Paul McGinley clearly recalls the first time he met Tom Watson. It was at the US PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2001.
“I walked around the corner to the first tee and Tom Watson was there. It was half six in the morning and he was there with his caddie, Bruce Edwards. I hesitated. I didn’t know if I was going to go up and say hello to him or not. I stopped for about five seconds and thought about whether I would go up to him or not. So I went for it. I put my hand out and said, ‘Hi Tom, my name is Paul McGinley. I’m from Ireland. Would you mind if I joined you?’
“And he looked at me with this really cold stare and I thought, oh my God, he is going to blow me out here. And he put out his hand and he said, ‘Irishmen are always welcome in my company.’ Those were the first words we spoke.
“He’s a guy I really admire. He’s a boyhood hero of mine and I relish the opportunity of going up against him. He represents everything that is good about the game.”
What McGinley doesn’t explain it that he picked Watson’s brain that morning, as Colm Smith reported for the Irish Independent.
“He showed me how to play the shots around the greens and that great help this week,” said McGinley, who went on to finish 22nd behind David Toms. It was just his second Major in the US and the first time he’d made the cut. “I still have a lot to learn but I am getting there…”
McGinley learned a lot about tackling Bermuda grass from Watson that week and he has continued learning in the intervening years to the point where he is arguably the most experience rookie captain in the history of the Ryder Cup.
He’s bursting with ideas and enthusiasm about what he will be asked to do for the next 20 months but gives little away. For a man who gave Twitter and Rory McIlroy much of the credit for his election as captain, he’s coy about showing his hand in the internet age where information flows across oceans in an instant.
“There is nothing that scares me at all about the job at all in this moment in time,” he said in a late night phone chat from Abu Dhabi on Thursday night.
He’s just had dinner with McIlroy, who has opened with a 75 and will go on to miss the cut. But he’s not giving advice just yet. He’ll take a back seat until the qualifying starts and spend the rest of the season working behind the scenes on the organisational elements, starting with his first official a visit to Gleneagles next month.
Now is not the time to look at who might make his team, though he admits that he may “tweak” rather than make drastic changes in the European qualifying process.
“No. You don’t look that far down the road and where everybody is going to be in 12 months time. Players might get injured, another might win three or four times and all of a sudden they are a new player on the world stage. There is no point in going down that road. I will step away for the next six months and let them get on with it. Get back to their careers and do their things. I had dinner with Rory tonight and that’s what I said to him. ‘Off you go now and I will see you down the road. Really appreciate your support.”
One of the reason why McGinley appealed to so many as a Ryder Cup captain was his low-key persona - the perfect foil to Watson’s stature as a golfing god, especially in Scotland.
“I’m really comfortable with all the stuff that goes with it. Not just the captaining but the rest of it - the media work and public speaking - there is nothing I should be afraid of. I feel I am well qualified for the job. I’ll be the most qualified rookie captain ever in the Ryder Cup having done two Seve Trophies. I think I am pretty well qualified even though my playing record is nowhere near as good as Tom Watson’s. On a captaincy level I am pretty well qualified. He’s obviously more experienced than me because he has done Ryder Cup captain before and nothing compares to what happens in a Ryder Cup.”
McGinley is revealing nothing about who his vice captains might be but if you put a bet on Des Smyth and Sam Torrance being in his backroom, you are unlikely to lose money.
Torrance remains his biggest influence as a skipper and they are made in the same mold - career European Tour men, consistent, well-liked and above all, masters of man management.
“I had Seve as my captain twice in the Royal Trophy but to be honest the one that had the biggest impression in me was Sam,” McGinley explained. “I don’t know if that was because he was the first, the man management he had of me that week was unbelievable. When I walked over the bridge on 18 (in the singles with Furyk) and he said the words, ‘This is what we have talked about. Do this for me’, I really had a sense of unbelievable loyalty towards him. I really wanted to do it for him. It wasn’t about me. It was about doing it for him, doing it for the captain. That shows you the place I was in, how mentally prepared I was at that stage.”
If Darren Clarke doesn’t make the team, he would seem an obvious candidate on paper at least. Putting money on it might not be such a good bet following their fraught battle for the top job. But McGinley is no fool.
“Despite all that has happened in the last few months, with Darren’s record, having played five Ryder Cups, and won a major 18 months ago, if Darren comes close to the team, I’d love to have him in there too, particularly considering his relationship with Lee Westwood.
“I am keeping all my doors open for all the players and all the team. I don’t know which way it is going to fall but certainly everybody is going to have an open and fair chance of making the team.”
