New Zealand Golf Magazine - - FEATURE -

The bi­en­nial bash be­tween Europe and the USA will in­evitably boil down to which of the 12 play­ers on each team per­forms best, in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively, but key de­ci­sions made my cap­tains, in the case of Europe (Thomas Bjørn) ver­sus the USA (Jim Furyck) in Paris this month, may well in­flu­ence the fi­nal des­ti­na­tion of Sa­muel Ry­der’s small gold cup.

But, whilst Team USA cap­taincy ap­point­ments tend to be made on merit, there is more than a hint of the, ‘Old boy’s net­work,’ when it comes to who ful­fils the role for the Euro­pean team.

There were more than a few col­lec­tive Euro­pean eye­brows raised when, back in De­cem­ber 2016, Dan­ish golfer Thomas Bjørn was anointed Ry­der Cup cap­tain for the 42nd stag­ing of the bi­en­nial event. The process was about as trans­par­ent as the elec­tion of a new Pope, a 22-month ges­ta­tion pe­riod in which Bjørn got all his ducks in a row.

To his peers, Bjorn was widely viewed as ‘Mr. Euro­pean Tour’, a golfer of some re­pute - but some way short of great­ness or le­gendary sta­tus - the long-term chair­man of the Tour’s in­flu­en­tial Tour­na­ment Com­mit­tee. As BBC Sport at­tested, ‘This ap­point­ment is due re­ward for his ser­vice to the Tour.’

Bjorn’s ex­pe­ri­ence from play­ing on three win­ning Ry­der Cup teams could prove in­valu­able and hav­ing been an as­sis­tant to past cap­tains like Bern­hard Langer, Colin Mont­gomerie, José María Olazábal and Dar­ren Clarke - Easy Ry­der Jobs for the boys - he will have gained a wealth of knowl­edge and in­side in­for­ma­tion to take to Paris in 2018.

But, as most golf writ­ers will tell you, the Dane can be a fully-paid-up mem­ber of the, ‘Awkward squad,’ known not only for duck­ing and div­ing from post round in­ter­views when things have not gone his way, but also for an acer­bic and sar­cas­tic dis­po­si­tion when asked ques­tions he does not like.

Then there was the late 2009 scan­dal, lost in the brouhaha of Tiger Woods ex­tra-mar­i­tal af­fairs when an Aus­tralian air stew­ardess, Dag­mara Le­niartek, with whom he had been

hav­ing a five-year af­fair, re­vealed that she was preg­nant.

The Dane, mar­ried with three chil­dren, sum­mar­ily broke off the re­la­tion­ship with Le­niartek, ini­tially deny­ing pa­ter­nity of the child, but sub­se­quent DNA tests proved him wrong, cast­ing a shadow over his moral­ity and ve­rac­ity.

There are those who view the Euro­pean Ry­der Cup cap­taincy as some­thing of an old boy’s club, a sinecure for ster­ling ser­vice to the Euro­pean Tour, a num­ber of cred­i­ble can­di­dates, such as two-time ‘Ma­jor’ win­ner Sandy Lyle, 1999 Open Championship win­ner Paul Lawrie and the ever­green Spa­niard Miguel Án­gel Jiménez amongst them.

Scots­man Lyle had been viewed as nailed-on for the Euro­pean cap­taincy role in Wales in 2010, but was su­per­seded by Colin Mont­gomerie who parachuted him­self into the reck­on­ing, leav­ing Lyle, de­prived of a pres­ti­gious and strate­gi­cal­ly­im­por­tant vice cap­tain’s role by his com­pa­triot, bit­ter and dis­il­lu­sioned.

"It was pretty much a be­low the belt type punch when I didn't get the cap­taincy," Lyle said, adding, "It just seemed a lit­tle un­usual Colin should be ap­pointed cap­tain as it seemed to me, a for­gone con­clu­sion that I would win the cap­taincy," said Lyle in the wake of his be­ing over­looked.

An­other Scot, 1999 Open cham­pion and two-time Ry­der Cup player, Paul Lawrie, was re­garded as a strong can­di­date for a back­room job on home soil at Gle­nea­gles in 2014; how­ever, Euro­pean cap­tain Paul McGin­ley (three ap­pear­ances as a player, three vic­to­ries) in­stead picked Pádraig Har­ring­ton, Miguel Án­gel Jiménez and José María Olazábal to join Sam Tor­rance and Des Smyth as vice-cap­tains.

Lawrie said at the time, “I’m ex­tremely dis­ap­pointed not to be in­volved at Gle­nea­gles. I’ve known for some time my game wasn’t up to play­ing, but I thought I would have been in­volved in the back­room team.”

