryder Cup is crushing the FedEx Cup.
John Daly hooks up with Phil Mickelson's former coach Rick Smith
BUTCH [- TIGER + LEFTY - LONG JOHN] √ó RICK [- LEFTY + LONG JOHN] = COACHING CAROUSEL
PHOTO BY BRIAN SPURLOCK/US PRESSWIRE (SUTTON)
CART JOCKEY Captain Sutton (right) "worked" the course at Oakland Hills in '04.
ANDREW REDINGTON/GETTY IMAGES (BUTCH HARMON)
ROBERT BECK (WOODS)
ROBERT BECK (MICKELSON)
FRED VUICH (DALY)
SAM GREENWOOD/GETTY IMAGES (SMITH)
ED BOETTCHER/CORBIS (CAROUSEL)