Except that you don’t decide matters of war and peace or orchestrate bank bailouts, being a Ryder Cup captain is pretty much like being president of the United States or prime minister of Great Britain. Some big job like that. By day, you glad-hand corporate chieftains, give speeches, sip ginger ale from fluted glasses. Then comes the real work, late at night, huddled with your assistant captains. You plot, you fill out mock lineup cards, you do your strategery. Before you know it, the single most intense week of your life is over and it’s not coming back.
Colin Montgomerie, the European Ryder Cup captain, played the Tony Blair role in last week’s matches at Celtic Manor, in squishy Wales. You know: the grandiose talking, the overÂthinking, the wildly expressive face. (If you want to see some classic Tony Blair, check out Charlie Rose’s September interview with the former British prime minister.) Montgomerie is inscrutable. He can be charming, dismissive and combative in the space of 10 minutes. Whatever his mood, though, he’s a plus-4 talker.
After the longest and most amazing Saturday in Ryder Cup history, Montgomerie opened an evening press conference with a 778-word monologue about walkie-talkie battery capacity, Jose Maria Olazabal’s rheumatoid arthritis, player passion and the redesign for the large on-course electronic scoreboards he ordered for Sunday’s play. He exhausted himself.
And then there was the captain of Team USA, as Corey Pavin liked to call his club. He brought to mind George W. Bush (who was a member of Ben Crenshaw’s kitchen cabinet at the 1999 Ryder Cup). Pavin, like 43, came off as impassive, fit, terse, secretive. Whenever he spoke, his head, impressively, remained amazingly still. Asked about the U.S. team room, Pavin said, “We have the room decorated a certain way for the team, but that’s private.”
Pavin’s team room, you eventually learned, was no man cave, as the Hal Sutton team room was in 2004. It was not a place for self-revelation, as the Crenshaw team room was in Boston. It was more like a homey living room. The players’ parents were invited in. Grandparents, in the case of 21-year-old Rickie Fowler, were invited in. Pavin was looking for the ’79 Pittsburgh Pirates vibe. We are family.
The Corey Pavin who drove a four-seat buggy up and down a Welsh valley last week was not the Corey Pavin you might remember from the ’91 Ryder Cup, the War by the Shore. That’s when Bulldog, his nickname then, wore a camouflage cap to honor the American troops in the first gulf war. He won his one major, the ’95 U.S. Open, with a gunslinger’s mustache. He was a superb golfer and a lone wolf. He had the dismissive thing down cold.
Over the past decade Pavin lost the ‘stache and the nickname, and moved himself off golf’s edgy shoulder and into the safety of the middle. Ringo crossing Abbey Road. From there he could lobby for a job previously held by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus years ago, and Sutton and Tom Lehman more recently.
Last week Pavin brought an Air Force major, Dan Rooney, an F-16 fighter pilot, in to talk to the team. The move raised many sets of those imposing British eyebrows. One newspaper headline read Golf War. But Pavin had it all figured out. “I want these guys to be accountable to each other and have each other’s backs, that’s what happens in the military,” the captain said, explaining his invitation to Major Rooney. Very measured, very reasonable. Back in the day he would have said, “I want these guys to kick ass and take no prisoners.” “I’ve mellowed” has been a mantra of Pavin interviews for months now. His ability to stay on message last week was right out of the Karl Rove playbook. And this was the message: “There’s not much to say. These guys know what they need to do.” If he said that once, and he did, he said it four or five times.
His counterpart was all over the place. MON-tay, in the singsong Welsh accent, was stirring, sensible, funny and a little nutty. Explaining the coupling of Ross Fisher and Padraig Harrington, a rookie-veteran better-ball team, Montgomerie said, “I think that’s why that pairing was put together. Well, I know it was. [Beat.] Because I did it.” Privately and publicly he made repeated, emotional references to Seve Ballesteros, patron saint of European golf. He ordered team waterproofs that actually repelled water.
Montgomerie allowed his players to tweet, but Pavin did not. There were withdrawal symptoms, surely, for Stewart Cink’s 1.2 million followers. The English golfer Ian Poulter, who has 1.05 million followers of his own, posted this early one morning: “Bubba Watson throwing USA badges out from there [sic] balcony as we are all signing. He can’t tweet so I will.”
