Curtis Strange played in his first Ryder Cup in 1983 and totaled five Ryder Cup appearances as a player and one as a captain. For his career, he had 17 PGA Tour wins and won back-to-back U.S. Opens in ‘88 and ‘89. Strange was speaking on behalf of Standard Life Investments, the first Worldwide Partner of the Ryder Cup, when he discussed what it takes to captain a U.S. squad, what goes on behind the scenes during the pairing process and who he never wanted to face head-to-head in the Ryder Cup.
What are the biggest challenges to being a captain of a U.S. team in competitions like the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup?
While you want to do as fine of a job as you can possibly do, you want to uphold the standards of those who came before you. You want to represent your team and everyone well. On the other hand, it was such an honor. Other than what I just said as far as a challenge, the rest of it was fun. It enhanced everything I learned and experienced. I had a ball doing it and enjoyed every minute of it. Challenge sounds sometimes to me like it was a burden. It was never a burden. It’s a challenge in some regard because you’re in new waters, but I enjoyed every bit of it.
How did you go about preparing for the transition from player to captain for the 2002 Ryder Cup?
All the above. I talked to every living captain for two reasons. One, you might get a little nugget or piece of advice that might help. The other was just out of respect. You’ve got to remember when I was captain, I grew up with these guys, had played golf with them and knew them all personally. I was still active, so it was 12 guys and a friend. I knew their personalities, I knew their games and I knew who would match up well. When I finally got my team picked after the PGA in Atlanta, I knew immediately who I would want to pair with who. And it stays pretty much on par with that until the tournament. You’ve got to go with your instincts. I tried to do that. You know the game and you play it every day, so your first instincts is pretty much always right on.
What goes into the pairing process before the tournament?
You do a little research, but I didn’t crunch any numbers. I went on instincts. I didn’t get into personalities. As far as I’m concerned, they should all get along. And they all do get along. But you put in the time with the pairings from the standpoint of, “How can I get the most out of my players and give them the opportunity to get the most out of themselves.” You can over-think everything. The role of the captain is overplayed and exaggerated to some degree as far as the players themselves. They are world-class players. There’s not much you can say to them. There’s not much you can say to motivate them because they’re playing in the Ryder Cup. I treated them like adults. I let them prepare on their own because I wanted them to prepare like they normally do. Once again, my job was just to put them together to bring out the best in everyone. But having said that, after the first day you kind of fly by the seat of your pants. Who played well, who didn’t, that kind of thing. I did change up a few things, but only as a result of the first day.
How much say do the players get in who they play with?
You do listen to some of that. And you have to listen to some of that. Because the 12 best resources I have are right there with me. I listened to it and took some of it to heart and some of it I didn’t. I got none of that prior to the matches because we didn’t have anyone on the team who was a bit of a rebel. But the night before the first day I did switch up the players I had paired with Tiger because they were more comfortable the other way. I had [Mark] Calcavecchia in the best-ball with Tiger [Woods] and [Paul] Azinger in the alternate-shot with Tiger. And I switched them up because they both came to me and said they were both more comfortable in the other pairing. So who would I be to say no, you’re going to go my way?
And how did that work out?
They both lost. (laughing) Both teams played pretty well, but they just got beat. (Woods and Azinger lost 1 up to Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn in the morning four-ball, and Woods/Calcavecchia lost 2&1 to Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia.) The point of that was Tiger lost both of them. But I needed him to win for our psyche and for the psyche of the other team. I switched them up the next day and put Davis Love with him, and they won both matches.
What advice would you give to a first-time captain in the future?
I would say go by your instincts. You know how these guys play. Sometimes I think we do over-think or over-analyze. It’s not all that complicated. You know the basics of alternate-shot and best-ball. Bottom line, the players have to go out there and win. You can do everything on paper perfectly and still lose. That’s the nature of the sport. I think they have the upper hand in the Presidents Cup of late, and a lot of that is just momentum. They know they can win. Momentum is a big part of the matches over the course of three and four day matches.
Of the players on the U.S. team, who would you characterize as your ideal playing partner in match play?
The guy who drives it straights and makes all of his putts. (Laughing) Our team is very strong and very deep. You have so many younger players coming up. Jordan Spieth has had a great year. Keegan Bradley, Brandt Snedeker and Bill Haas, those are the players who are going to carry this for the next 10-15 years. And they are wonderful players. They are more than equipped to continue to win in these team matches. It’s a bit of the changing of the guard right now, and it’s fun to watch.
In your playing days, was there a player that you didn’t want to face in match play on the European/International squad?
You don’t want to avoid anybody. That’s not the nature of your makeup in this game. Everyone says they want to play the toughest opponent. You want to play Seve. You want to play Faldo. You want to play the best. But you have to play well to beat them. You want the challenge. You didn’t hide from anyone. But in the Ryder Cup, you put 1 through 12 down on a piece of paper, and they put 1 through 12 on a piece of paper, and you see how it matches up. I actually like the Presidents Cup where they get to pair up against each other. It’s fun for the players to say, ‘I want to play him.’ I kind of like that. In my day, Seve was the toughest competitor on the European Tour. He was the leader of the team, the best player and was incredibly tough in match play. He thrived on it. He loved the Ryder Cup.
Can you pinpoint the best memory from your days in the team competitions?
The overall picture, I enjoyed every Ryder Cup. We weren’t very successful, but I still enjoyed them. It was a great atmosphere to be a part of a team and be a part of 24 of the best players in the world. It was great fun. From a playing standpoint, my favorite moment was when I birdied the last four holes against Ian Woosnam in 1989 to win my match and halve the overall matches. So that was exciting for me to finish off well. You go in there as a team, you play as a team and you win or lose as a team. That’s how I looked at it.
It’s hard to say players care more about these events than say the Masters or U.S. Open, but it just feels different. Why?
It is different. You see more emotion, more outward display of emotion. And that’s because that’s OK in the Ryder Cup. We play our whole lives thinking we play our best keeping our emotions in check. In the Ryder Cup, you see much more. And that’s why I think the viewer loves watching the Ryder Cup because it is this free emotion that’s OK to let out. You see how much the players care about what they’re doing. It’s fun to watch that there’s a winner and loser of every match. There’s a lot riding on every match. You’re playing for a lot of different people. That was exciting for me to be a part of something like that. When you got excited, then the viewer got excited. It’s such a different animal because it’s match play.