Paul O’Connell went into the European Ryder Cup team room on Tuesday night with no intention of providing inspiration, merely to talk about what being a team player meant to him.
Needless to say, his audience could not help but be inspired.
Handed a remit by captain Darren Clarke to underpin his key theme of being shoulder to shoulder this week at Hazeltine National as Europe’s golfers defend the Ryder Cup on American soil, O’Connell brought some serious intellectual property to the table.
His leadership on foreign fields brought success to Munster, Ireland and the Lions and in that context Clarke could think of no better person to talk to his players.
Paul McGinley had in 2014 asked Alex Ferguson to disclose what it took for his teams to live up to their favourites’ tag on home turf as Europe aimed for a hat-trick of victories at Gleneagles. Now it was O’Connell’s turn to reinforce a different message.
To hear O’Connell speak of the evening, you would imagine he was merely a warm-up act for the magician Dynamo, who entertained the Europeans after their question and answer session with the the rugby legend.
“It was good, short and sweet, I didn’t keep them too long,” a modest O’Connell said, his recollection of the night markedly at odds to those who listened.
“Paul most definitely was exceptional in the team room last night,” captain Clarke said.
“Any man that leads the British & Irish Lions who are playing overseas all the time ... So to get his input and his vision on what it took to make a successful traveling side was very impressive.
“The caddies, the players, everybody in that room; you could have heard a pin drop whenever Paul was addressing them.
“And it was quite interesting, because Paul is a very - a very large man, 6’7”, 6’7” and a half.
“And he’s big in stature. But whenever Paul addressed the team, he sat down.
“He didn’t stand up. He didn’t feel the need to stand up and intimidate anybody.
“He brought himself down on the same level as everybody else.
“The team and the caddies were unbelievably impressed with the words that he gave us last night, so I was very, very thankful for him to come along and do that.
“The guys were thoroughly inspired.”
And the shoulder to shoulder theme? “It’s just being in the team. For me, pressure is playing on your own,” O’Connell said.
“If you put me in a team I feel like I grow 10 feet tall. Whereas for these guys I’d say pressure for them is actually playing for other people. They normally play for themselves so the team environment for them, that’s what shoulder to shoulder is, it’s about being a team.
“They’ll probably have to be out here because it’s going to be tough. The Americans are going to be very good, so they’re probably going to have a few downs, so they’re going to have to keep the faith and rally.”
Europe’s golfers felt empowered by O’Connell’s message. “Just really inspirational,” rookie Matt Fitzpatrick said.
“The big thing that I took out personally was talking about sort of own the moment and that was big for me.
“You’ve got turning points in the round of golf and you have to take advantage of it.
“If your opponent hits it, misses the green and it’s a tricky up-and-down, you’ve got to stick one in close and put the pressure on, and just holing the putts at the right time I think is important.
“That’s the big thing I took out from Paul is to own each moment that you get in front of you.”
Henrik Stenson added: “When Paul came in and we saw a video of highlights of his career and the team spirit that he had and the teams that he played for.
“Yeah, it was a good session and it’s always interesting to get that input and feedback from someone from a different sport. He’s a very nice man and it was a good experience.”
O’Connell had been invited to Hazeltine by the European Tour during the summer, which, as a golf fan and 11 handicapper, he was delighted to accept, initially at least. Taking part in a celebrity match alongside Niall Horan of One Direction against American celebrities Bill Murray and Huey Lewis prompted a rethink.
“When I walked onto the first tee today I was regretting it. It’s one of those things you agree to do and you think it will never come. Then it comes and frankly I was cacking my pants there.
“I was on the chipping green and Jordan Spieth was on the chipping green. I walked on and then I saw him and I said to myself I can’t walk away now. I asked his caddie did he mind if I chipped and I hit about 10 of the worst chips you ever saw, picked up my bag and walked away.
“We were on the practice range, me and Niall, and Butch Harmon was there with Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson and it was the same thing, hit a few shots so as not to lose face and get out of it.
“It’s an amazing experience. If you’re a golfer, which I was when I was young and I hope to be again, it’s an incredible experience.”
O’Connell and Horan emerged with a fortuitous half-point after Murray stymied his own partner’s chance to win the nine-hole scramble match by empyting his pockets in the line of Lewis’s putt on 18.
“It was incredible. Nerve-wracking at the start and I’d love to be staying out there now.
“My game isn’t in great shape really, my wedges are really poor but it was so much fun. Bill Murray is crazy, there were girls chasing Niall Horan around the pitch.
“I’m here until Saturday. I’m going home because my boy has gone golf mad, so I’m going to watch Sunday with him.”
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