Late last year, Euro­pean cap­tain Thomas Bjørn an­nounced that Luke Don­ald, Padraig Har­ring­ton, Graeme McDow­ell and Lee West­wood would join Robert Karls­son to com­plete the Euro­pean Vice Cap­tain line-up for the 2018 Ry­der Cup, no place for a French­man such as Thomas Levet or Jean van de Velde.

There are many, your cor­re­spon­dent amongst them, who be­lieved that Ir­ish­man Pádraig Har­ring­ton, a three-time ‘Ma­jor’ cham­pion should have been Euro­pean cap­tain for Hazel­tine 2016, rather than the ill-fated Dar­ren Clarke (an­other favourite in the Euro­pean Tour’s in­ner cir­cle) or, at least, cap­tain ahead of Bjørn in Paris this month.

Bjørn’s lead­er­ship record is mixed; he suf­fered a heavy de­feat lead­ing a strong Con­ti­nen­tal Europe side against GB & Ire­land in the 2009 Seve Tro­phy, but made amends in what is seen as the Euro­pean Ry­der Cup cap­tain’s bi­en­nial dress re­hearsal, lead­ing Europe to vic­tory in the EurA­sia Cup ear­lier this year.

He is a fiery char­ac­ter, as ev­i­denced by his bad-tem­pered re­sponse to be­ing left out of the 2006 Ry­der Cup team by the-then cap­tain Ian Woos­nam, and there are few golf writ­ers who will not have been on the end of an acer­bic of sar­cas­tic re­join­der to an en­tirely le­git­i­mate ques­tion, hence doubts must ex­ist over the 47-year-old Dane’s diplo­macy skills when un­der the kind of pres­sure only the Ry­der Cup can bring.

As a player, he was a Ry­der Cup win­ner in 1997, 2002 and 2014, and has won 15 Euro­pean tour ti­tles and views his el­e­va­tion to the 2018 cap­taincy as a badge of hon­our and, one sus­pects, a con­fir­ma­tion of le­git­i­macy for a man with some­thing of a thin skin.

"I have lived and breathed the Euro­pean Tour for so long, and now I will do the same with the Ry­der Cup,” he said on hav­ing the ba­ton passed to him from Dar­ren Clarke, ar­guably one of the least ef­fec­tive skip­pers in the Team Europe era, adding, “As cap­tain, it's ex­cit­ing to see so many of them {Euro­pean play­ers] do well in big cham­pi­onships and win­ning golf tour­na­ments. and push­ing them­selves to their lim­its that they have.

“There's 24 guys that are go­ing to be very much close to the top of the World Rank­ings go­ing to the Ry­der Cup in France. That's go­ing to make for one hell of a Ry­der Cup, con­cluded Bjørn, an avid fan of Liver­pool FC.

Added to the hon­our of be­ing ap­pointed Ry­der Cup cap­tain, and de­spite the fact the role is os­ten­si­bly un­paid – a mod­est stipend is paid for the hon­ourary po­si­tion – Ry­der Cup cap­taincy brings sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial re­wards which no­body at the Euro­pean Tour is keen to talk about.

It is four-years since Bjørn last earned a seven-fig­ure sum in on course earn­ings but lu­cra­tive en­dorse­ment deals struck with long­stand­ing Euro­pean Ry­der Cup spon­sors Rolex and BMW will more than com­pen­sate the Dane from mod­est lost earn­ings and con­sid­er­able time in­vested in the im­por­tant cap­taincy role.

The most re­cent brand to seek to sprin­kle star­dust by en­gag­ing not only Bjørn but also op­po­site num­ber Jim Furyck in a deal thought to be in the high-six to seven-fig­ures is Pow­erTee, of which the Dane oblig­ingly says, ““For any­one who is se­ri­ous about grow­ing the game of golf, Power Tee is the ul­ti­mate tool for en­gag­ing new play­ers and help­ing ex­ist­ing golfers im­prove.”

Although no fig­ures are avail­able, es­ti­mates that the Euro­pean Ry­der Cup cap­taincy was worth fi­nan­cially, in­clud­ing en­dorse­ment in­come and ap­pear­ance fees to head­line big-money events such as the 2010 Volvo China Open and Volvo World Match Play Championship, (both along­side his USA coun­ter­part Corey Pavin) brought-in in ex­cess of US$2m to 2010 Euro­pean cap­tain Colin Mont­gomerie.

Thomas Bjorn, Cap­tain of Europe poses with the Ry­der Cup tro­phy.

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