McGinley born to lead

Paul McGinley fully acknowledges he is widely regarded as a red-hot favourite to become the first Irish captain of the 2014 European Ryder Cup team.

Everywhere he goes he meets the subject, to such an extent that he fears it may well harm his prospects of leading the side against the USA in two years’ time. Ultimately he doesn’t want anyone to think he is openly chasing the position or, as he puts it, “badgering” those who have the final say come next January.

Realistically though, he finds himself in this situation because of his imposing track record both as Ryder Cup player and his successful captaincy of a succession of Seve and Royal Trophy teams. If McGinley and Ireland are passed over again, expect the Irish golfing community to be incandescent with rage.

There may be people opposed to McGinley and, if there are, they will assuredly use McGinley’s failure to win a Major championship as a weapon against him. McGinley is aware of this but insists recent history makes that view redundant.

“Nick Faldo’s captaincy drew a line in the sand,” he declared. “Because you were a great player doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great captain. They’re never going to announce a captain again based on his playing career. It’s wrong to do that. Everybody agreed with that decision at the time. One of the reasons Sandy [Lyle] didn’t get it last time was because of Faldo proving that was absolutely wrong. Since then you’ve had Monty and Olazabal, two very strong personalities who deserved to be captain.”

If that indeed is the view of the European Tour’s tournament committee (headed by chairman Thomas Bjorn of Denmark and completed by Felipe Aguilar (Chile), Paul Casey (England), Darren Clarke (Ireland), Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (Spain), Richard Finch (England), Joakim Haeggman (Sweden), David Howell (England), Raphael Jacquelin (France), Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spain), Robert Karlsson (Sweden), Barry Lane (England), Colin Montgomerie (Scotland) and Henrik Stenson (Sweden)), the body that ultimately decides, then McGinley’s Ryder Cup record gives him a significant head start over all his rivals.

He is, of course, best remembered for holing the winning putt at The Belfry in 2002 and was also on the successful side in 2004 at Oakland Hills and at the K Club in ’06, thereby becoming the first European to be a winner in each of his three appearances in the match. In 2002, he halved his singles clash with Jim Furyk by sinking a nine-foot putt on the 18th, thereby setting up the iconic photograph of himself and caddie JP Fitzgerald (now bagman for Rory McIlroy) leaping joyfully in the air. No sooner had McGinley returned to terra firma than his captain Sam Torrance had dashed on to the green and very nearly crushed the life out of the 5ft 7ins, 11½st Dubliner so excited was he to see the ball drop.

McGinley also performed his share of heroics two years later in Michigan. Pádraig Harrington was first to admit he needed the harsh words of his partner to get his act together after they lost the first two holes of their foursome against the powerful combination of Davis Love III and Tiger Woods before they recovered to win 4&3. McGinley went on to beat Stewart Cink 3&2 in the singles to complete a marvellous week.

If anything, it was even better in ’06 when the Europeans slammed the Yanks by double scores in Co Kildare. Indeed, it was so one-sided that McGinley could afford the luxury of conceding a 20-foot putt for a half to JJ Henry on the 18th because he feared his opponent might have been put off when a streaker ran across the green.

Paul’s career has been badly disrupted in recent years by surgery for serious knee injuries but he remains on the circuit by virtue of his career earnings that at the beginning of this season amounted to €10.7 million. This helps him to keep in touch with all the contenders for a place in any Ryder Cup side he might captain. As for his standing with each and every one of them, he has little reason whatsoever to worry.

He has captained the last two Britain & Ireland teams to unexpected victories in the Vivendi Seve Trophy, earning massive credit marks from key team members such as McIlroy, Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood, all of whom spoke out publicly and forcibly in his favour. Luke Donald is another to have voiced strong support for McGinley, while the younger brigade have also made no secret of their admiration for the Surrey-based 45-year-old.

Perhaps just as impressively, McGinley’s role as one of Montgomerie’s vice-captains during the 2010 cliffhanger at Celtic Manor also earned him sufficient bonus points to make it virtually unimaginable the top job wouldn’t be his in 2014. Jose-Maria Olazabal, skipper at Medinah next October, might have dropped a broad hint by already inviting him to again act as vice-captain but in keeping with precedent, won’t announce his assistants at Medinah in October for some time yet and McGinley agrees that is as it should be.

“That’s totally up to Olazabal,” he says. “I haven’t had any contact with him about it. I spoke to him a lot in my capacity as captain of the Seve Trophy team last year. He wanted a lot of debriefing about the players and my view on them. Other than that there’s been no talk. I’m not surprised at that, it’s totally in his call as to what happens.

