Padraig Harrington: ‘I didn’t expect the Ryder Cup captaincy to be this full-on”

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With nine months to go until the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, Padraig Harrington has already started trying to predict his team of 12. But, as Michael Catling found out, there’s a lot more to his job as European captain than you might think…

When Padraig Harrington agreed to succeed Thomas Bjorn as European Ryder Cup captain, he didn’t expect it to be so full-on. He blames Paul McGinley for that, and likens it to a full-time job. The attention to detail has already seen him inspect the team hotel twice, and try out dozens of clothing designs and water bottle holders for ease of use. 

“I know so much about hats it’s untrue,” he says, laughing. “I can tell you the company [New Era] was started in 1920. They made the first baseball hat in 1934 for the Cleveland Indians. They sold 18,000 hats in the tented village at Paris, and 35,000 hats at the tented village in Hazeltine. Believe me, I know about hats. When it comes to bags, I had to bring my caddie in to see how they function. We had to test if there was enough space for a water bottle. We tested it for a couple of minutes. But stuff like that has to be done. You can’t leave it to chance.”

The work behind the scenes has had a knock-on effect on his playing career, which he admits has left him both irritable and frustrated. Last year, he failed to finish inside the top 10 from 22 starts worldwide, missing 50 per cent of cuts. It remains a sore subject, but he accepts that it will all be worth it if he leads Europe to success at Whistling Straits…

Are you excited or daunted by the task facing you?
Both. Absolutely both. I’m fascinated by it. The only way people can judge whether you’re a good captain is by the results. This is not like Premier League football. I don’t get to play 38 games. I get one game to be a good manager. That is a little bit tough, but that’s why I’m doing all this work behind the scenes so I can be the best I can be. If you look at my own golfing career, that’s how I’ve always operated. I don’t want to give the team any impression that it’s about me. I want to be comfortable and relaxed around them, so they can go out and play.

Has it been harder than you expected, trying to juggle the captaincy with playing?
I think it was harder than I expected, yes. I thought this year would be hard, but last year there was a lot of administration and behind-the scenes stuff. I’ve come to terms with it at this stage, but there were certainly tournaments during the year which I messed up because of it. I now kind of realise that if I have a busy week Ryder Cup wise and I’m playing, I know I can’t be a golfer and a Ryder Cup captain that week. I have to take a step back. If I’m playing the tournament, I don’t do a lot of practice. Trying to fit both in only gets you tired and irritated that it’s not going how you want it to go. I played under a Ryder Cup captain who, I’m told, turned up literally two weeks in advance. He was a good captain, but his only contribution was to turn up and pick the team. Since [Paul] McGinley – and we have him to blame really – it’s not far off a full-time job. I’m hoping that this year will be spent watching the players and understanding who likes what and who could be partnered together. 

One of the biggest changes you’ve made has been to reduce the number of captain’s picks from four to three. What was the logic behind that decision?
The logic is basically anybody you pick is under more pressure and stress than a player who is qualified. The way I looked at it is, how often do you skip the ninth guy in the rankings and pick four people after him? Not very often. You would normally pick the ninth guy, so why pick him and put him under pressure? It’s better to let him feel like he’s there on his own merits, no second guessing, no judging. 

You recently announced Robert Karlsson as one of your vice captains. What will he bring to the team?
Anybody who was involved in 2018 in the backroom staff would see this as a no-brainer pick. Robert is really good at this job. He’s very logical, very straight. He doesn’t let his emotions get involved. But ultimately, you know, he provides a great sounding board. There will be other vice captains but like in a lot of instances, you have to wait. Not saying anything against Robert’s golf, but there are other guys who potentially could make the team who could be vice captains, but I need a vice captain now. A big part of my job and Robert’s job now is to get to know the younger players personally over the next year. 

How many vice captains do you want and can you give us an idea as to who they might be? 
The plan would be to have five. I don’t necessarily need to name them too early. The vice captains who I would be thinking about all know. I’ve talked to them all. There’s certainly one still completely open, but I’ve spoken to most of the other ones and I will continue to talk to them.

Can you give us a clue as to who you’ve got lined up? 
I guarantee if you sat down and picked my vice captains, you would have a far better chance of picking all five than you would picking the nine players who will automatically qualify. That’s all I’m saying on it. But what I will say is that the vice captain’s role has changed. Years ago, you brought people in who were ex-captains or mates. It’s now almost incumbent on the captain to bring in the future captains.

Has the biggest perk of your captaincy been picking and choosing who you play with at European Tour events?
It’s one of them. I love playing with the younger guys, seeing their games, and scaring the life out of a few of them! I asked one player – and he wasn’t young – are you scared of me? And they said, ‘a little’. So, I’m quite enjoying my position of captain! The number of guys I play with who mess up the first couple of holes is amazing. If you could bet on them, you would lay them on the 1st hole and back them after three or four. Clearly, they are wondering what I’m watching. But I’m not playing with guys who are probable; I’m playing with guys who will make Ryder Cups down the road. I’m playing with the future of Europe at the moment and it’s something I’m enjoying.

You must be excited about some of the players coming through like Viktor Hovland and Robert MacIntyre?
I’m impressed with what’s there. You mention those two, and in Viktor’s case, I think the whole world could do with his attitude. He has tremendous belief in himself. If there’s an amateur out there turning pro, he’s the one they should be looking at to mimic. Robert MacIntyre is definitely a player. I would be drawn to players who know how to play golf, and he knows how to get the ball around. 

