Captain’s call: Paul McGinley opens up on Ryder Cup

At last week’s Business of Sports Science conference Paul McGinley gave some fascinating insights into his Ryder Cup captaincy. Michael Moynihan took notes.

Paul McGinley’s combination of science and psychology was successful at the Ryder Cup last September, and the Dubliner outlined his approach last week in the RDS.

Take the approach of the players on the course as a starting point. He trusted the caddy-player dynamic.

“As captain, I made a big point of the player and caddy being a unit, and I respected that.

“They perform together, and much as I know the players, I’m not going up to them to tell them it’s five iron or whatever when the caddy’s there. I trust their dynamic together.

“If there was information a player needed, rather than disturbing him, I’d tell the caddy — then it was up to him to decide whether that information was relevant to the player hitting a better shot.

“We won seven of the last nine Ryder Cups. I’d seen what worked, what didn’t, and though we never talked about it, there was a template there and six or seven important dynamics were involved.

“Statistics were one.”

McGinley said he’d been asked a lot since the tournament about balancing statistics and gut instinct in his decisions.

“It’s probably 60% gut instinct and your psychological idea of a player, but behind that are statistics.

“I’m a believer in trends, performance analysis, finding out as much data as possible to educate you when it comes to making a decision.

“One thing I did as Ryder Cup captain which hadn’t been done before was to get a full-time stats team to watch the players for the previous two years and to analyse their play, to provide a league table of their form.

“It was colour-coded so you could pick out the players, and I used that as a basis.

“I also had a 10-year analysis done of the Johnny Walker tournament played in Gleneagles — what had players done there in the past, who’d won, had they attacked early, how had they done on the par fives — and then, along with my gut instincts, I hoped to come up with good decisions.”

Interestingly, McGinley didn’t inform the players of the level of scrutiny he subjected them to: “No, I didn’t because a player doesn’t like to feel he’s being watched.

“They’re probably aware at a deep level that it’s going on, but the information was for me and the vice-captains, to enable us to make our decisions.

“I have all the data, a file on each player, and it’s very important — it’s a trend not just in golf but in sports generally. As a sports lover I’m certainly interested in data, trends and stats and I see it in GAA and in soccer, for instance.

“Having worked with Alex Ferguson to pick his brains for the Ryder Cup, one thing people forget about him, and dismiss about him, is how he was on the cutting edge of sports science.

“For a guy who left school early, he was up to date with all the sports science available, and when he was with Manchester United he got them to invest heavily in that area.”

He stressed that statistics had also been used in previous Ryder Cups: “There were general stats used, and as a vice-captain I’d bring them in, general stuff off the computer.

“But as captain I got those full-time stats people on board, and that helped us make good decisions.

“That was a dynamic I enhanced but didn’t change, and I’d be surprised if those aren’t brought on by the next captain, but he’ll put his identity on his captaincy too, and that’s very important in order to move it forward.

“That’s why we’ve succeeded — we’ve learned from mistakes and from successes in previous tournaments.”

McGinley’s approach to strength and conditioning illustrated that: “One challenge I faced is that in a Ryder Cup cycle, 104 weeks, they are individuals, and being selfish — playing, trying to win tournaments for themselves — for 103 weeks.

“You have to mould them into a team that one week and that’s a big challenge.

“Take Rory (McIlroy). My conversations with him were that I wanted him to bring anyone he had with him to prepare him — masseur, strength coach — and we’d look after the expense. The same for all of them, they all brought their individual teams with them.

“Then, if I wanted to know about Rory’s fitness, I’d talk to his conditioning coach and trust him to give me the right information, and Rory was happy he was dealing with the same guys he normally would in terms of conditioning, and so on, the week of the Ryder Cup.

“I think that one mistake Ryder Cup captains have made is trying too hard to make people friends and so on, so I brought them in as individuals with their teams, though I brought in a nutritionist as well to look at our food and a doctor as well for overall health and so forth.

“But the rest they looked after as individuals.”

The man-management skills needed for such different personalities shouldn’t be underestimated, though. His handling of Ian Poulter is a good case study.

“He only lost one match in the Ryder Cup, people forget that,” said the captain.

“He didn’t have a great Ryder Cup last year but his record with Justin Rose was almost 100% in foursomes. Phenomenal.

“Part of my overall plan was for him to play Saturday afternoon. He played with Rory the second day, his form wasn’t great and I made a call, as I handed in the team, that Poulter would come out.

“I communicated that to Des Smyth, who was following the game, to tell Poulter he wasn’t playing, which was important.

“As I handed in the team, Poulter went on to play the last holes very well, and I wanted to see him. I saw him after lunch and wanted to be completely clear: I put my arms out and said ‘sorry Poults, I had to make a late call’.

“He put me in a headlock and whispered, ‘You’re the captain, and you make the decisions. I’ll be ready tomorrow’.

“He saw the bigger picture. He halved his match, he didn’t win it, but that says a lot about him. It tells you why he’s special.”

The affable Dubliner is “past the captaincy” now, though.

“I’ve left that, I’ve moved on and the sooner a new captain comes in, the better.

“I don’t know what the future holds for me. I’m 48, second oldest to Miguel Angel Jimenez but I enjoy playing still.

“I’m committed to eight companies on a long-term basis and I do some TV commentary as well. One opportunity that’s grown out of the Ryder Cup is talking to businesses and leaders, and I’ve had inquiries from America about doing something similar.

“I enjoy that because I get a chance to learn, and mixing with like-minded people is invigorating.

“When I turn 50, will I play the Senior Tour? I don’t know. I’m a great believer in having a passion for doing something and if I have a passion for the Senior Tour, I’ll pursue that.

“I’ve a number of balls in the air and we’ll see where it goes.”

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