The Captains on Ryder Cup pressure

There are all manner of narratives about the pressure the players experience in the Ryder Cup. But I thought that the descriptions by Tom Watson and Paul McGinley in their Monday joint media session at Gleneagles Golf Club in Perthshire, Scotland, were particularly insightful because they were talking about it in their own experience and the ways in which they were going to pass this wisdom on to their players.

Watson began with the way in which he is conditioning the players to move beyond all the necessary but superfluous stuff so that they can just concentrate on their golf:

“Our team came over in good shape. They are trying to get their legs right now. They are getting a little food in them, getting their clothes fitted the right way and going out and chipping and putting and just having an easy day of it today. Now, the process begins”

“I can just say that our teammates, we all came over on the plane today, we had a nice little conversation before we got on the plane and during the bus ride over here, just logistics, some things, trying to get all the superfluous stuff out of the way before they get down to business.”

Since this is the European Teams home game, McGinley explained that his team drifted in one-by-one on a deadline. The team uniting is such an important part of this: 

“Yeah, we are arriving, not as collectively together as the Americans did. We are arriving at different stages, people coming from all over the world. Obviously Martin coming from Germany and Henrik from Sweden and Sergio from Spain and Graeme from Northern Ireland. So they are all coming from different parts, but the deadline is 6 o’clock tonight. I think the last one to arrive today is Graeme around 4 o’clock today. And other than that, everybody will be on site, and we are just like Tom said, raring to go.”

McGinley explained the way in which is team is going to deal with the pressure of being the favorites, just embracing it:

“We’re slight favorites. But we have been favorites before in Ryder Cups. This is not like this is the first time ever. And I think our players have deserved it, and I think it’s a situation, if we are going to be favorites, to embrace it. It’s not something to be afraid of or be ashamed of. The guys have worked very hard to be in the position they are.”

“Having said that, I did a bit of calculation myself when the two teams were formulated, and Tom’s team’s average [World] ranking position was 16 and ours was 18. So this is not a weak American Team. We might be slight favorites with the bookies, but the two teams are very well balanced and very close together. We know it’s going to be a very tough contest ahead of us.”

For Watson’s  part, he knows that good play trumps the bookies’ calculations and he will be sharing that idea with his team:

“As far as favorites are concerned, the media, the people that look at the teams, they look at Rory McIlroy, they look at Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson; the European Team is loaded. But when the matches start at 7.35 on Friday morning, there’s going to be quality of play going on. We’ll just see who wins. I know our team is totally committed to bringing the Cup back. I know that. And I’m going to do everything in my power to help them do that and set the stage for them.”

One of the ways that Watson is trying to motivate the team is by confronting the elephant in the room and how to deal with it, the crushing, last-minute loss two years ago at Medina:

“I made it very clear to them that this trip is a redemption trip. Those players that played on that team, if any players are on this team, it’s time to make amends and try to redeem yourselves from what happened in 2012. I think it’s a motivation rather than a negative.”

He went on to talk about the impact the captain has in the outcome of the matches. The players play the matches, but it’s the captain who sets the tables for winning:

“I think the captain, he’s a person who inspires the team. They don’t need any motivation. My two jobs are to make the three captain’s picks, and my job right now, along with my vice captains, is to team them up in the best possible way that we think we can win. Those decisions, they evolve. Throughout the matches, they evolve. You start off with decisions you think are good for winning points, and they will change. In the heat of the battle, in the heat of the contest, when you make those decisions. Those are the key decisions that the captains and the vice captains make together.”

And Watson has broken down the task of winning for the players so that they can be thinking about it in a manageable, achievable way, rather as some outsized goal that could be too far away:

“When it’s all said and done, it’s 12 guys out there trying to win a point each match. There are eight guys in the first four matches, and on the last on Sunday, 12 guys are trying to win a point. Basically all you have to do is win a point and a half for the entire matches, and you win The Ryder Cup. That’s the bottom line. That’s what I’m telling my players.”

And McGinley has crystallized the way he wants his team thinking too; play well:

“The bottom line is, this is a very, very strong American Team. The favorite tag or not favorite tag is irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. We’re going to have to play really well to win this Ryder Cup. I certainly won’t be underestimating this American Team or Tom. If we’re going to win this Ryder Cup, we’ve got to be on it.”

Watson began to get into the ambiance of the Cup matches and how it’s different from “normal” tournament golf:

“In The Ryder Cup matches, there’s not a lot of serenity. There’s a lot of tension, a lot of pressure. The crowds are magnificent. I’ve told all my friends who I got passes for over here, they had not been to The Ryder Cup before: You will hear two different cheers. You’ll hear — and I hope to hear the first cheer, the roar, more than the yeas.”

“That’s the beauty of The Ryder Cup. I go back to one thing that I remember very, very clearly, my first Ryder Cup in 1977. I was playing with Hubert Green the fourball match, and we had our opponents, Tommy Horton, and I can’t remember who else, we had them six down after ten. We played the 11th hole at Lytham St. Annes, the par 5, and I knocked it on the green in two. Looks like we are going to go dormie. Horton had a 15-foot putt for birdie and I had 2-putt from about 40 feet. I left my first putt about five feet short, and Horton makes the putt, and I miss my 5-footer. And there was a cheer that went up when I missed my putt, and that was the first time that there was ever a big cheer when I missed a putt. Usually it was when you make a putt, not miss a putt.”

