Ryder captaincy just a spin on the wheel of fortune

The things you find in university libraries are diverse and wonderful, writes Paul Rouse. There are now so many academic journals that it is as good as impossible not to find an article relating to any given subject.

Ryder captaincy just a spin on the wheel of fortune

For the weekend that’s in it, it felt like a good idea to see if there was something that the academic world might usefully contribute to the bombast of the Ryder Cup.

And the University College Dublin library did not disappoint.

In the library there is a journal called ‘Interfaces’. And in Volume 42, Number 2 of ‘Interfaces’, co-authors Brian McClure, Richard Cassady, Chase Rainwater and Justin R. Chimka – all from the University of Arkansas – have produced an 11-page study entitled: ‘Optimizing the Sunday Singles Lineup for a Ryder Cup Captain’.

The drama of the singles of the final day of a close Ryder Cup is wonderful to behold.

And because 12 of the 28 Ryder Cup points are available on Sunday, a side trailing after the first two days can make a significant comeback.

Much has been made of the times when this has happened. And in two notable instances, the general view of the experts was that the losing captain had cost victory to his team by poorly choosing the order of his players for the Sunday singles.

And, against that, the winning captain had displayed the levels of insight and wisdom that not even the Delphic Oracle could have aspired to.

For example, in the 1999 Ryder Cup, the European team led 10-6 after the first two days of play at the Brookline course.

At this point, the American captain, Ben Crenshaw, decided to put what he considered to be his best six golfers at the top of his line-up.

His ambition was to generate momentum and create the sort of drive that would carry Team USA to an unlikely victory.

Ben Crenshaw
Ben Crenshaw

And it worked out for Crenshaw. America won 8½ points from the 12 singles matches played on the Sunday to defeat Europe.

Then, by contrast, three years later, the story was turned in its head.

That year, 2002 (with the competition delayed a year because of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks) the teams were level at eight points each coming into the singles and the general consensus was that the European team had blown their chances.

It was deemed to be essential for Europe to be ahead after the foursomes and fourballs of the first two days because America ‘had better individual golfers’ and would therefore coast to victory.

And so it was that European captain, Sam Torrance, frontloaded his team, while the American captain Curtis Strange backloaded his.

The reasoning from Strange was that he wanted his two best golfers – Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – to play in the later matches as he believed they would be needed there to close out the victory.

They never got the chance. Europe blitzed the first six matches and had the victory sealed before Woods and Mickleson had finished.

It was enough to leave one of the stars of the European team, Jesper Parnevik, to comment: "We couldn’t have handpicked a better draw today.

When we saw the draw, everyone knew we were going to win."

It was broadly portrayed in the media that what Strange did was, well, strange – and ultimately costly.

But is any of this provable?

When the four authors from the University of Arkansas began investigating this matter, they were building on research conducted by another academic W.J. Hurley (a researcher at the Department of Business Administration in The Royal Military College of Canada) who has also looked at the way team captains order their lineups for the Sunday singles at the Ryder Cup.

After completing all his research and finalising detailed modeling using his statistics, Hurley had come up with the analysis that the most effective course of action for a Ryder Cup captain seeking to win as many points as possible on a Sunday was ‘drawing names from a hat.’

The research basically demonstrated that the idea of a ‘momentum effect’ was essentially spurious and that the type of comeback which the Americans enjoyed at Brookline in 1999 was, in fact, something of a miracle.

Indeed, Hurley estimated that it was the type of result that would occur, on average, once every 125 years.

On the whole, this was more or less what the University of Arkansas experts now also found as their research and modeling demonstrated that the order of the Sunday lineup was not a major factor in victory.

Indeed, having examined the history of all Ryder Cup matches played between 1989 and 2008, and looked at the importance of the line-up for the singles, they wrote that interchanging even two golfers on that lineup ‘has little effect on the outcome of the competition.’

There is an obvious problem with this theory – acknowledging that the most effective way for Ryder Cup captains to pick their Sunday line-ups is to pull the names from a hat does not sit with the general horse manure which is spoken in the weeks leading up to the competition and which continues to be spoken across the course of the weekend.

As well as the ludicrous patriotic guff (entertaining though it is to see people get so excited about ‘Europe’), the presentation of the men who captain and vice-captain their teams as seers and visionaries is essential to the whole enterprise.

And, on top of that, so many professional golfers now spend so long reading putts, rereading putts, and then having another read just to be sure, that there is a lot of air-time to be filled on television.

Across the first two days – when there are just a total of eight matches played each day – it cannot be easy to keep talking and talking.

There is an obvious solution, however. And it is a solution that must be employed should the Ryder Cup ever return to Irish shores.

On the Saturday evening, after the second day’s play is finished, the members of both teams, their caddies, their wives and whatever celebrities are supporting them, could be bused up to the RTÉ Studios at Montrose.

They could have a few drinks in the Green Room first and then be brought into the Winning Streak studio.

Marty Whelan and Sinéad Kennedy could interview them and ask them about their families and invite them to send greetings to anyone at home.

And then they could just spin the wheel while their supporters wave handmade signs in the audience.

And whichever ball you pick out when the wheel stopping spinning will contain the name of the golfer you will play the following day.

It should be acknowledged that this may not exactly sit with the supposed ‘dignity’ of the event.

Or maybe it fits perfectly?

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