“I don’t want to say I’d like to be vice-captain again this time because it would look like I’m looking for the job. Let me sidestep that one and I’ll respect whatever way he decides to go with his vice-captains. I know he’ll make good decisions, there’s no doubt about that, and I think he’s going to be a great captain.

“I’ve played under him when he captained the Royal Trophy in Bangkok four years ago and he was brilliant. He’s going to be brilliant this time, too, but I don’t want to say any more because I don’t want to be seen to be badgering him.”

As for the 2014 leadership, he urges caution, patience and common sense.

“That’s the one everyone is talking about and of course I know that,” he admits. “Again, I don’t want to go badgering for the job because it’s looks like I’m looking for it.”

But, I pointed out, Paul you are looking for the job.

“If I say that, people will turn their backs on me,” he responds. “Nobody has ever gone out and badgered for the job and if they have, they haven’t got it. I don’t want to say anything publicly that makes me sound like I’m looking for the job.

“All I will say is that if it came my way, it would be a great honour not just for me but Ireland as well but there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and then. And there are a lot of people who would also make very worthy captains.

“It’s the players’ committee who make the decision and obviously I’m a member. It’s not an awkward situation, what happens is that I would step out of the room like Monty did when he was appointed. Miguel-Angel Jimenez is on that committee and he’s also going to have a big shout for 2014.”

The Ryder Cup captaincy and Ireland’s burning desire to bring the long drought to an end reminds one of the infamous bus that doesn’t come for hours and then two — or perhaps three — arrive together. There is a belief that Clarke will also seek the position in two years’ time and that Harrington must also come into the reckoning before the end of the current decade. However, McGinley has been reassured as to Clarke’s stance and agrees that Harrington remains a player first and foremost for the foreseeable future.

“Clarkey is not going for 2014, he has given his support to me,” McGinley revealed. “That helps. Everything helps. It’s pretty odds-on that Darren is going to be captain in 2016. But if I get it in ’14 where does that leave Pádraig? That’s why you’ve got to deal with it one step at a time. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on. You’ve got three Irish guys lined up, one, two, three. The chances of getting three in a row are nil.

“By all accounts, Darren is going to be nailed on for 2016 [in America] after winning the Open Championship. He has said he’s going to support me. He sent me a hand-written letter after the Seve Trophy last year saying how much he enjoyed me being captain, how much I surprised him by how good I was and that beyond doubt I would have his full support for 2014.

“To be fair and honest, this is not golfing politics at play. No, I don’t think so. And I don’t believe there is any anti-Irish bias. Take away all the bullshit and deal with it in a business sense.”

It is very much on the cards that McGinley will be the only runner when the decision is made during the week of the Abu Dhabi Championship next January. There is a whisper that Paul Lawrie, Scottish winner of the British Open at Carnoustie in 1999, may be a candidate largely because he has shown a return to form in recent times. And then there’s the hugely popular Jimenez, although the Spaniard’s poor English is seen as a serious handicap. And it could be that Denmark’s Bjorn, another of Montgomerie’s vice-captains at Celtic Manor, will also enter the race.

You can safely expect the Scottish media, especially, and their Spanish counterparts to talk up the claims of Lawrie and Jimenez. McGinley smiles quietly at the prospect and simply says: “We did it when we had it in Ireland, no reason why the Scots shouldn’t do it and the 2014 match is in Scotland.”

The importance of the captain’s role cannot be overstated. Europe have had some outstanding leaders — Tony Jacklin, Torrance, Montgomerie come to mind — and some who didn’t quite measure up. Mark James and Nick Faldo figure high on this particular list. And even though Europe won under his captaincy at Valderrama in 1997, many would argue that they did so in spite of rather than because of Seve Ballesteros. McGinley has never made any secret of what Torrance’s leadership meant to him in 2002.

“A captain can win the Ryder Cup, no doubt, but he can lose it, too,” he points out. “We won the Ryder Cup in 2002 because of Sam. He was the difference in his man-management of each player. As much as everybody would have thought he was the rip-roaring, lionesque type of captain, Sam’s meetings were very brief. We would sit in his hotel room and they would never last more than five minutes.

“But he put so much work into me. I would never have holed that putt on the 18th green without Sam. He had prepared me mentally for it. The previous week, I was out of form and Sam hired a car so that I could play The Belfry beforehand. All the stands were there but the place was empty. Seagulls and crows were the only ones watching us. On the way back, we sat in the back seat of the car with a bottle of pink champagne and he told me his plan for the week. He told me my role exactly and what my focus would be.”