“And then I truly understood that this is the nature of The Ryder Cup, and it’s fine. It’s fair. This is what you expect. I think it’s great for the game that we have this event. This event, the Ryder Cup, if you look at that press room in there, 498 spots. For you people in the media, there’s never been anything larger than that. This event is special in the world of sport, and I love it. This is where I want to be.”

For his part, McGinley talked about how he’s prepping his team by attending to the details that have to be sorted through:

“Well, we’re gathering at 6 o’clock. We’ve got a team meeting with the players and just kind of a bit of housekeeping for the week and stuff like that, getting the feet under the table and making sure the rookies, particularly, a lot of the guys know the routine. I’m not changing the routine that we’ve had the last number of Ryder Cups that I’ve been involved in. So the experienced guys will know that, but it’s important for the rookies to hear all that.”

“Then we are having a general meeting with the backroom staff, the staff on the European Tour who are helping us behind the scenes this week, as well as the players and the caddies. We are just getting together and having a bit of food and a bit of a champagne reception, that’s about it. It will be an early night, though. It won’t be a big late night, that’s for sure.”

And then he talked about how the first-tee adrenaline rush of the Ryder Cup is like no other:

“Well, my first shot in The Ryder Cup was in the afternoon in the foursomes, 2002. I played with Padraig Harrington, and the first hole at The Belfry, I think 250 or 255 to reach the bunker on the right-hand side. So being clever, I thought I would hit 5-wood, lay it up short of it. And I hit 5-wood with a bit of adrenaline and it went 30 yards past the bunker (laughter).”

“So that’s when I understood that adrenaline is a good thing and not always a bad thing. We hear about the bad side of nerves, but it can make you do wonderful things, too. Even though we went on to lose that match, the American pair, Payne Stewart and I think it was Jim [Furyk], and they played very well to beat us.”

“It was a great moment I had that morning. Sam [Torrance] told me as a rookie to go down and experience the first tee and support the other guys just to see what the first tee was going to be like. And that experience certainly helped me when I went to play the first tee shot in the afternoon.”

“The first tee is a special place this year. Just the whole amphitheater and the way they put the stands up and the tunnel walking through first. I think it’s going to be great.”

Watson tried to help the players understand the way in which their bodies will be reacting to the jet lag. It’s not something that they are totally unfamiliar with, but there’s a certain latitude they need to give themselves as they work their way towards Friday:

“The team itself is going to create their template. Right now, it’s just logistically getting all the housekeeping out of the way, for our team in particular, the jet lag. I basically told them, I said, don’t worry about your golf swings for the next couple days. Get your body on time, just get a chance to see the golf course, and by Thursday or Friday, that’s when that focus and that golf swing should start to occur.”

“That was good advice I gave a long time ago to Tom Kite in ’81. I said, Tom — it was his first Ryder Cup overseas. I told Tom, I said, ‘You’re going to go over there and you’re going to be jet lagged. And you’re like me, if you’re not swinging well, you want to change something.’ I said, ‘Don’t change a thing. Just wait for your body to wake up.’ And after the Sunday’s individual round, singles match, he won 8 & 7 and made ten birdies at Walton Heath. He came over and said, ‘Tom, I think you were right.'”

And Watson segued into the partisan cheering that only occurs at the Ryder Cup and how that charges the air in a way that’s palpable. The players have to be ready for it:

“This is what makes The Ryder Cup so great is the partisan nature of it, and the crowds here are wonderful. The singing, cheering, it is something special. I told the newbies that have come over here as fans and I’ll tell the rookies that haven’t played in a Ryder Cup before: You will feel the electricity. You will feel the electricity of The Ryder Cup as you are out on the golf course. When you’re not on the golf course you can hear it.”

“The only thing that compares to it I think is Augusta National, going down that hill and you’re up at the clubhouse and you hear the roars down at 15 and 13 and they reverberate through the pine trees up to the clubhouse. Same thing in The Ryder Cup, you hear those roars and it’s just electric. That’s what I tell people: You’re going to feel something that you’ve never felt before.”

And then he was asked about his own personal experience playing in the Ryder Cup as opposed to playing in the majors. But it was his experience as the captain in 1993 that trumped that:

“Well, in my own personal experience, I felt more pressure playing in The Ryder Cup, I did. But I tell you this; I felt more pressure as a captain in 1993 than I did as a player. When you don’t have any — when you don’t have any real effect on the outcome, you’re just caught in No Man’s Land and the pressure builds on you. That’s what I experienced as a captain in 1993.”

“I can tell you the pressure in The Ryder Cup [as a player], going to the first tee, when you reach the first tee there, it is something very electric, very intense, and there are a few things that — I love Bob Torrance’s comment there; ‘this is going to be the happiest day of your life.’ That’s a wonderful last thought, because once you get in that pressure cooker, it’s for real.”

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