The European captain was intent on winning the various media battles, modern and otherwise. He said last week there was “method to everything I do,” including his press sessions. Win over the press, you win over the republic, in this case the 45,000 Ryder Cup spectators at Celtic Manor, some of them overserved, many of them caked in mud. Monty, like other captains before him, referred to the spectators as “our 13th man.”
By taking over every time there was a microphone in front of him, Montgomerie deflected attention from his players and their various issues, like Harrington and his dull play this year, Lee Westwood and his recovery from a torn calf muscle, and Rory McIlory and his sometimes balky putting. Montgomerie welcomed the old idea that players win Ryder Cups and captains lose them. He was the paternalistic captain, in the Seve tradition, constantly telling his 12 players how good they were, running highlight reels of their triumphs in the team room, cajoling those he found lacking in passion (McIlory and fellow Irishman Graeme McDowell at one point, the spectators at another). He took it upon himself to turn things around. Aloof he was not.
The Pavin captaincy took its cues from Tom Watson, for whom Pavin played in ’93, the last time a U.S. Ryder Cup team won a road game. Watson’s style was macho and manly and somewhat distant. He treated his players as adults. Pavin followed suit. “A good piece of advice that Tom gave me was to just let them go out and play in practice,” Pavin said before the first shot was hit in anger. By the end of the week he was dropping the last two words. Veteran Ryder Cuppers like that, being treated as a grown-up. They respect it. Charm, warmth, the ability to schmooze, those are not Pavin’s strong suits. A painful sight was watching him try to hug Mike Cowan, Jim Furyk’s caddie, on Saturday afternoon, after Furyk and Fowler managed a halve with Martin Kaymer and Westwood. Fluff, a Mainer, is not really a hug guy.
When you get right down to it, the Ryder Cup captain Pavin most resembled was Bernhard Langer, who led the European team to a lopsided win over Sutton’s U.S. team at Oakland Hills in ’04. Langer took all the histrionics out of Ryder Cup play. His team was ruthless, efficient, excellent and boring. Through Sunday night Pavin’s team, sadly, was just boring. (In Monday’s singles the Americans were a thrill ride.) O.K., Jeff Overton, the screaming Hoosier, was never boring. But you get the idea.
It’s easy to say that the Ryder Cup captaincy is overstated, but in actual fact you can’t overstate it. Did Norman Dale put his stamp on the Hickory High basketball team in Hoosiers? It’s about like that. When pros play for free and for pride, they’re kids again. With four captain’s picks, the U.S. captain creates a team in his own image, and for three of his picks Pavin went for family men with reliable putting strokes: Stewart Cink, Zach Johnson and Fowler, who brought his parents, grandparents and 18-year-old girlfriend.
For his fourth pick, Pavin chose Tiger Woods, the most unmarried man in America. He came to Celtic Manor without a date and without his mother. He arrived playing indifferently, played poorly when paired with Steve Stricker three times last week and, in the team hotel, was distant from his teammates for much of the week. (But he was great on his own in Monday’s singles.) Paul Azinger won without Woods, recovering from knee surgery, two years ago. Had Pavin wanted to do something truly bold — beyond the retro flared pants and lavender cardigans — he would have left Woods at home. But Pavin couldn’t do it.
For Monday’s singles play, Montgomerie and Pavin made all the same moves. Hot players up front, tried and true in the middle, closers at the end. Men who spend their lives in golf tend to think the same way. They won’t act the same way, but they think the same way. Pavin filled out his card and let his players do their thing, just as he had done on Friday and Saturday and Sunday. It was a dignified try and an awesome effort. At the closing ceremonies you could finally see Pavin’s heart. Referring to his 12 golfers, he said, “It was an honor and a privilege to call them teammates.” He was not the imperial captain, nothing like it. The effort of this 13-man team was awesome. It just wasn’t enough.
And now, like Tom Lehman and Hal Sutton and Curtis Strange before him, Pavin will make his quiet, defeated return to tournament golf, to the Champions tour, in his case, which has all the intensity of an afternoon nap. He didn’t really inspire his team. He didn’t see that as part of his job. In the end his players made it close on talent alone, but in Ryder Cup play talent’s not enough. That was Colin Montgomerie’s point last week. Maybe Corey Pavin, the golfer, can still inspire himself. His chance to be Norman Dale has come and gone.