Why European captain Padraig Harrington only has three Ryder Cup picks

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European captain Padraig Harrington opens up in an exclusive interview ahead of the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.

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Padraig Harrington has played in six Ryder Cups – winning four, losing two – and been vice-captain three times. This year, he captains Europe for the first time at Whistling Straits for the 2021 Ryder Cup. 

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"There’s more pressure in the Ryder Cup than any other event," he says.

Coming from a man who’s won three Majors, including his first in a nervy play-off at the toughest course on The Open rota, Padraig Harrington clearly knows what he’s talking about.

"Do you know why? It’s not the crowds. It’s not your team-mates. It’s not matchplay. The reason – and most people don’t recognise this – is that normally you’re only under pressure if you’re in contention in the last nine holes of a tournament, having played well for 63 holes to get into that position.

“But if you go out on Sunday at the Ryder Cup, your match could be the decider down the back nine and I might have played terribly all week. Never do you come under pressure when you’re playing averagely, or badly… this is the only time. Few people see the subtlety or difference with that – they usually see great shots when players are feeling good. But in the Ryder Cup, you have to hit great shots when you could be feeling awful."

Ryder Cup celebrations

"There’s nothing like it," he enthuses. "There’s unbelievable pressure, tension, excitement – very much them against us and we’re the country cousins with a point to prove and chip on our shoulder. There’s always conspiracy theories too, and that all just adds to the drama."

Here's what Padraig Harrington had to say about the challenges of Ryder Cup captaincy, why Europe are dominating, and why he didn't want more than three wildcard picks...

Captaincy is getting harder

"We’ve had so much success in recent times, it’s tough to be a captain now because there are expectations – years ago it wasn’t so bad, but that’s all changed. It’s tough going to the US full stop, especially to typical US-style venues like Hazeltine and Valhalla. Thankfully, Whistling Straits is a bit different; it’s a good golf course but can be neutralised. I’d suggest Bethpage Black in 2025 will be a lot tougher."

Vice-captains are crucial

"The vice-captains have the best seat in the house," says Harrington. "The captain is under pressure, the team and players are under pressure, but the vice-captains can just take it all in."

Harrington has appointed Luke Donald, Robert Karlsson, Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer as four of his vice-captains, with one or two others still to be named.

Harrington has fulfilled the vice-captain’s role three times himself, including in Paris last time out.

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Europe's Ryder Cup dominance

"I think there are two reasons why we have done so well in recent years. Firstly, the players are good and secondly, we are exceptionally motivated. It’s a big deal for Europe to win the Ryder Cup, it really is. The greatest achievement the European team can take is that we’ve made the Americans care about the Ryder Cup. They’re trying really hard to win it now."

Padraig Harrington Ryder Cup

Ryder Cup captain vs. Major winner

"Is being Ryder Cup captain bigger than winning three Majors? You know what, I’ll have to wait until September to answer that! If I go on to become a winning Ryder Cup captain, I assume that experience will be up there with winning a Major. But if I go on and become a losing captain, I’d endeavour to bury the experience somewhere. That’s just human nature. I want to be a winning captain."

You never forget your first

"I’ll never forget winning my first full point," says Harrington (he beat Mark O’Meara at Brookline in 1999). I hit a driver down the fairway on the last, hit a wedge on to the green and two-putted. It doesn’t sound that much now but I had 152 to the flag – I normally hit a wedge 132 – and I put it two yards past the flag. That’s how pumped up I was. I two-putted from about 12ft; the relief as the first putt stopped a foot by the hole was absolutely immense!"

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Managing the egos

"The statistics show that certain players are great when they’re paired with young rookies, and that certain players can’t carry anyone – they need somebody to carry them. There’s all sorts of egos going on, and that’s what a good captain has to figure out – how he can get his players to play their best whenever they take to the course. Tactics are huge."

Limiting the picks

"I didn’t want any more than three. I believe players should be given the right to qualify. Those who qualify deserve to be there. I think that’s another reason we’ve been so successful, because of the system. We give everybody a chance. You’ve got to give rookies a chance to qualify. That’s very important for the morale of the team, everybody feels they’re part of it. Plus, giving me six picks would have given me a huge headache!"

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