How important is a Ryder Cup captain?
Englishman Gillis’ first book draws upon his extensive experience writing about the business of sports for publications like the Wall Street Journal. For the professional golfers in America and Europe, the biannual Ryder Cup is one of the most important events in which they can compete. The author focuses on the captain's role, “one of the most nuanced and ambiguous leadership challenges in world sport.” Gillis views the intense competition in terms of leadership, teams, and winning. Unfortunately, these digressions often get in the way of his otherwise cogent history of the competition. Numerous anecdotes and quotes from players and captains help enliven the story. At the first-ever match in 1927, the brash and ebullient Walter Hagen immediately became the “defining figure” in the competition. It was the bold Americans versus the lowly U.K. team (players from continental Europe were added later) and the beginning of the Europeans always being the underdogs—something they’ve effectively capitalized on. Europe’s 2016 captain, Darren Clarke, says this helps them “form a bigger bond than the Americans.” The captain’s main job is to pick the team members. When Paul Azinger was captain for the Americans in 2008, he drastically changed how this was done, creating his pod system, which grouped players together based on their “personality types.” The Americans defeated the Nick Faldo–led European team, and many players wanted him back; however, the PGA appointed another captain, and Europe won. Gillis also looks at how captains can alter course conditions to suit their players’ games; Seve Ballesteros was a master of this strategy. In the author’s opinion, Captain Jack Nicklaus’ concession of Tony’s Jacklin’s putt in 1969 is “arguably the single most important story” in Cup history. Despite years of anguish over how a team can best be put together, he concludes, there’s no perfect formula, nor perfect captain.
Published to coincide with this year’s competition, viewers/critics will be quick to place blame (yet again) on the losing captain.