Paul McGinley

European Captain Paul McGinley

Paul McGinley – The 2014 European Ryder Cup Captain

Mitchell Platts looks at the background behind European Ryder Cup Captain Paul McGinley...

The intriguing background to Paul McGinley making history by becoming the first Irishman to captain a Ryder Cup team is that somewhere between the playing fields of Gaelic football and the European Commission he might have been lost to the world of golf.

For many observers of the Gaelic game were absolutely convinced that the young McGinley possessed the speed and skill, the tenacity and the talent, to one-day graduate to playing for Dublin in the All-Ireland Final at the iconic Croke Park before an appalling injury that broke his knee-cap terminated a promising career.

Instead he followed an educational path by finishing school then gaining a diploma in marketing and management in his native Dublin before accepting a role on the Year of the Environment project in the European Commission in Brussels where he also studied French.

Then came that “Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken” moment when Eamon Gallagher, then Ireland’s senior E.U. Diplomat, with support from Padraig O’Huiginn, then Secretary to the Department of the Taoiseach and like McGinley a member at The Grange Golf Club in Dublin, and Frank Fahey, the Minister for Sport, opened the door to a scholarship at the United States International University, San Diego, and McGinley chose the route that would make all the difference to his life.

In truth, McGinley was swayed quite easily because as someone who aspired to making something of himself in sport, as his enthusiasm for playing and watching hurling and the more orthodox form of football emphasised, he was also blessed with the innate ability to hit a golf ball even if he initially courted little desire to make the game a career.

McGinley said: “The idea of me being a pro golfer was like me going to the moon. There was no way. As far as I was concerned Gaelic football was everything that golf was not. It’s a fast, tough, hard-running game whereas golf is much more sedate. I enjoyed the odd game of golf but there was no doubt about which sport I wanted to play. I was going to be a Gaelic footballer because that is what I was best at and loved the most. I wanted to play for Dublin, I also enjoyed my hurling and for work the business world beckoned. The injury to my left knee and then to move on from the European Commission to go study and play golf in San Diego were both blessings in disguise that changed my life.”

His initial contact with golf was as a caddie for his father, Michael, who not only played Gaelic football himself for Donegal but also struck the golf ball with such authority that he was always considered better than the one handicap he held for several years. The young McGinley, despite being distracted by his addiction to Gaelic football, played to an acceptable five handicap. Such was his application to succeed that once he focused on golf he was able to swiftly reduce his handicap at The Grange Golf Club in the heart of Rathfarnham, a south side suburb of Dublin where he grew up, so that by the time he turned professional he played off plus four.

Desire, dedication and determination decreed that McGinley, born in Dublin on December 16, 1966, would significantly develop his golf game. In San Diego, he successfully studied for his degree in International Business and his strong work ethic on the practice range under the studious eye of coach Gordon Severson, who sadly passed away in 2006, transformed his game.

McGinley said: “I learned more from Gordon than anyone else. He took me from a shabby amateur to a golf professional. Later I worked with Bob Torrance and he took me from shabby professional to a good professional. But it was with Gordon that I really started to learn how to play the game properly.”

McGinley revelled in the opportunity to practice under the hot Californian sun and in the competitive world of American inter-collegiate golf his self-belief prospered as he became mentally and physically stronger. He took time out to come home and in the 1989 Irish Close – the Blue Riband of the Irish amateur game - at Rosses Point, his perseverance and patience were key as he overcame five opponents to win the match-play title.

On graduating from San Diego he concentrated on the amateur circuit – losing in the 1990 final of the North of Ireland to Darren Clarke while in 1991 beating Padraig Harrington on the way to winning the South of Ireland match play – before being selected for Great Britain and Ireland for the 1991 Walker Cup which by a lovely coincidence was that year being played at Portmarnock in Dublin. The United States would win but McGinley brought the curtain down on his amateur career with a brilliant second shot to eight feet at the last which set up a famous foursomes win with Liam White against Phil Mickelson and Bob May.

By now McGinley knew that his future would be on The European Tour, to which he has been committed from Day One, and he immediately grasped the nettle by winning the Under-25s European Open in the autumn of 1991 then started 1992 by making his European Tour debut in the Johnnie Walker Asian Classic a few weeks after earning his playing privileges by finishing tied second at the Qualifying School.

