It’s Ryder Cup week, which means the hype-train for the tournament is in full flow. The biennial contest between the best golfers from the US and Europe may not be the “third biggest sporting event in the world” like it once claimed, but it is still one of the most riveting events in golf.
The Ryder Cup has existed for 97 years, but it only ascended to near major-status when the players from continental Europe, led by Seve Ballesteros, joined up with the Great Britain and Ireland team. Before that, the US team had won the previous 10 matches.
Even within that development, it feels like the Ryder Cup only really began to grow into the commercial machine it is today thanks to the backing of Sky Sports in the early 1990s.
Unlike the Masters, carefully curated by the Masters committee where every broadcaster gets the same CBS field, and The Open, which was dominated by the traditional tones of Peter Alliss on the BBC until 2016, the Ryder Cup has been given the Sky Premier League treatment for a generation.
More than any other week in golf, the Ryder Cup is hyperbole overload, sometimes suffocating for even the most hardcore golf fan, and nowhere is this seen more than the treatment of the Ryder Cup captains.
The captaincy is generally a ceremonial role for the most successful former players, regardless of their suitability for the role. Even Paul McGinley, with three Ryder Cup appearances and holing the winning putt in 2002, was considered not to have been successful enough in his career for the position by some before the 2014 cup.
Over the week, every move of the captains is analysed with Jose Mourinho-like vigour, which is ridiculous considering the nature of golf, where the main battle is as much against the golf course as the opposition. There is a certain skill to matching players together well, but this is hardly Pep Guardiola’s juego de posicion coaching.
To demonstrate the reverence for the captain’s role, two winning Ryder Cup captains this century have won the BBC Sports Coach of the Year award – Colin Montgomerie in 2010 and Paul McGinley in 2014. An achievement deemed equal to Claudio Ranieri winning a Premier League with Leicester City.
Yet for this masterful “coaching”, the Ryder Cup players will being along their own individual coaches to help them with their games, and at no point will the captains give any technical advice to the players.
In 2016, English coach Pete Cowen was the coach for the Masters champion Danny Willett and The Open champion Henrik Stenson, playing a regular role in their success as players. He did not receive a nomination for the BBC Sports Personality award, whereas Darren Clarke would have had a great chance had he won the Ryder Cup.
When Thomas Bjorn announced his extra-safe picks for the Ryder Cup that anyone at home could have come up with, former player turned agent said at the announcement “Ryder Cup captains don’t take punts”, which begs the question of what do they do?
It almost feels unfair to associate Paul McGinley with the average Ryder Cup captain, he brought a lot of legitimacy to the role, putting in significant work in statistics and pairings. It would also be wrong to say that the Ryder Cup captain does nothing, there is a fair bit of work to be done in the job, but that is increasingly because of commercial reasons – media and promotional gigs – rather than the actual contest itself.
Even McGinley, considered to be one of the greatest ever captains, had mixed success in one of his main jobs that week, wildcard picks, choosing Stephen Gallagher, who lost both of his matches. The US press hung Davis Love III out to dry for his team crumbling in Medinah in 2012, but he set his team up in fourballs and foursomes for a 10-6 lead, he could not control the randomness of the singles matches.
It should be a fantastic contest at Le Golf National, but let’s not attribute too much to the role of the captains, who are committed but glorified cheerleaders that have a limited role on the actual outcome of the Cup.