Paul McGinley: Captain Fantastic


If Paul McGinley is in any doubt as to the effect a successful Ryder Cup captaincy would have on his life, they are surely dispelled as he drives a golf cart across the 18th fairway of the North course at Quinta do Lago in the Algarve. As he negotiates a route a five-year-old could have managed, spontaneous applause breaks out as the Dubliner dextrously pulls his yellow and blue Team Europe-branded Club Car to a halt in front of an enthralled gathering.

The Irishman looks slightly sheepish at the magnitude of the welcome but carries out his duty – planting a tree to mark the re-opening of the course, which he has helped to redesign – with the same unfussy competence as he did his higher-profile duties at Gleneagles 10 days earlier. The attention continues following the conclusion of the ceremony as resort officials, layer upon layer of PR people, local dignitaries and eager journalists all hang on his every word. When McGinley is briefly out of sight, the scene reminds one of an American television series with Secret Service agents anxiously asking “Where’s the President?”. Whether he likes it or not, McGinley is the man of the moment. Even when Quinta do Lago’s owner Denis O’Brien leaves the party, he seeks out McGinley to say ‘goodbye’. Even the uber wealthy want a piece of a man who was – from the outside looking in – every bit as impressive a Ryder Cup captain as Tony Jacklin in the mid-80s.

As we find a quiet corner of Quinta do Lago’s clubhouse, Golf World wonders whether all the attention is wearing a bit thin. McGinley just smiles. Happily, he is considerably more expansive during a wide-ranging chat about his term as Ryder Cup captain and what the future now holds for the engaging Irishman.

Golf World: Let’s start with what happened before a ball was struck: how much did you tinker with the course set-up to suit your team?
Paul McGinley: I played a very straight bat. I didn’t want to outsmart myself and do something tricky. I didn’t know what the weather was going to be like. My focus was solely on preparing our team and getting our strategy right, getting our man-management right. I didn’t want to waste my energy being a smartarse with the set-up or over-analysing what the Americans were doing. Keep it simple was a motto for me. From the consistency of message the players were getting, from the graphics to what those who spoke to the group were saying, there was a simplicity to what we were doing. We had a real plan and we had a structure with three or four big ideas that we kept feeding into and ultimately they proved to be right.

Would you have picked Stephen Gallacher if he hadn’t been Scottish and a European Tour stalwart?
Absolutely, 100 per cent. He deserved it. He missed the team by one spot. The way he played in Turin was tremendous. I don’t regret for one minute picking Stephen. He was arguably our best player in practice. He was just unfortunate. While he and Ian Poulter didn’t play particularly well, they came across probably the strongest American team that morning. Patrick Reed had a great week and [Jordan] Spieth was very good. Then at that stage, even with Ian Poulter’s pedigree, I didn’t have another senior player to play with him – that senior role is a very difficult one to play. On the second day I wanted pairings that were going to hit the ground running and I couldn’t take a chance to put him in again. He was then doubly unfortunate to draw Phil Mickelson in the singles, a guy who has won so many major championships, was so up for it and had been rested the day before.

You didn’t pair Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. Was that because of their off-course issue, or because their status has changed with Rory now the clear No.1?
Their relationship is different now, no doubt about it. I felt that myself with Padraig (Harrington) when we played. When I was the better player, the dynamic was great; when he became a better player, the dynamic wasn’t quite the same.

Paul McGinley

You mention a consistency of message. Can you give an example of how you controlled what the players were told?
Only a select few people spoke to the group other than myself. There was no vast variety of messages from different people, they were all on same theme. The first to speak was José Maria Olazabal – a previous captain and a guy for whom I have a huge regard. Ian Poulter was another, bringing all his obvious passion. Then I left it until Saturday night to get Lee Westwood to deliver his speech, being the most experienced in the room among the players and even all the vice-captains.

What did you ask Lee to talk about?
I said we needed to emphasise that this was when we switched mindset as a team. The players had partners all week long, but this was where we became individuals again. You need to be greedy, because the best way to contribute to the team is to be selfish and deliver your own point. This was not a time to be comrades with your comrades. This was a time to be an individual. You need to treat your own tee time as you would in the last round of a tournament. Lee put that in his own words and spoke exactly on message. Olazabal, Poulter, Westwood and Ferguson, I briefed them all on what to say so there was a consistency of message. 

So you even told Sir Alex Ferguson what to say when he spoke to the group?
Sir Alex’s words were exactly on message, in his words and his experiences. I was very lucky in that I could have chosen lots of different people from different walks of life to speak but one of the reasons Sir Alex was chosen was because of the similarities of what he did at Manchester United in terms of dealing with the expectation of winning at home. One of the big questions I asked him was, ‘How do you handle the mantle of being favourites?’ In top-level sport, you can always be beaten even if you are strong favourites. Let’s not forget we were facing a top American team who were well motivated and well led. Also, although I am a West Ham fan, I used to love the wave after wave of attack Sir Alex’s teams used to produce. I wanted us to be like that because we were strong from 1 to 12.

Why were you so keen to lean on disciplines of other sports?
I’m very inquisitive and I ask questions. I’m not afraid to learn. I can relate to other sports and I understand other sports. It’s not just golf I’m interested in. I’m interested in sport. I love listening to people and talking about sports. Sir Alex is a reservoir of information when it comes to things like that. I had some great chats with him in the 18 months leading up to Gleneagles. He was a big help. So were Gaelic Football managers Jim McGuinness (until October in charge of Donegal) and Jim Gavin in Dublin.

