12 Dec 2019 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: Captain myth back in spotlight

by Mike Clayton

Ernie Els_image
Ernie Els's team takes a 4-1 lead on his first day as a Presidents Cup captain. (Photo: Golf Australia/Justin Falconer)

It’s far too early to predict who might eventually win the Presidents Cup on Sunday afternoon, but it’s certain the losing captain will second-guess choices and the winning man will be hailed as inspirational and a brilliant manager of men.

Richard Gillis’ book The Captain Myth, written after the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, analysed the role of leadership and captaincy in team play.

In Chicago, the Europeans managed a comeback so unlikely it will go down in history as the greatest to this point in the Ryder Cup.

Historically the Americans have been stronger in singles, making the Europeans' four-point comeback even more unlikely than the Americans reversing the same deficit at The Country Club in 1999.

Medinah all swung on the most outrageous of long putts Justin Rose holed down and across the 17th green against Phil Mickelson. Rose won on the last green and not long after Martin Kaymer made an eight-footer up the hill to beat Steve Stricker and complete the storied comeback.

The previous night, European captain Jose Maria Olazabal was no doubt being decried as a poor captain when in reality, argues Gillis, the state of the game had very little to do with him.

Davis Love, in contrast, was the genius with the four-point lead.

Fast-forward a day and Love was the chump and the Spaniard, playing on the inspirational memory of the late Severiano Ballesteros, a genius. Post-match he was, argues Gillis, a man “feted for a series of leadership masterstrokes”.

Of course, neither Love nor Olazabal had anything to do with Rose’s inspired putt, nor the seemingly nerveless stroke from short range Kaymer made on the 18th hole - and they were the two moments deciding the whole contest.

At Royal Melbourne, Captain Ernie Els is using a “secret until Sunday night” system of data analytics to choose his pairings. His opposing captain, Tiger Woods, a man who rarely admits to anything, suggested he to was using statistics to earn the advantage for the Americans.

After Thursday’s 4-1 routing of the Americans, Els’ system looks to be brilliantly foolproof and so long as his men keep making birdies, it’ll be a system thoroughly studied before next year’s Ryder Cup in Wisconsin.

Sport, of course, has moved on from 1998 when Peter Thomson masterfully captained the International team and it’s a fair assumption Thomson used his instincts to pair his men. In picking Greg Turner to play with Frank Nobilo, he reasoned as two New Zealanders they would be well matched and friendly. Clearly Thomson never knew the two had a prickly relationship for years, but Thomson send them out on the first morning and they cleaned up the two best players in the world that year, David Duval and Mark O’Meara.

Had it all gone wrong, Thomson would have been accused as being wildly out of touch; but instead, he was a hailed a genius. Fair enough, too.

At this early stage, Els is the genius, a man who has inspired the underdogs to a lead unimaginable at the start of the day. Following his formula he goes into the foursomes matches with five new teams while Woods sticks with Reed and Simpson, Schauffele and Cantlay and his own winning pairing with Justin Thomas.

If the Internationals have a bad day, Els is second-guessed. Win as decisively again and he’s the king.

Closer to the truth is the players making the critical putts and hitting the great shots at the right time are always going to make their leaders look more important than perhaps they really are.

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