McGinley’s first significant European Tour performance arrived at the Mont Agel course later that summer when four successive rounds in the 60s enabled him to finish tied sixth behind Ian Woosnam in the European Monte Carlo Golf Open. There can be few more spectacular courses than the Monte Carlo Golf Club at Mont Agel, perched high above the principality of Monaco, to kick-start a career but the quintessential Dubliner remained grounded.

McGinley had at 25 arrived relatively late to the professional ranks but he did so with a mature sense of balance and outlook on life. He said: “I don’t want to make myself achieve what I want to achieve in a given amount of time. I’ve got an awful lot to learn about myself and my golf. Steady improvement, even if it’s slow, will mean that my time will come.”

Not that he was anything other than ambitious. So he correctly celebrated as he ticked all the boxes with his first European Tour win in the Hohe Brücke Open in Austria in 1996, storming from out of the pack from eight behind with 11 birdies in a superb 62, and the champagne flowed again later that year when he married Allison Shapcott, then a professional on the ladies tour.

A family would follow – Niamh, born in 1999, Killian (2000) and Maia (2002) – and further individual success highlighted by his win in the 2005 Volvo Masters at Club de Golf Valderrama. It had been McGinley’s finest season but also his most frustrating. He had lost a play-off to Paul Casey in the TCL Classic in China then finished runner-up to Angel Cabrera in the flagship BMW PGA Championship where both had closed with 67s at Wentworth Club and narrowly lost 2 and 1 to Michael Campbell in the HSBC Match Play Championship back at Wentworth Club.

Now at the season-ending tournament in the south of Spain, McGinley would post a third round 65 – by two shots the best round of the day – to be four behind joint leaders Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie and with a closing 67 he climbed to the top of the pack with which he would finish third in the then Order of Merit. They say that when McGinley took a stranglehold on the title with a wonderful wedge over water to the treacherous 17th green and a ten foot birdie putt that the cheers in The Grange clubhouse could be heard all the way across Rathfarnham to the Yellow House pub where McGinley enjoyed his first glass of Guinness.

By then, of course, McGinley had also established his international career – representing Ireland 13 times in the World Cup, famously winning the prestigious title with Padraig Harrington at Kiawah Island in 1997 and so emulating the triumph of Christy O’Connor and Harry Bradshaw 39 years previously, and seven times in the Alfred Dunhill Cup; playing in the Royal Trophy three times and playing a significant role in helping Great Britain and Ireland win The Seve Trophy in 2002 and 2005 – winning his singles on both occasions and losing only twice in eight matches alongside Harrington.

McGinley’s almost uncanny knack of claiming team success continued when he captained Great Britain and Ireland to further victories in The Seve Trophy against Continental Europe in 2009 and 2011 although what remains the pièce de résistance in his international playing career is The Ryder Cup.

That began with that time-stopping moment on the 18th green at The Belfry in 2002 when McGinley gloriously holed the ten foot putt that secured Europe’s success and he was bear-hugged by captain Sam Torrance. It continued at Oakland Hills in Michigan in 2004 when he went unbeaten as Europe won 18 ½ - 9 ½ on American soil and he kept his unbeaten singles record intact two years later at The K Club little more than 20 miles from where he grew-up as Europe again won 18 ½ - 9 ½. Moreover, his unbeaten run has continued as a Vice Captain to Colin Montgomerie in 2010 and José María Olazábal in 2012.

McGinley’s love affair with The Ryder Cup is driven by passion. He says: “I love the whole atmosphere of The Ryder Cup. I love everything that goes with it, the pomp and the pageantry. I get a real buzz out of being in the same room where everyone is pulling for the team. It’s inspirational, you can touch the camaraderie, and I do reach for another level when involved in team golf. My heart ticks a bit faster, my adrenalin flows more.”

So Gaelic football’s loss has been golf’s gain and the land that bred the likes of Bradshaw and Daly, O’Connor and O’Connor jnr, Clarke and Harrington, McDowell and McIlroy, to play Ryder Cup golf now has in Paul McGinley the most consummate of professionals as their first European Ryder Cup Captain.

Mitchell Platts