By Brian Keogh
Brian Keogh is a golf correspondent for The Irish Sun and a contributor to The Irish Times, Golf Digest Ireland and other golf publications. The following excerpt from Brian’s Irish Golf Desk is used with permission.
“I was bushed yesterday, but I’m fine now,” he said. But he didn’t appear to be enjoying what the Ryder Cup has become since he captained the last US side to win on European soil in 1993.
“The only thing different here is the media responsibilities I've had, the extra time that I've had to spend with the media,” Watson said.
He didn’t say it like a man who was enjoying that aspect of the job but as his opposite number Paul McGinley has pointed out, Watson is a hard man. And he clearly can’t wait to get it on, as they say in boxing circles.
The Ryder Cup is at its best when the hype is cranked up to fever pitch and the needle is out. Little wonder then that Watson feigned not to understand the question when asked if bringing two US veterans—amputees from the Wounded Warriors—into his team room on Tuesday as a gesture aimed at “dialling down the intensity of this Ryder Cup.”
“I don't know,” Watson said vaguely. “I can't answer that question. I honestly don't know. I don't know how to respond to that.”
Just a few hours later it became patently clear that Watson very much wants to dial up the intensity as Phil Mickelson, his face plastered with a big smile, stuck the needle deep into Rory McIlroy.
Mickelson is Watson’s right hand man, his leader in the team room and it is unlikely that he would goad Europe’s top player without a nod from the top. Not that it was anything more than some typical Mickelson banter that will be taken as such by McIlroy.
“He talks smack,” Watson had said of Mickelson’s role. “He talks the way you're supposed to be talking in the locker room.”
When Watson said in the early build up that the US was targeting Ian Poulter and McIlroy, he was only telling half the truth. McIlroy is clearly the man he wants to shoot down and he admitted as much to this writer and one other colleague in a casual chat as he finished his sandwich.
“He’s the guy, he’s the one we want to take down.”
McIlroy, as far as Watson is concerned, is the man they must stop and Mickelson is just letting him know that he's around.
“You look at ’83 when Zoeller played Seve first up (in the Sunday singles). He came back from four four to claim a half with Seve. That made a huge difference to our team. It changed the dynamic. It was a big momentum swing and we fed off that.”
On the face of it, Watson is being played off the park by Paul McGinley, who spoke for twice as long and twice as happily about Alex Ferguson’s Tuesday night pep talk with the European players, caddies and vice-captains.
He spoke with wonder of McIlroy’s ball-striking and the prodigious distances he hits the ball, admitting, “The way he hits the ball… That release is just fantastic. In the last few years my distance has just nosedived. I can’t get it out there now.”
Nothing happens by pure chance in the Ryder Cup captaincy stakes and while Watson would appear to he thinking on the hoof, McGinley has been hatching his plan for months. His vice-captain, Des Smyth, was impressed by the amount of effort that Alex Ferguson put into his chat with the players.
“He said, ‘Hi Des, how are things.’ I didn’t even know he knew my name because we only met once very briefly many years ago. But he knew everybody by their first name. He told loads of football stories, stories about Cristiano and how he liked to stay after training to do some extra work with the ball. And one day it was a really mucky horrible day and Ferguson told Cristiano he didn’t have to go out. But he went anyway, on the astroturf.”
McGinley later revealed that he’d been talking regularly to Ferguson for 19 months and the wily old Scot did not give an off the cuff chat but a bespoke and highly prepared presentation specific to what McGinley wants to achieve.
“There are a number of similarities with how Man United play,” McGinley said. “That’s why I sought Alex Ferguson out. I can’t tell you too much about what he said but he was very much on message with what we have been talking about for the last 19 months.”
Performing as favourites is only part of the equation and Ferguson made sure he knew exactly the way each player ticked before putting together his chat.
“It’s very specific,” McGInley said.
“This wasn’t just him coming in out of nowhere. He was on message from our communication over the last 19 months. It wasn’t something that happened at the last minute. He’s been absolutely fantastic. It wasn’t a case of him telling me what to do. He asked me questions. I said, here are my messages, I want you to relate those stories as they applied to the players you managed.
“It’s all about continuity. It’s like what I am going with the graphics, what I am doing with the videos. Everything has continuity. It is not haphazard. It is about attitude of mind related to football. Every one of our guys loves football.”
The dakr art of captaincy has many facets. Whether it's by design or instinct, Watson and McGinley never stop.
Brian Keogh covers golf for The Irish Sun and contributes to a variety of golf publications. Pay him a visit at Irish Golf Desk.