Faldo, Azinger and Ryder Cup Captaincy

September 21, 2008

Nick Faldo

Nick Faldo

Paul Azinger

Paul Azinger

Ryder cup captaincy is an unusual kind of leadership. The pre-match picks, the pairings of players, and order of play in the decisive singles all call for judgements of a complex kind and which make a difference to the outcome of the match

The biennial Ryder Cup has become an immense sporting occasion, capturing the attention of non-golf fans in the way Wimbledon is said to capture non-tennis fans in England.

Captaincy calls for a special kind of leadership. Decisions are exposed to the scrutiny of a hundred commentators and millions of viewers, many of whom enjoy the vicious pleasures of casting doubt on the captain’s judgment, and my implication his fitness to lead. That’s not so unusual. Football phone-ins are saturated with emotional and angry view of fand who appear to believe they could do better jobs of running their favoured team than the managers. Some seem to believe anyone could do a better job than the incumbents.

Faldo and Azinger

Faldo and Azinger conform to the expectations of players and public. They need to be former Ryder cup captains, and ideally one of the available greats, playing in sufficiently recent memory in Ryder Cup battles to have iconic status in the minds of the players.

Faldo, and Azinger meet that requirement. Although I have no more to say on it, the selection of the captain is itself the outcome of leadership selection processes worth studying.

Faldo’s potential as captain, his playing career, and high-profile person life have all been extensively covered in Europe. Azinger’s profile has been far less examined, certainly in the UK press coverage. I suspect the converse holds in the USA (confirmation or otherwise of this point welcomed).

In his playing days, Faldo tended to present himself to the public as a somewhat taciturn figure. Public image was way back in his priorities to winning. But rapidly after this retirement he revealed concealed skills as a commentator, albeit still with a quirkiness and self-possession that had little of the professional camera appeaser of a Gary Lineker, a football star who also successfully made the transition to pundit and public figure.

As a player his obsessive style and determination always appeared to be accompanied by an intelligence applied to the multiple facets of winning golf tournaments. If there were pre-match rumblings, it was perhaps because the media expected more truculence and less treacle than usual from him.

Azinger presents himself as a more traditional sporting figure with a duty to treat the public and media with upbeat respect. The style may also be more of a necessity in the USA than in Europe, where the cultural differences of say the Scandinavians, Mediterraneans, and the Anglo-Saxons offer a wide range of personal styles for the public persona. Interviews with the players of both teams have always made fascinating viewing to the culture theorist as much as to the sports fan.

On Captaincy Choices, and Tall Poppies

I have not written much about tall poppies, shorthand for the process in which high-profile figures receive celebrity status and at the same time become vulnerable to attacks ‘to bring them down to earth’. The process began when Faldo, someone always likely to be unswayed by popular sentiment, omitted public favourite Darren Clarke, and appeared to have given Ian Poulter (another quirky and gifted personality) preferential treatment even as other players struggled for the automatic places available on the team through tournament rankings.

The decision-making process

The decision-making processes required of the Ryder Cup captain is massively complex. Faldo seems likely to have operated with little regard for the views of others, and after considerable conscious thought. Other successful captains such as Ian Woosnam have been far more intuitive. One such, on Sky Sport’s treatment was the much-admired earlier English icon Tony Jacklin.

As far as I can see, with little insight into the technicalities of the decision, the process has ultimately to reply on untested beliefs. Decisions are in part judgment calls. But the captains and their decisions are themselves judged on the performances of the players.

The Players

Like millions of others I have watched more of the contest than I expected to. Is it possible to write anything worthwhile about the Ryder Cup without reference to the heroic struggles of the players? Without these heart-stopping dramas upstage, and not as context, commentary is a near irrelevance.


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