Insightful answers tumble freely from Paul McGinley like putts falling at the Ryder Cup. Where on earth do we start?
On his big fear regarding Europe captain Padraig Harrington, his oldest golfing pal? Why he thinks the Americans are making a big mistake having Phil Mickelson as a vice-captain rather than a player? Why Rory McIlroy shouldn’t be paired with any of the rookies? Why, if he was still captain, he would have split the ‘Moliwood’ pairing even if Francesco Molinari had made the team alongside Tommy Fleetwood? His very funny take on the feud between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka?
All that is to come as we find the man who was Europe’s captain in 2014 and now a Ryder Cup board member in typically straight-shooting form on a late summer’s day at Sunningdale, where he’s been a member for many years.
Paul McGinley led Team Europe to victory in the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, Scotland
McGinley has been filming a series with presenter Chris Hollins called Greatest Golf Holes
You could say the place is a sportsman’s paradise. While he has a quick word with AP McCoy, who’s just finished a swift 18 holes, I wander over to say hello to Ernie Els, who’s been spending the summer at his splendid home on the Wentworth estate. ‘Doesn’t get much better than this, does it?’ says the much-travelled South African, and long-standing Anglophile. ‘What a place to play golf.’
McGinley had been out on the course as well, finishing up some promotional work for an intriguing-sounding series he’s been doing with television presenter Chris Hollins called Greatest Golf Holes.
The first series will be shown on Sky late in the autumn and focuses on golf holes in his native Ireland. ‘It was challenging to get it done in these Covid times but we took advantage of going to courses while the members couldn’t play them,’ says the Dubliner. ‘We did the obvious ones, like Royal County Down and Portrush, but we added some cute ones as well. Hopefully in future series we can add where to stay, what to eat, that sort of thing.’
We move to a quiet part of the terrace where he orders a couple of Sunningdale Pimms and settles down for a chat that lasts well over an hour. Let’s start with Harrington, for who knows him better than McGinley, and a friendship that goes all the way back to their schooldays.
He starts with an eye-opening comparison. ‘Do you know, it’s amazing to me that people haven’t made the connection with Padraig and DeChambeau,’ he says. ‘Like Bryson, Padraig changed his swing radically to win majors. Like the American, he’s a free-thinker. They say Bryson is eccentric!
‘I met Padraig when he was 12 or 13 and I was about 16. I knew his brothers before him, and I met him when we were playing Gaelic football before playing golf.
‘The Harringtons were a well-known family, his father was a policeman, and they were tough. Not as in fighting tough but as in no shrinking violets and him being the youngest, you can imagine how that went.
The former captain sits down with Sportsmail’s Derek Lawrenson ahead of the 2021 Ryder Cup
‘A lot of his personality was chiselled that way. They’re a very close family and his wife Caroline has been a hugely supportive influence. She reads the books he reads so they can talk about it. They’re very bright.
‘Padraig is an outlier, which isn’t usually a good quality in a captain. Sir Nick Faldo was that way, but Padraig is much better prepared, he’s been a vice-captain three times and he’s listened to all the decisions, seen how it works. I’m sure he will be good. My only fear is that he makes it too complicated and over- analyses it.’
The pair won a World Cup for Ireland and countless points for Europe, but nothing as partners compares to the day they beat Tiger Woods and then world No 3 Davis Love in the 2004 Ryder Cup in Detroit.
McGinley tells the story over the course of almost 10 minutes, mixing pure comedy with obvious affection for Harrington and pride at what they achieved, coming back from two down after two to snatch the point. His recollections really deserved an audience of thousands rather than one.
‘What a story that was,’ he begins. ‘Padraig had played with Monty in the morning and played terribly. You know Darren Clarke’s depressions? Padraig was worse that lunchtime.
‘Meanwhile, I was giddy. We were playing Tiger and Davis! Anyway, we get to the first tee. America have the honour and Tiger hits a bullet. Padraig stands up, you know when he takes forever, he’s scratching his backside, looking at his bag and then he snipes it. We’re walking off the tee, all we can hear is ‘Tiger, Tiger’, and we get up there and our ball is up against a tree.
McGinley is a long-term friend of Europe’s 2021 captain Padraig Harrington (right)
McGinley’s Ryder Cup Record
Paul McGinley took part in four Ryder Cups.
He played in 2002, 2004, 2006 and was captain in 2014.
Europe won all four of these matches.
Padraig Harrington will be the second Irish captain — after McGinley.
‘I get in there with a half-swing, make contact and the ball hits the tree. Then Padraig hits the tree and the ball rebounds against an out of bounds fence. We took five in there and didn’t reach the fairway. We concede. At the second, Tiger and Davis get an eagle. Two down after two.
‘Now we’re both worried we’re going to get humiliated. Walking to the third tee I said to Padraig, “Let’s give ourselves a double at the first, par at the second, and say we’re two over. Now let’s see if we can shoot level par. If we shoot that, we’re not going to lose 7&6”.