One of the things that impresses the current crop of European players about McGinley is his attention to detail. He has kept meticulous records in the Ryder Cup - statistics on pairings and what does and doesn’t work.
Assembling the best side possible is part of the job and while he is not specific on what he might change, he does not rule out a change to the qualifying process.
“I don’t know. I will sit down with the tour. I have somebody doing some statistical research at the moment and the effect certain changes would have had on the make up of the team last time. But it’s safe to say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If I am going to change the qualification process, it will be a tweak rather than a major change.”
It’s tough to find a prouder Irishman than McGinley and while he’ll be fair in his dealings with all the players, he’d love to see a strong Irish presence in his team in Scotland.
McIlroy and Graeme McDowell will almost certainly be there but whatever about Clarke’s form as a player, the recent play of Padraig Harrington, Michael Hoey and especially Shane Lowry is encouraging.
“There is no doubt that Shane is a potential Ryder Cup player and if you said to me, Paul do you want to take the 12 from Medinah and go forward with them, I’d say yes. I’d love to have that. But at the same time I’d want to see a qualification process that would enable somebody to have a very strong year and come through. And Shane would fit into that category. He is certainly good enough to play and now it is a question of him having to win a couple of big tournaments.
“He’s won the Irish Open, the Portugal Masters. He’s got to win something big - a BMW PGA or have a big finish in a Major championship or one of the WGCs. That’s the next level he has got to get to if he wants to make the team.
“The more Irish on the team, the better from my point of view. He’s getting there slowly and he’s honing in on the top 50 in the world. If you do that, you have a great opportunity to make the RC team. If you are not in the top 50, it makes it more difficult. He knows that if my September he is well established in the top 50, it is going to give him a great chance of making the team.
“Padraig. Absolutely. I would love to have Padraig in the team. He would be a great addition to the team. He has won three major championships.”
It’s well past midnight in Abu Dhabi and McGinley is off at 7.30 the next morning but he’s in no hurry to hang up.
“I’m still on a real high. Still really excited. It was just so humbling that your peers would think so highly of you. Even walking around today and yesterday. Everybody was just so happy for me. They don’t just come up to you and shake your hand like when you’ve won a tournament. There’d be a big smile on their faces and they were genuinely so happy for me. I could really sense that. When your peers think that highly of you and are so genuinely happy for you, it’s a really humble place to be.”
McGinley arguably got the job because he’s learned to make a lot of friends and fall out with few in his 20-year career. Players, administrators, caddies, sponsors. He wasn’t a superstar and perhaps being more approachable - one of the lads at the coalface - added to his appeal.
“You’re probably right. There’s a lot of truth in that. I have probably treated everybody with a lot of respect over the years and they are genuinely happy for me and genuinely liked me and something I wouldn’t have found out about without being captain. There’s no doubt, it looks like the whole tour is united behind me, and it’s up to me now to repay all that faith in me and do a good job, not just in winning the Ryder Cup but with all the other stuff, in representing the tour. If I can help in any way closing the deal on some tournaments that might be over benefit in the meantime, it will be great.”
Fittingly, the McGinley captaincy had its genesis in Ireland at the course where he became a country member to keep his game sharp during the winter months when Grange, the tight parkland beauty in the foothills of the Dublin mountains in south Dublin, was unplayable in winter.
“It was only when Monty asked me to be captain. I remember it was in the clubhouse in Baltray after we came out of a committee meeting (at the Irish Open in May 2009). He pulled myself and Thomas Bjorn aside and told us he wanted us not alone to be vice captains but captains of the respective Seve Trophy teams too. We both accepted on the spot.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be any good. I didn’t know if I was going to like it. I didn’t know how I was going to feel standing in front of my peers. Guys like Rory and Graeme and speaking to them and whether I would feel comfortable or not. That’s why the Seve Trophy was such an important cog in the wheel for me. But I did that and enjoyed all those things and the fact that things went well helped too. I really enjoyed that week. I really got a buzz out of it and that was it. That’s when I thought, ‘God, I really want to do that.’ Then I got a second opportunity and away we went. That first one came out of the blue. I didn’t expect to be a vice captain to Monty.”
He learned from Torrance that man management is crucial to a captain and with friends like Martin O’Neill, currently the manager of Premier League football side Sunderland, and former Formula One boss Eddie Jordan, he has plenty of advice close at hand.
“That’s huge. Huge,” he said of the ability to manage a group and deal with the personalities in a team room. “We are not all the same. Not all the same at all. You have got to be able to man manage players and I’ve observed that with all the captains I have played under. They each did it in a different way. The way you manage Colin Montgomerie is very different to the way you manage Ian Poulter. I don’t want to give too much away because man management is one of my strengths….”