Is this the most impressive group of players Europe has ever had available to pick from?
Look, there’s no Ryder Cup captain who wouldn’t take the 12 guys who played in Paris. That was the most impressive group. Those 12 players, at that time, were in form and a serious team. But we also had a golden period in the 80s with Major winners. There were megastars like Seve [Ballesteros], [Bernhard] Langer, Woosey [Ian Woosnam], [Nick] Faldo, Sandy Lyle and [Jose Maria] Olazabal. They were the biggest names in the world. Are we at that level now? I think the game has got a little bit broad. Yes, Rory is the biggest brand in golf right now and as a captain, you’re praying Jon Rahm is the stalwart of your team. That’s why I go back to France and think, can I have those 12 guys? They were world beaters in 2018. All I know is that while I don’t get to choose nine of my players, they will deserve to be there and good enough. I will then pick three guys to complement them and they won’t necessarily be the 10th, 11th and 12th best players in Europe.  

Would you ever consider breaking up the MoliWood partnership?
Everything is on the cards. I would hope those two players are in form and, to be honest, if one of those is 10th, 11th or 12th, they have a great chance of getting picked on the back of the other being in the team. The chances of the two of them not teeing up on the first day would be very, very, very slim. And the same with not getting a second go of it. But after two goes, I might switch things. Nothing is off the table at all but if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.  

Are you concerned that many of Europe’s best players will be playing most of their golf on the PGA Tour, which could make it difficult for them to qualify via the European Points list?
Look, there are five spots available on the World Points list, and that comes in after the European Points list. The first four are harder to get in than the second five, so it’s tough. But it is what it is. There are plenty of opportunities. It is possible somebody could get their schedule wrong. But I can tell you this: It’s not easy to be one of the top-nine players. You could be a top-quality golfer, in form, and still not make it. 

Are you disappointed that the EurAsia Cup has been scrapped from the 2020 calendar?
I am disappointed, yes. The last time I captained a team was in secondary school. I would have liked a go of being captain and having a practice run. That would have been nice.

It does mean this will be the first time this century that there’s been no Ryder Cup ‘dress rehearsal’ for Team Europe. Are you planning to take some players over to Whistling Straits beforehand?
I have no plans at this very moment, but most players will have played the golf course before. If there is a space in the schedule, I might try to get a group together to go. But I wouldn’t pair anybody at Whistling Straits in advance. You’re just looking to build relationships, which you can do over dinners or in events running up to it. You don’t have to wait and bring them out for a special weekend camping trip. 

You’ve played at Whistling Straits before, so you’re familiar with the venue. Do you think it lends itself well to matchplay?
I think it will be a great venue for the Ryder Cup. It’s a dramatic golf course. We need that in the Ryder Cup. That’s what matchplay is about. The three PGAs I played, most of what I remember is the variability of the golf course weather-wise. A change of direction of wind can just massively change how a hole plays. Moving a tee box forward can change the whole character of holes. So yeah, it’s an ideal matchplay golf course. 

How much tougher is it captaining away from home? Is there much of a difference?
Oh, I think there’s a substantial difference. I would advocate even too much of a difference between home and away. Clearly in Europe, we get to set the golf course up and we set it up every way we can to suit our players. And in the States, we’ve seen that the golf courses are set up to be most advantageous for the home team. I think it’s obviously not going to happen probably in my lifetime, but 40, 50 years down the road when the Ryder Cup is still going along, it will probably be best to have a neutral set-up. Thankfully, Whistling Straits is a much more natural golf course. I’m interested to see what Steve [Stricker] has in store, but it doesn’t look like you can do a lot with this golf course. Even the weather could be very changeable. So, in many ways, this is a golf course that is just going to test the players on its own merits.

As a qualified accountant, you must like that side of looking at the numbers and seeing all the percentages and predictions…
It’s interesting, and statistically, there’s a couple that have been pulled up and flagged to us that maybe we wouldn’t have been aware of but they say, ‘no, these guys are really producing the figures. If they keep doing this, they will have a big performance that will push them very close to making the team’. That’s kind of the way of the world now when it comes to these things. There’s a lot of statistical data behind it. The last thing we want is surprises. We don’t want a situation where somebody gets on the team and we don’t have that relationship built up. 

Are you paying much attention to the European and World Points list, or is it too early?
I told myself, just don’t look at the points and things. You pick a new team every week if you’re looking at it. So, this is very early doors. But, yes, I have looked at it and I will continue to look at it and people will continue to remind me of it!

Have you already got a team of 12 in mind or written down?
I haven’t. I saw two different groups of people have a go but I didn’t think it would be appropriate to get involved. I’ve seen what the statisticians are predicting. I was surprised because some people were better players than I thought, in terms of their chance of making it, and vice versa. It will be interesting to see how things play out.

QUICKFIRE QUESTIONS

If you could have any USA player on your team, who would you pick and why?
They might give him to us, but Patrick Reed. He’s been coming over, playing in Europe, and I think he’s mixed very well with the European players. He gets a decent amount of respect over here and would be the most ‘European’ of their players.

Who’s the best captain you’ve played under?
I’ve played under a variety. I couldn’t pick one. I liked Langer because he took control. I think Woosey and Sam Torrance related very well to me and gave me great self belief. And Monty did everything right. The great thing he did was that he made everyone believe we had the best team. He actually got us thinking the way he thought… that we were better than them and we didn’t need any luck. I would like to be a captain like him. I’m definitely not trying to reinvent the wheel.

Best Ryder Cup you’ve played in?
The most exciting was 1999 in Boston when I was a rookie. It was just electric. Winning in 2002 at The Belfry was massive, especially after losing in Boston.

Best partner in a Ryder Cup?
Monty. The whole idea of playing with him was making sure he was in a nice place. He was so good mentally and you spent your day worrying about him, rather than your own game. You knew you were there to back him up in that format.

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