The Ryder Cup is unlike any other event on the men’s golfing calendar, and it’s certainly true that the best golfers don’t always make the best Ryder Cup players.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will go down as two of the greatest to ever play the game, but both have lost more Ryder Cup matches than they’ve won.
What remains unclear, however, is to what extent great Ryder Cup players make great captains.
Having the confidence to hole a match-winning putt under pressure doesn’t necessarily mean someone will be able to inspire others to do the same.
As Padraig Harrington’s European side head to Whistling Straits to face Steve Stricker’s USA team – who are 8/15 favourites in the online betting odds – we examine how the greatest Ryder Cup players performed when they were selected to step up as captains.
Europe’s recent Ryder Cup successes have largely come with extremely successful former players as captains.
Five Europeans have scored at least 20 Ryder Cup points as players and gone on to become captains: Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal.
Of those five, only Faldo failed to win the Ryder Cup, as his European side lost 16½-11½ in 2008.
Langer and Olazabal, two of the greatest Ryder Cup players ever, both guided Europe to famous victories on US soil. Langer’s team thrashed the US 18½-9½ at Oakland Hills in 2004, and Olazabal masterminded the Miracle at Medinah in 2012 as Europe came from behind to win 14½ -13½.
Of the 10 captains to have won the Ryder Cup for Europe, seven possessed a points percentage of at least 50 per cent, and eight had won at least 10 points over the course of their playing careers.
Thomas Bjorn has been the only real exception in recent years, as he was a solid Ryder Cup player but not one of the greats. He made three appearances and went 3-4-2, picking up two points with a points percentage of 44.4, before captaining Europe to a comfortable 17½-10½ win at Le Golf National in 2018.
While the best European players have generally also made great captains, that’s not necessarily been the case for the Americans.
Tom Kite, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins and Billy Casper are the five most successful American Ryder Cup players who went on to become captains. All five won at least 17 points in their careers and had points percentages over 60 per cent.
Between them, however, they won just two of the six Ryder Cups in which they were captains. Nicklaus led the USA to a 14½-13½ win at PGA National in 1983, but returned as captain in 1987 and suffered a home defeat at Muirfield Village, ending a 13-0 winning streak for the Americans that spanned 60 years.
In fact, none of the three men who have captained the USA to victory since 1999 were particularly great Ryder Cup players.
Davis Love III possessed a 9-12-5 (W-L-H) record, taking 11.5 points from 26 matches, but won 17-11 as captain in 2016.
Paul Azinger, whose team won at Valhalla in 2008, went 5-8-3 as a Ryder Cup player, earning 6½ points from 16 matches.
And Ben Crenshaw led the USA to a famous 14 ½-13½ win at the ‘Battle of Brookline’ in 1999 despite coming in with arguably the worst playing record of any captain since the Ryder Cup became USA v Europe in 1979. In 12 matches, Crenshaw won just 3½ points, going 3-8-1, and his 29.17 points percentage is the lowest of any player who went on to captain the USA.
Perhaps it bodes well for the USA, then, that this year’s captains don’t boast particularly impressive Ryder Cup records from their playing days.
Harrington was a mainstay for the European team from 1999 to 2010, making six appearances and winning the cup on four occasions. While he was part of some successful teams, Harrington’s personal record was just 9-13-3, including 3-3-0 in the singles, picking up 10½ points across 25 total matches.
Considering Europe dominated the competition during the 2000s, Harrington’s record is somewhat disappointing.
Stricker, meanwhile, made just three Ryder Cup appearances as a player. He was a part of a winning USA team at Valhalla in 2008, but then lost at Celtic Manor in 2010 and at Medinah in 2012.
Stricker’s playing record in the competition is also the worst of any US captain since Crenshaw in 1999. In 11 matches, Stricker picked up just 3½ points with a 3-7-1 record, including 1-2 in the singles.
Considering how Crenshaw’s team performed, however, that will be of no concern to the US team.
With a group of golfers that look stronger on paper than their European counterparts, along with the advantage of playing on home soil, it’s no surprise that the Americans are favourites this time around.
And while Harrington’s superior – although not exactly stellar – playing record may give the Europeans hope, history would suggest that it isn’t the advantage that it might appear.