By John Huggan
PARIS — It’s a common refrain. Not too long into their tenures, Ryder Cup captains on both sides of the Atlantic tend to be saying two things. On the one hand, they modestly confirm beyond any shadow of doubt their inability to perform as playing captains in the biennial matches while simultaneously explaining the rigors of the position of non-playing skipper. Thus, the apparently monumental stresses and responsibilities of the role are confirmed to all.
Also tagging along is another traditional announcement. My goodness, it is surprising that so many decisions and commitments are involved in the job of leading a team of golfers into a three-day match played once every two years, even long before hostilities are resumed.
Speaking of which, 2018 European captain, Thomas Bjorn, and his American counterpart, Jim Furyk, have just completed a busy couple of days in and around the French capital, where the 42nd matches will take place at Le Golf National next September.
All as part of the so-called “year to go” event, the pair played five holes (followed by a clinic) at the match venue with selected juniors from the French Federation’s elite squad. Mickey Mouse popped over from nearby EuroDisney. There was a visit to a local school, where the skippers were greeted by a room full of enthusiastic flag-waving youngsters. There was a glamorous dinner at the Palace of Versailles. Time was spent with the French president, Emmanuel Macron. And, just to round things off, almost exactly 41 years to the day since Arnold Palmer became the first golfer to blast off from the top of the Eiffel Tower, Bjorn and Furyk reproduced the King’s iconic tee-shot.
As you’d expect, both captains spoke glowingly of the fun and games in their joint press conference. Furyk was “blown away” and Bjorn went with “amazing” before launching into a brief monologue worthy of Winston Churchill. The only thing missing was any mention of fighting on beaches.
“The Ryder Cup provides so much more to the world than just a game of golf over three days,” said the Dane. “It touches hearts. It goes to 200 countries around the world. This is an event—in a world that is a little bit fragmented at times—that can touch all of us. And I believe that it is out job, as Ryder Cup captains, not only to lead our teams but to show that sport and the game of golf can bring people together.”
Furyk was quick to pay tribute to the European fans he knows will be sure to give his side a hard—but hopefully fair—time 11 months hence.
“My hats off to the European crowd,” he said. “They make a lot of noise, even in small numbers in the U.S. It takes 30,000 Americans to drown out about 2,500 Europeans.”
Thankfully, sitting apart in later interviews with the print media, both men were less inclined to rhetoric and more comfortable talking golf. As ever, better questions led to better answers, especially when it came to the subject of Ryder Cup rookies and the quality of the young Americans who shined so brightly at the recent Presidents Cup.
“What impresses me most is their lack of fear,” said Furyk, who served as an assistant captain to Steve Stricker at Liberty National. “A lot of young players on both sides of the pond have come out at an early age, jumped in the deep and won almost right away. Jordan [Spieth] did that. Justin [Thomas] did that. Brooks [Koepka] broke out this year. And, on the other side, Jon Rahm has been incredible.”
Asked if the losing European squad at Hazeltine National last year, one containing six rookies, had been fatally short of experience, Bjorn was also quick to shoot down that particular theory.
“I don’t believe in the inexperience thing, I really don’t,” he said. “Some of the greatest Ryder Cup players were fantastic from the get‑go. Guys like Sergio [Garcia] and [Ian] Poulter. I remember Lee [Westwood] at Valderrama in 1997 being the same. So no, there’s never too many rookies. But rookies are different. Some people learn over time and some people go straight into it.
“Jim says some of his older players have a lot of scars. Well, rookies have no scars. Look at Patrick Reed. He wanted to get out there and win points right away. That’s a great rookie.”
A thornier subject for Furyk is the reality that no U.S. squad has won a Ryder Cup on foreign soil since 1993, “a quarter century of hurt,” as he put it. So would victory in France a year from now represent something of a “final frontier” for this much-vaunted generation of American stars?
“When we got together to discuss the future of this event, we really looked at it from a long‑term perspective,” said the nine-time Ryder Cupper who played on only two winning sides. “I know we always want to think we have to win now. Everything we do in life is for now, now, now. But if you are setting up a great business you are looking at a five‑year plan, a 10‑year plan, a 20‑year plan for your company. So what we are trying to accomplish is more of a long‑term success. How are we going to do in the next 10 Ryder Cups? In order to do that, we eventually have to win on foreign soil. So I guess you called that the new frontier. That’s something we have to accomplish to validate our team and what we are trying to do for the future.”
Inevitably, there was talk too of Tiger Woods and the possibility of the 14-time major champion playing some sort of role, either on or off the course, next year. Make that a strong probability. Even if Woods doesn’t make the American squad as a player, he is a shoo-in to be a big part of Furyk’s backroom staff.
“I wasn’t surprised to see how much Tiger brings to the team room,” Furyk said. “I played alongside him in Ryder Cups. I saw how he thought. I know how competitive he is. I know how much he wanted to win those matches. But I was impressed by the amount of time and the amount of effort he put into it. He was an asset for Davis and Steve [Stricker].
“He’s done a particularly great job coming up with reasons why he might match players together in a four-ball or foursome. He looks at the golf course and at the personalities. He’s a bright individual and being so good at golf himself, not only from a physical standpoint but from a mental standpoint, he brings some of those same tactics to setting up pairings.”
There was a final perspective, too, from Furyk. Asked if he could see the U.S. dominating the next few Ryder Cups he was understandably cautious.
“That would be putting the cart before the horse right after the bat,” he said. “We lost the three Ryder Cups previously to Hazeltine. So right now that would be like trying to play the 14th hole when we are on the first tee.
“We had a great week at the Presidents Cup. And the International team didn’t play the golf they are capable of. Plus we have a lot of momentum in that event. We had the feeling of, ‘All right, here we go again.’ And they had the feeling of, ‘S—, here we go again.’ So let’s not get too excited. I don’t want our guys going in there next year overconfident and thinking they are the greatest team. I want them going in with a chip on their shoulder and with something to prove.”
Which might not be a bad plan. Not surprisingly, Bjorn was quick to talk up Europe’s prospects of regaining the trophy it has won eight times in the last 12 contests.
“My job is my team, and the 12 players I’m going to have,” Bjorn said. “I looked at the world rankings this morning. I’ve got 10 players in the top‑20 and the 21st player is European as well. So we’re going to have a very strong team.”
OK, enough of the phoney war. Let’s just skip the next 11 months and get on with it, shall we?