You clearly leant significantly on your five vice-captains. Did you see yourself in a kind of a CEO-style role as David Brailsford has in British Cycling or Clive Woodward did in England Rugby?
Yes, 100 per cent. I’m not going to tell Justin Rose or Rory how to hit a 7-iron or tell them “such and such hit that club in the group ahead”. I don’t know their games that well to do that. The caddies were huge for me – I told them if I had any information I would give it to them (caddies) and not the player, because they knew their player better than I did. I was asked a couple of days before the start whether I had talked to Rory about his decision to change his driver. I replied, ‘Look, Rory McIlroy is the best player in the world and he makes his own decisions. If he thinks that is the best decision for him, then I’ll back him 100 per cent’.

Paul McGinley

You must have faithfully trusted what the vice-captains told you otherwise it was pointless having them, right?
Exactly right. I saw my job as managing the situation, not as a motivator. I had vice-captains to do that. The vice-captains were chosen very carefully because they were on the shoulder of each game and I got a reading from them. They all knew my plan for the afternoon and they would feed back to me information on how the players in their match had performed. And if you look at the way our guys were fresh and focused coming out, there’s no doubt the fifth vice-captain looking after players who weren’t playing – Des Smyth and José Maria Olazabal – was a big part in having them mentally prepared.

What would be the best illustration of you trusting their judgement?
A great example was when Jamie Donaldson and Lee Westwood were three or four down in their match when we came to finalise the pairings for the afternoon foursomes on Saturday. I had them pencilled in to play that afternoon so I asked Sam (Torrance) where we were at. He said to me, ‘They are playing well, the Americans have just played great’. I asked him if the body language was still good, if they had plenty of energy, and were they ready to go in the afternoon. He said, ‘Yes, yes and yes’. Even though they were four down, Sam made that decision for me to go with them in the afternoon. That’s why the vice-captains are and were important. Sometimes the scoreline can be deceiving.

Any regrets from what was a big success?
I regret that Stevie [Gallacher] didn’t have another match. I do regret that. If I had had another player with the quality of Graeme or Lee to put with him, I would have. When I talk about quality I am talking about that senior role. It’s a very, very, very difficult role – very few have done it on either team; Seve did it with David Gilford, Faldo tried with him and couldn’t do it. Ninety per cent of guys couldn’t do it – that is a reflection on how hard it is. I think Ian will play that role in the future, I just wish I had had more time with him to prepare him for the senior role. In time, he will do it.

Surely you should defend the trophy in 2016? If Stuart Lancaster or Joe Schmidt wins the World Cup for England or Ireland next year, there is no question of them being expected to step aside simply because ‘they’ve had their turn’.
I’m very much in the camp that the Ryder Cup happens every two years, there are 12 players on the team and a lot of great captains waiting down the road. I’m very sure it is a two-year term only. I set out to enjoy my spell and I did that. It was a great thrill, it really was, but it is time for someone else to come in and have a go.

But no other sport would do that…
Just because other sports do that doesn’t mean golf is wrong. And I believe the freshness of somebody coming in is good. I’ve talked about the template we have used; I’d like to think the new captain coming in will have been involved before, so it’s a bit like the Liverpool Boot Room. I like to think captains will have vice-captains in place who could then be future captains themselves going forward.

What does the future hold for you now? Might it be away from golf, perhaps in another sport or in wider business?
Business interests me. My background is actually more business than it is golf. I’ve been to university for five years; I have a diploma in Marketing, I have a degree in International Business and, obviously, over my career I have sat alongside a lot of business people. I enjoy business and I study it. I watch the Business Channel a lot on TV and it’s something I take an interest in. I don’t know what is going to happen but I certainly have an interest in it, but then I have an interest in all sports not just golf. I’d like to think I am always learning and open to learning and I have learned a lot in my captaincy, which was based a lot not just on my experience in Ryder Cups but in watching sports on TV and meeting business people.

Paul McGinley


Paul McGinley

In his six appearances as a player, vice-captain and captain, Paul McGinley has never been on a losing Ryder Cup team. This is what he contributed and what he learned.

Paul McGinley Paul McGinley

2002, The Belfry

Lost 3&2 with Harrington in Friday’s foursomes but halved in Saturday’s fourballs alongside Clarke. Faced Furyk for the third day in the singles and holed a 10-footer on the last to claim a half and clinch the Cup for Torrance’s underdogs.

2004, Oakland Hills

Halved in the opening fourballs alongside debutant Luke Donald then he and Harrington saw off Love and Woods 4&3 as Europe dominated in Detroit. He won his singles 3&2 against Cink as Europe cruised home 18.5-9.5.

Paul McGinley Paul McGinley

2006, The K Club

Sat out the opening series, teams with Harrington to halve in foursomes but loses 3&2 with the same partner the following day. Halves with JJ Henry after giving a 25ft putt after a streaker ran from the crowd; it cost Europe a record win.

2010, Celtic Manor

Having declined the chance to be a vice-captain to Sir Nick Faldo in 2008 – good move! – was back in European colours as a vice-captain to Colin Montgomerie. Europe only won one session – but it is one when everyone plays and helps them to the Cup

Paul McGinley Paul McGinley

2012, Medinah

Now by Jose Maria Olazabal’s side, Europe need Ian Poulter to spark a revival then complete an amazing comeback in the singles. “Ian is like an actor getting into character – he puts on a costume and turns into this guy,” says McGinley.

2014, Gleneagles

Handed the top job following a fractious captaincy ‘campaign’ thanks to backing from Europe’s stars. Doesn’t disappoint in the role, masterminding a comprehensive win over an American team so chastened they turn on themselves. 

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