‘You know the way when you say something sometimes and you can see a light going on? “That’s an effing great idea!” Padraig shouted. At the next he grinded over a short putt and made it. Then it all changed.
‘We ended up winning and we were thinking, “How did that happen?” It was the old story. We disengaged from Tiger and got back to hitting shot by shot. After my singles victory in 2002 (he held the winning putt) it’s my favourite moment as a player.
‘The crowd was full of Irish, and so many turned out in their GAA county jerseys. We counted 17 different counties that day (there are only 32 in total in Ireland). We shook hands, and as Tiger walks off the green, they all start singing: “You’ll never beat the Irish”.
‘What a day. As we made our way back to the team room, Caroline says, “Why don’t you ask to play back-to-back in the singles so the Irish fans can go back and forth and watch both your matches?” That was a great idea as well. The captain Bernhard Langer took us up on it and we both won our matches the next day.’
We move seamlessly to this year’s contest, where he is wary of being seen to second-guess Harrington. ‘I hated anyone doing that to me in 2014, so I should say these are just my opinions and Padraig has to do it his own way,’ he says.
The Irishman holes the winning putt of the 2002 Ryder Cup at the Belfry against Jim Furyk
The ex-captain believes Rory McIlroy (right) should partner Sergio Garcia over a rookie
Let’s start with McIlroy, and the idea that’s been circulating in recent weeks that he should shepherd his friend Shane Lowry.
‘Rory is one of our best players and we need to get the best out of him but we haven’t seen that when he’s been with rookies in the past,’ he says.
‘Rory’s a nice guy but he’s not a hand-round-the-shoulder guy, he likes to lead from the front. I’d play him with Sergio. It’s not a criticism, but Rory is just more mentally engaged when he’s playing with one of the experienced guys.’
What about Tommy Fleetwood now he’s lost the partner he delivered four points out of four alongside in Paris in 2018? Bear in mind that McGinley was speaking here before the Solheim Cup, where the Korda sisters went from being invincible at Gleneagles to bombing in Toledo.
‘Do you know, I’m not sure I’d have paired Tommy with Frankie even if Molinari had made it,’ said McGinley. ‘Tommy can play with anyone. He’s an easy fit, a lovely personality and a solid game. But you have to have that freshness and that’s a vibe Padraig has to create with his pairings. You can’t just rely on what happened in the past.’
McGinley is buoyant about Europe’s chances.
Tommy Fleetwood (left) and Francesco Molinari (right) won’t be renewing their partnership
‘Look at when the PGA has been played at Whistling Straits in the past and how many Europeans have done well quietly,’ he says. ‘It’s a course that suits us, far more than Hazeltine last time.
‘I think the year’s postponement has worked out for us as well. We had no-one playing well 12 months ago. Now we’ve got the best player in the world on our side, and Rory’s in a much better place. Sure, there will be crowds now, but you can prepare for that.’
What about the Americans? He’s hilarious on Koepka and DeChambeau.
‘It’s childish, it’s bullying and I wish they’d stop, but I think people forget that when I was captain I had Rory and Graeme McDowell on the same team who had been at opposite ends of a courtroom earlier the same month (Rory was sued by the manager he’d parted company with, who also looked after G-Mac) and they weren’t speaking to one another,’ he says.
‘Do you really think all the Europeans love one another all the time and there’s never any bitching going on? I see the Brooks-Bryson thing as something Steve Stricker should be able to sort out in five minutes.’
He thinks captain Stricker has made one mistake.
The feud between Bryson DeChambeau (right) and Brooks Koepka’s (left) is a big talking point
Despite winning the PGA Championship this year, Phil Mickelson did not make the US team
‘With six picks, I’d have taken a gamble on Mickelson,’ he says. ‘The course is almost a mirror image of the one where he won the PGA in May. He lifted his game for that, so why wouldn’t he for the Ryder Cup?
‘If you’re a European, who are you going to be more uptight about playing, Phil or Harris English? And what if America start badly? What’s the atmosphere going to be like when they’re all looking around and seeing a current major champion in the team room, and he’s not even playing?’
Does he have any regrets about not being part of Harrington’s backroom team? ‘Not at all,’ he says. ‘I know I had a couple of past captains in my team but I always thought it would be a clean break for me. And Padraig knows where I am. I don’t need to be officially on the books. Obviously, he can have all the advice and help from me that he needs.’
Now his playing days are fading towards the background — he still plays the odd event on the Legends Tour — it’s not hard to see why McGinley is a board member of the Ryder Cup and the European Tour.
He is one of the game’s most compelling modern thinkers, but the hour had sadly moved on and it was time for him to make his way across a couple of Sunningdale fairways to his nearby home.
He’ll be at Whistling Straits next week, of course, bringing his trademark passion to Sky’s coverage. Rooting inside for the man he’s known since school and with whom he has shared so much.