Pairings. Scheduling. Weather. Course setup. Personalities. Who’s playing his best come Thursday morning and who isn’t. Who’s healthy and who isn’t. And other assorted but not unimportant details.
He’s not the first to face the challenges of this unique week. Curtis Strange was captain of the 2002 U.S. Ryder Cup team, which lost at the Belfry, 15 ½ to 12 ½. Last week, he returned to Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., site of his 1989 United States Open victory. He was an after-dinner speaker at the John R. Williams Four-Ball Tournament, a first-class amateur event that I was fortunate enough to be invited to play in.
It was the first time Strange has been back to Oak Hill since the 1995 Ryder Cup, where the U.S. suffered a tough loss and Strange lost a crucial singles match to Nick Faldo on Oak Hill’s brutal closing holes. In a packed clubhouse ballroom, Strange got a standing ovation when he was introduced and another one when he finished a fun, entertaining question-and-answer session with the audience an hour later. He drew a lot of laughs and a lot of applause for his take-no-prisoners candor.
It was an enchanting evening because Strange was clearly honored and humbled to be invited to speak at Oak Hill. He expressed his fondness for the course and the club, and he shared some of his emotional memories from his Open championship. Strange had additional motivation to return because his son, Tom, a club rep for Nike, played in the Williams and was among the dinner guests.
After one of his clever and acerbic remarks, Strange joked that everything he said that evening had to stay in the room. But I don’t think he’ll mind if I share some of his Ryder Cup insights.
He declined to offer any coaching advice to Love on pairings because Love “has lived this for two years” and knows the players far better than he would. Strange did have some illuminating comments, however.
On making pairings: “I had a chalkboard in my office at home. The day after the PGA Championship was over and my team was finally assembled, I put pairings up on that board. The first ones I put up were the best ones. Those were the pairs who eventually went out in the first round. It’s just instinct.”
On handling the players: “When someone says, Boy, you had to deal with 12 personalities, I say, Let me correct you. I had a couple of guys with dual personalities. I had to deal with 14 personalities. But I enjoyed that. The players were fantastic. They’re like a bunch of children, almost. They want to be led, they want direction. It was the greatest week of my life. All the captain can really do is pair them up, hit ’em in the butt and say, Go play well, and then hope they make you look good.”
On the depth of this year’s United States team: “When Dustin Johnson is one of your wild-card picks, that’s a pretty good offering. Do you really want to stand on the first tee and have to play Dustin Johnson?”
On the bonding that takes place during Ryder Cup week: “One of the things that makes me happiest is when I bump into some of my former players. I still see three or four of them when I do the British Open on ESPN, and they still call me captain. I love that.”
Love will soon find out what Strange and every other Ryder Cup captain knows -- once you’re a Ryder Cup captain, you’re captain for life.