Over the first couple of days of the 39th Ryder Cup at the Medinah Country Club four years ago, everything was going perfectly to plan for then US captain Davis Love III.
Leading 10–6 with just the singles to play it seemed as if the US team had already built an insurmountable lead. All they required was 4½ points from the remaining 12 points on offer to win and surely home advantage would be enough to see them home.
This was potentially the crowning moment of a great career in the professional game for the proud Davis Love and a family already steeped in the game of professional and amateur golf, (Davis was born in 1964, the day after his father, a nationally recognised golf instructor, Davis Love Jnr, had competed in the final round of the US Masters. He later died in a plane crash in 1988. His mother Helen was also a very enthusiastic low handicap amateur golfer).
All that was required was a victory as no one would ever have remembered the final score. Just 4½ points from an in-form team playing in front of an audience hungry for victory.
But it was not to be, with Europe producing possibly the greatest comeback of all in Ryder Cup history when securing an unfathomable 8½ to win the match 14½–13½.
No one truly knows the full impact that result has had on Davis Love. No doubt he has spent a considerable amount of time thinking about exactly what went wrong — but now that he has been offered an opportunity to redeem himself — thanks in no part by the realisation of a need for change highlighted by Tom Watson’s abysmal captaincy in Gleneagles two years ago – it will be fascinating to study the different steps he takes by way of first securing an all-important victory over the Europeans, and secondly, providing the necessary platform for continued future success.
Already, we have seen a number of changes, namely the increase of Captain’s picks from 3 to 4, (the last pick being announced after the Tour Championship next week) plus a line of future succession in the captaincy role coming exclusively from the vice- captains already in place this year. That’s a good thing as future captains will no longer be plucked out of left field (Tom Watson). Instead will they have relevant Ryder Cup management experience — so their task primarily going forward is to identify and refine a winning formula. To that effect, the US team already hold a huge advantage in they nearly always have the option to pick from a deeper and more talented field of players, but the X Factor when it comes to the Ryder Cup is about establishing the best team atmosphere, one that gets the players performing for each other to the best of their ability. Davis Love’s selection of his first three picks (JB Holmes, Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler) said less about their form and more about their popularity amongst their peers and the opportunities for them to pair up with other players in smaller groups (Pods) and to gel within a team environment. It also told us a lot about the US captain himself.
By selecting Holmes, Kuchar and Fowler, Love, it seems, is there as much to oversee the necessary structural changes in management and performance-based selection than to offer any individual flair, and while I am in no way criticising the same selection “Pod” formula adopted by Paul Azinger in Valhalla in 2008, there is one difference between now and then — Azinger was a far more charismatic captain (no less respected) than Love, oozing self-belief in himself and his own system.
Nor was he afraid to be controversial. For example, he thought nothing about a little gamesmanship or challenging or mentoring his players on course when required but most of all he spoke his mind, dominating the press conferences with his enthusiasm and charm.
That his players bought into his infectious ways is hardly surprising but the manner of their stunning victory says much about the fact that while the Ryder Cup is won on the course, victory is facilitated in no small way by competent management.
This year, the US management team has no victorious past captain in its ranks whereas Azinger was able to count on Dave Stockton in 2008, and European captain Darren Clarke can count on Sam Torrance as well as all his other assistants all of whom have countless managerial experience at Ryder Cup level.
Right now no one should doubt the desire coming from team America to cross the 14½-point threshold first but Love had better have figured it all out in advance.
While experienced, nearly all of his players have only ever tasted defeat in the Ryder Cup, so what happens if Europe gets off to a fast start? How will Love be able to lift the morale?
Can he afford to allow Tiger Woods offer on course advice as it might intimidate the living daylights out of his players? How can he arrest the momentum if everything is falling apart at the seams?
Is there a plan A, B and C? Most importantly, how can he demonstrate to his players that he is the right man for the job, both on and off the course?
In just a couple of weeks Love will embark on probably the most important journey of his golfing career, a journey where he is not just representing himself but his team and his country.
It helps that the US are playing on American soil, but only just, so it will be fascinating to see if the naturally retiring Love can step out of his own shadow and demonstrate true leadership.
That means winning the psychological battle both on the course and more especially off the course in terms of the crucible that is the media centre, where he will be confronted by his more charismatic friend and foe Darren Clarke.
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