There was a moment when things might not have worked out quite as well between the two men. Torrance gave McGinley a massive psychological fillip by telling him that he would play 12th and last in the singles because the outcome might very well come down to that match and he had so much faith in him. However, when he thought the situation over again, Sam moved the Irishman up to ninth — and he wasn’t exactly over the moon on hearing of the change. He needn’t have worried.

“In the history of the Ryder Cup, it has never come down to No 12, the answer is always between eight and 10,” Sam explained. “So I’m putting you right in the middle of it. I was 10 feet tall again. So when I came over the bridge on the last hole, knowing I needed to halve the match to win the Ryder Cup, all he needed to say was, ‘Do this for me’. I understood everything else. I wanted to do it for Sam more than anybody — more than myself, more than the team. That’s the effect a captain can have.”

The Scot was well rewarded for his efforts and you know for sure that McGinley intends to be just as diligent and caring about the welfare of every one of his players if and when he gets the job.

It will come as a surprise to many to realise that McGinley was all of 26 years of age when he turned pro in 1991. Gaelic football was his sporting love but he also enjoyed his golf at Grange because of the influence of his father, Michael, a player of championship calibre himself and a positive influence on junior golf in the country for many years.

On leaving Colaiste Eanna, the South Dublin academy where Harrington was a fellow student, he worked in the European Commission in Brussels for 12 months before deciding he wanted to put more time into his golf. So he wrote to several colleges in the States seeking a scholarship but the replies he received told him he was too old and not good enough.

“The coach at San Diego University eventually relented and agreed to me attending the college there and if I made the team before the end of the first year, he would grant me a scholarship for the second,” he relates.

Assisted by a grant from the Irish Sports Council and a loan guaranteed by his father, he did enough to qualify on all counts. It was at San Diego that he also met his future wife, Alison Shapcott, so, all in all, it was a great period in the young man’s life.

He had never played underage golf for Ireland but just about everything came his way as he turned 20. He captured the Irish Close and South of Ireland titles among many others and was a member of the British and Irish Walker Cup team at Portmarnock in 1991 when he and England’s Liam White enjoyed a foursomes win over Phil Mickelson and Bob May. By then he was playing off plus four and felt it was a good time to try his luck in the paid ranks.

He qualified for the European Tour the same year through the Tour School and was on his way. McGinley’s official earnings at the end of 2011 topped €13m and he numbered the Hohe Brucke Austrian Open, the Oki pro-am, the Wales Open and the Volvo Masters in 2005 among his tournament successes. Above all, his World Cup victory with Harrington at Kiawah Island in 1997 stands out as one of his proudest memories because if ever a man wore his Irishness on his sleeve, then it is McGinley. He held a best world ranking of 18th in 2005, when he came third in the European Tour order of merit.

And the future? “Well, my knees have been an issue for quite a while but they’re not stopping me from playing,” he states. “I’m 45 now and very few guys play their best at that age. It’s been getting progressively tougher over the years. I wake up with pain most mornings, a dull pain, not a sharp pain. Anyone who has arthritis will know exactly what it’s like. It’s bone on bone, there’s no cartilage left, and the knee cap has shrunk quite a bit because it’s been broken so often.

“I’ve had seven operations and I’m restricted now by the Tour policy on drugs. But it’s not a massive deal. It’s the anticipation of pain that’s the biggest problem so there’s not 100% commitment to all my swings. It’s a subconscious thing. The more I’m messing with my head, the less committed I am when making swings.”

As time moves on and injury continues to impair his golf, McGinley says he is probably more involved in the game than ever, citing his involvement in four different companies, including the one that came up with the brilliant idea of providing high quality clubs for golfers at a very competitive price to be picked up at airports like Faro in Portugal, Malaga in Spain and several others.

It’s at this point that Paul takes out his laptop and jokes that: “I’m going to give you my sales pitch now. I’ve got a real passion for redesigning golf courses. I love it.

“Believe it or not, I am redesigning seven around the world at the moment. I am now running my own affairs, have a full-time PA who looks after all the nuts and bolts of what I do, four companies of which I am part owner. One of the courses is in Ireland [Portsalon], which will be really good when I’m finished with it. There’s others in Belgrade, Sofia, three in Ghana and one in Uganda.

“I’ve spent a month in Ghana since December 1. It had the fastest growing economy in the world last year. The three in Ghana and the one in Uganda are all being backed by Aidan Heavey of Tullow Oil. There’s such a great legacy for golf there left by the British.

“My whole niche is redesigning. There is too much stress, too much work in designing courses from the outset. I don’t have time for that. I’m trying to simplify everything. A lot of these golf courses are too complicated. The fairways are too narrow and the greens have these big mounds. So I’m flattening the greens and opening things up and making them more playable. I don’t want to intimidate the golfer, I want to entice him.”

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