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Role of captain depends on man holding job
Some believe the input is nebulous. Others dissent and point to the impact of captains like Ben Crenshaw, Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros to make their case.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle and says more about the men who have held the position than the job itself. Good, bad or indifferent, they've all done it their way.
For someone like Langer, doing it his way meant total precision in preparing Europe for the 2004 Ryder Cup, the last time it was held on American soil before this week's renewal at Valhalla Golf Club. Haphazard and random are words that never will be associated with Langer, the two-time Masters winner from Germany.
Langer did not swing a club or sink a putt but he was clearly the point man, the brains and the inspiration in the operation that netted Europe a resounding nine-point victory at Oakland Hills.
Every moment was planned by Langer to the smallest detail. As golf writer at The Detroit News, I monitored his captaincy for nearly two years, from the day he was named to the conclusion of the 35th Ryder Cup. Every eventuality was anticipated and accounted for by Langer. There were no accidents and no surprises. Langer simply would not allow a gaffe on his watch.
Crenshaw's term was more about inspiration and motivation. A student of the game, Crenshaw studied the nuances and invoked history. Can anyone forget the shirts Crenshaw designed for the final day of competition at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, with portraits of past U.S. teams? Not likely.
And then there was Ballesteros, whose super-charged golf cart zoomed around Valderrama in 1997 like a Harley-Davidson on steroids. Seve was here. Seve was there. Seve was everywhere.
Nobody knows better than Nick Faldo, the man in charge of Europe's defense this week at Valhalla, what it was like with Ballesteros in charge.
Faldo, a six-time major champion, played in the Ryder Cup a record 11 times. As a competitor, he was methodical and mechanical. Every moving part had a purpose in the golf swing and Faldo knew what it was. If he didn't know, he found out.
In addition to those three victories at the Masters and the trio at the British Open, the precision with which he played enabled Faldo to become the greatest scorer in Ryder Cup history -- European or American -- with 25 points.
It is safe to say one captain that Faldo won't be patterning himself after this week is Ballesteros, who was captain in his native Spain the first time the Ryder Cup was held outside the British Isles with Europe as host.
Europe was in control after two days of Foursomes and Fourballs but they weren't quite home and dry. The 12 Sunday singles matches still posed a threat so ...
As captain, Ballesteros could not afford any mistakes. So he discussed the final day lineup with his players.
Let's let Faldo pick up the tale.
"We're talking about who will play where," Faldo said. "Costantino Rocca says, 'I play fast.' Seve says, 'OK. We put you near the front.'
"I said, 'This is my 11th Ryder Cup. Put me 11," Faldo continued. "Seve says, 'OK, Nick, you go No. 11."
"Monty says, 'I want 12.' Seve says, 'We put you 12.' We picked our numbers. Seve was the great mathematician."
Not that great. The United States won the singles by a 8-4 margin and nearly pulled off the come-from-behind victory before losing by a single point.
Faldo and his counterpart, Paul Azinger, are hands-on but it's clear Faldo will be the tactician and Azinger the motivator, the roles determined by necessity. Faldo's team knows and believes it will win. All Faldo must do is push the right buttons with pairings and lineups. Azinger must convince his players they can end the drought.
Once the matches begin, captains generally refrain from offering advice.
"They're grown men," Azinger said. "They know what to do. I don't need to hold their hand."
As for words of wisdom, Azinger has this to offer:
"We need to play with a chip on our shoulder. We need to win it this time. We need to get it right."
Two years ago, in the build-up to the matches at The K Club, it was generally agreed that Lehman had done a marvelous job. He had, after all, managed to convince the Americans to meet in Ireland for two days of practice. In the opposing camp, Ian Woosnam was portrayed as someone completely out of his element and comfort zone.
Three days later, Woosnam was heralded as a conquering hero. Funny how those things happen.
Look for a Ben Curtis-Chad Campbell pairing. When Azinger was canvassing the players who made the U.S. squad on points, he invited opinions on the wild card picks. Curtis had good things to say about Campbell.
It's a rule of thumb in team sports that a championship team lives and dies by the performances of its best players. That means the top of the lineup (and points list) must step up for the U.S.
For the record, the top four point-getters -- Phil Mickelson, Stewart Cink, Kenny Perry and Jim Furyk -- are a combined 18-31-10 in the Ryder Cup, with eight of the victories coming in singles.
This is what the first tee shot at the Ryder Cup does to golfers, especially the young players. Faldo's first Ryder Cup was at Royal Lytham & St. Annes on England's west coast in 1977. He was 20.
The first hole there is a 206-yard par 3 and Faldo remembers warming up on the practice range by hitting 6-irons, the club he would normally use. Once on the tee, Faldo stared at the green and said, "I need a 4-iron." At the Ryder Cup, it's about two-club nerves.
Sergio Garcia is a perfect 8-0 in Foursomes. Is there any way Faldo doesn't send him off first Friday morning now that the format has been switched to alternate shot first, followed by Fourballs the afternoon? And if Faldo does, doesn't that give Europe a quick early lead again?
Azinger surely must be having that same swing thought.
Garcia has lost three of four singles matches. Jim Furyk (4-and-3), Stewart Cink (4-and-3) and David Toms (1-up) have beaten Garcia. Furyk and Cink are on this year's team. Why not Furyk and Cink against Garcia and Lee Westwood Friday morning?
Vartan Kupelian spent 37 years as a columnist and sports writer with The Detroit News, the last 15 as golf writer.