Here's what Ryder Cup USA vice-captains really do and why it matters
It's well-documented that after another crushing loss in the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland, the U.S. made a massive overhaul, putting changes in place to try and fix what was clearly broken: organization and defined roles.
That meant creating continuity among the team's leadership.
Beginning in 2016, and going forward, vice captains were no longer going to be just the buddies or captains who show up the week of the event.
Instead, accepting "vice captaincy," now means you're accepting a job -- and, in a lot of cases, being groomed for a future captaincy of your own.
No one knows that better than Davis Love III.
Shortly after Jim Furyk was announced as the 2018 Ryder Cup USA captain in January 2017, he tabbed Love as a vice captain.
Furyk then added Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods as vice captains.
But back to Love. This will be his second turn as a vice captain. He's also been a captain twice, losing in 2012 at Medinah and winning in 2016 at Hazeltine National.
"The role of the vice captains has changed so much since 2014," Love said. "We made it more of a defined role that isn't just 'show up at the Ryder Cup and help out.' It's a year-round job. You're helping the captain with specific duties that each can handle so the captain can focus on what he needs to focus on. The job gets bigger and bigger. It's dividing responsibilities and working toward the same goal."
Those responsibilities vary, Love said.
One selection might be someone who plays regularly on the PGA Tour. There could be a past captain. There's someone focusing on pairings and maybe even someone who's easy/easier for players to talk to.
Love checked off all those boxes with his vice captains at Hazeltine. They were: 2006 captain Tom Lehman, a Minnesota native; Stricker; Furyk; Woods; and last-minute addition, Bubba Watson.
"It's supporting the captain and helping build the team," Love said of vice captains. "It's not just about showing up that week to help out. I remember one year when Bobby Wadkins brought me a Diet Dr. Pepper -- his favorite drink. I was like, 'Uh, can I get a water instead.'"
Some vice captains can even become obsessed with their role.
That, Love said, was the case with Woods for the 2016 matches.
"There were past teams where we showed up, figured out the pairings when we got there and then had to decide who was going to hit the tee shot on odd and even holes," Love recalled. "Not anymore. Tiger was putting together potential pairings eight months before Hazeltine. Based on the strategy of the course, he had already picked out which holes which players would tee off on. Six months before those matches, he was making pairings based on good weather and bad weather situations."
Lehman, meanwhile, was one of Love's first named vice captains. Sure, they're good friends, but Love took the 1996 Open Champion on board because of his ties to Minnesota.
"People there identify him with Tom as a past captain," Love said. "He helped locally from little to big things in Minnesota throughout that Ryder Cup year. If I wait until the week before to announce him, he doesn't have that ability to build that support on the ground."
Love vividly remembers being asked to be a vice captain in 2010 by then-captain, Corey Pavin.
Like Paul Azinger before Pavin in 2008, the 1995 U.S. Open champion knew serious changes needed to be made for the USA to set themselves up for continued success.
"I'll never forget Corey asking me in hotel room at the Sony Open in 2010," Love said. "He told me, 'I know you're going to be captain and you can help me, but you need to watch and learn. I'm giving you an opportunity to see how it works well ahead of time, because I know you're going to do it.' He gave me a leg up.
"Azinger and Corey understood something needed to change and we didn't catch on soon enough. Give Paul credit for waking us up and then Corey for giving me a leg up. Because of them, there's structure now. Instead of [Tom] Watson calling me for advice on how many ping-pong tables we need in the team room, the PGA has that handled ahead of time. The captains can focus on what needs to be done to, as Phil Mickelson puts it, 'to give the team the best chance they can to succeed. Give them everything they need to be successful.'"
Speaking of Mickelson, don't let the fact that he's never been a "vice captain" in title fool you. He is, undoubtedly, the team's "player-captain," if you will.
Mickelson has played on a record 11 consecutive teams and is well-placed to make a run at his 12th in 2018. Remarkably, the five-time major champion made 11 teams he's played on automatically.
With all his experience, Mickelson commands the respect of fellow players as well as captains.
That's never once been lost on Love.
"Phil carries a lot of weight," he said. "We rely on him to be the leader. We know he's going to say the right thing, do the right thing. Bring a cool story or a cool gift and bring young guys under his wing and explain things. We can count on him to say something silly and take the pressure off the other guys and put it on himself instead of them. He's the leader and he will flat-out tell you, 'I'm going to play great, put me in there,' and he does. We have two of the best minds in the game with Tiger and Phil and I think we finally figured out how to harness that and pass it on to the players. Phil relishes the role. He loves the compete, loves playing with a partner, being a leader and passing to the next generation. His contribution is huge."
At Le Golf National in Paris, France, this month, the Americans get to travel overseas to a Ryder Cup as defending champs for the first time since 2010 at Celtic Manor -- matches they would lose.
In fact, the Americans haven't won on foreign soil since 1993 -- Love's first Ryder Cup as a player.
Boy, would he relish the chance to be the vice-captain of a team that turns that around.
"I was on the 1993 team and I know how good it feels to win on the other side of the pond," he said. "We want to win every time, but we know that's not going to happen. For a lot of guys, that's the only thing missing on the resume [winning a Ryder Cup in Europe]. We had to deal with not winning -- period -- for so long. We took care of that at Hazeltine. The new question is: can they win overseas? That'll be a big story. They can win at home, but how about there? We'll put all that talk in the background and go play. We want to win every session, but we need to worry about them one at a time. We've already started to work on that."
The new USA system certainly doesn't assure victory. But, Love said, the health of Ryder Cup USA is in a much better place than it was just a few years ago.
"People still give us a hard time about the Ryder Cup Committee, but it had a massive benefit to the organization of the team and the players' relationship with the PGA," Love said. "Tiger and Phil know the plan. They helped lay it out. They know what's going on and how it's going on. It's hugely changed. We're in it to win it year after year. I liken it to the Olympics. They train for it every four tears. We're training for these matches and laying the groundwork for years to come. Jim sat with me in stats meetings to see how we'd do them for 2016. Now, I don't have to do that with him for 2018. That put him way ahead of the curve."