Lowry said last year that McGinley is the kid of guy you’d “run through a wall” to please. He probably feels even more strongly now after the Dubliner took the time to visit him in his Dubai hospital room last November, when he was laid low by a bug and missed the DP World Tour Championship. McGinley hadn’t qualified but was there as a TV pundit for Sky Sports.
There are many who believe that Ryder Cup captaincy is over-rated and that it all comes down to pure luck at the end of the day. Needless to say, McGinley is not in that camp.
“My view is very strong on the captain’s role and it’s very different to that,” he said. “If people want to have that view, let them have it. I have a different view.”
He expanded on that view when doing some punditry for Sky Sports in April 2010.
“The captain has so many decisions to make. Keeping the team buoyant, making right decisions, sometimes doing the obvious things. You don’t have to be too clever. Sometimes it’s important to do the obvious things and I’ve been fortunate I have had three great Ryder Cup captains (in Torrance, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam) and played under Seve and Olazabal in the Royal Trophy and under Monty in Seve Trophies. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve seen some of the best and I’ve learned a lot from them all.”
Since Watson lead the US to victory at The Belfry in 1993, Europe has won seven of the last nine Ryder Cups, which could heap the pressure on McGinley’s shoulders in Scotland. Yet the Irishman knows it apart from those two nine-point wins in 2004 and 2006, four of the other five European wins were by the slimmest of margins.
“It’s a special time to be in charge of a European team. Looking at the world ranking, we are dominating the top five or ten in the world rankings and unless everyone has a collapse in form, it looks like I am going to have the strongest European team ever. Having said that, the last two Ryder Cups have come down to the last game on the golf course and it has slightly worked in Europe’s favour each time. I could very easily be sitting here talking on the back of two losses. The margin between the two teams is so small, so slender now. We have been fortunate in the last two Ryder Cups to come out winning.”
A strong captain could make the difference between winning and losing and McGinley is determined to improve his record of 11 wins out of 12 as a player, a vice-captain or a captain in team competitions - five Ryder Cups (three as a player, two as a vice-captain), four Seve Trophy matches (two as a player, two as captain) and two of three Royal Trophy matches (all as a player).
He’s met Watson several times since that early morning encounter in Atlanta in 2001, most recently in 2009, when he walked 18 holes with the American at Sunningdale just a week after the 59-year old had been beaten in a play-off for the Open by Stewart Cink at Turnberry.
Watson did not win the Senior Open at McGinley’s adopted home course but he thanked the Dubliner for his tips on playing the course that week.
“Paul was watching,” Watson said at the time. “I asked Paul a few times about how he played the golf course, and he gave me some hints on what to do here.”
McGinley modestly plays down his role.
“I remember that very strongly. I was only two years ago. I walked 18 holes with him in the practice round. He didn’t need many points now, I’ll tell you.”
So what does he expect from Watson, who was his boyhood hero?
“I am expecting a very, very tough competitor. An extremely tough competitor. I am expecting a hard but fair man. Yeah. I think he will be somebody I will get to know and trust. As I say, I am really looking forward to him. He brings so many good traits to the table and it is going to be great to be associated with him as the American captain.”
We can expect McGinley to be thoroughly prepared and ready to get the most out of what he believes will be a special European team.
“I want to bring passion, excited, adrenaline, crowd interaction, Scottish flavour, a Seve flavour, but above all a really classy Ryder Cup and a really stylish performance from everybody involved in it.”
As an Irishman, he feels he owes it to everybody who has supported him to give them nothing less than 100 percent.
“It is a great, great honour not just for me but for Ireland as well. What hits home and what feels so good is that so many Irish people of influence and am talking about players particularly, stood up for me when I really needed the support and helped push me over the line.
“I am referring to Pádraig and I am referring to Rory and Peter Lawrie in the Committee room who I knew was going to be very strong in my favour. It gave me a great sense of comfort that I had at least one guy in there batting for me. That means a hell of a lot to me. The support of Shane too, and Graeme McDowell. It goes on and on. There are so many others too that really supported me and helped me when I really needed it.”
As a proud Celtic supporter, McGinley is well known in Scotland. But he’s leaving the green and white scarf at home this time.
“As much as I am a Celtic fan, there will be nothing about Celtic attached to the captaincy or to Gleneagles,” he said. “This is about uniting Scotland rather than dividing it. I will go to Gleneagles next month and that’s what it all kicks off.”
Paul McGinley - European manager - might just get the sheepskin coat out of the wardrobe for this one.