Padraig Harrington's Ryder Cup captaincy and the seven biggest calls that backfired

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Padraig Harrington's captaincy – the seven biggest calls that backfired - REUTERS
Padraig Harrington's captaincy – the seven biggest calls that backfired - REUTERS

A totally dominant American team hammered Europe to win the Ryder Cup in a record winning margin on Sunday. Padraig Harrington was at the helm of Europe's crushing loss - and Telegraph Sport looks at seven key areas where the Irishman could have done better.

Qualifying system

Why would a captain not want as many wild cards as possible? Europe’s Padraig Harrington never did make this clear.
Indeed, he actually reduced his options from the four that Thomas Bjorn was permitted in 2018, to three. And in the midst of the chaos of a pandemic, with counterpart Steve Stricker asking for six picks, this was decidedly odd.

When Harrington did try to explain, he seemed to suggest that it would make his job too difficult. Regardless, a strong, confident captain seeks the maximum control.

So a weird hybrid system was allowed to cough up the automatic top nine. The top four from the European Points list (ie money converted to points earned on the European Tour) and then the top five on the World Points list (ie ranking points earned on any tour).

It left Harrington with the ridiculous scenario in which Bernd Wiesberger could, and did, leapfrog Shane Lowry in the final event despite finishing behind him in that final event. The system requires overhauling.

With the strategic alliance with the PGA Tour, the European Tour must cease protecting its circuits from the talent drain across the Atlantic.

Also, the decision not to count points earned in the past six months of the year following lockdown made no sense. It meant Europe had the form players of 2019 and 2021, but not of 2020. Again, a strong captain would have fought this nonsense.

Giving the nod to Garcia and Poulter in May

Journalists who criticise sports professionals for speaking controversially are disingenuous to the point of being dumb.

But when Harrington told Telegraph Sport four months before the end of the qualifying race, “Sergio would almost need to lose a limb not to get a pick – and Poulter is not far behind”, it was a head-scratcher.

Think it, but do not admit it. Basically, those in contention knew that they were playing for one spot. It was demotivating and it also showed his hand way too early to Stricker. However honest, it was an error. And Harrington made so many of those.

Ian Poulter won his singles match but struggled on the opening two days - PA
Ian Poulter won his singles match but struggled on the opening two days - PA

Wentworth

There was too much riding on the BMW PGA Championship, the final qualifying event two weeks ago. Having elected for double points to be on offer for the last four months – Harrington kept repeating that he wanted players in form, despite parts of the system working against it. Wentworth, with its Rolex Series and flagship event status, was loaded with points.

It made it an extremely volatile conclusion, with Matt Fitzpatrick at one stage facing last-gasp heartbreak, despite Harrington indicating for months that the Englishman was safe.

When Lee Westwood left the course after an ugly 77 on the Sunday, he was resigned to falling out of the top nine. The 48-year-old looked and sounded exhausted and said: “At my age this is the last thing I need.”

Eventually, Wiesberger farcically jumped above Lowry after finishing below him in the tournament. Westwood scraped in but said the experience had left him “shattered”.

“Some of the guys turning up here don’t need this two weeks before a Ryder Cup,” Westwood said. “It is going to be draining and you want to be going into the Ryder Cup fresh.”

Harrington dismissed this, saying it was ideal preparation. But at the same time, the US team were on their way to Whistling Straits to scout out the course. They were full of certainty, Europe were full of uncertainty. It was a frenetic finale to a two-year race. Daft and ultimately detrimental.

Wild cards

It is easy to say: “He should have picked Justin Rose.” There were sound reasons for picking Garcia, Poulter and Lowry. Garcia more than justified the faith, winning three points out of three in the first two days, and Lowry winning one out of two in those initial four sessions.

However, Poulter drew a blank and although hindsight is everything, a captain lives and dies by his wild cards. Rose finished third at Wentworth with a final round 65.

His CV is crammed with glory and evidence that he relishes the big stage. Wise after the event is one thing, but Harrington knew that if his picks did not deliver he would be criticised.

Justin Rose's absence proved a big miss for Europe - GETTY IMAGES
Justin Rose's absence proved a big miss for Europe - GETTY IMAGES

Pairings/analytics

Speaking to insiders in the build-up there were concerns he was investing too much in the analytics, in “the stats guys” he had employed throughout his tenure, and was not placing enough priority on his and his vice-captains’ observations and listening to his “gut”.

He kept switching his fourball groupings in practice and later admitted the pairings had been decided anyway. Stricker kept options open. To Harrington, if it was not written in the stats columns, the routes were closed.

The analytics took him to a first-day set of pairings that in some regards were bizarre. No Tommy Fleetwood or Shane Lowry in the foursomes, but Poulter alongside McIlroy. Foursomes exposes ball-striking. Perhaps Poulter should have been covered in the fourballs instead.

Westwood had lost his previous four matches in the Ryder Cup, going back to the Saturday fourballs in 2014. Fitzpatrick had lost both games on his previous experience in 2016. Confidence hardly abounded.

It led to a 3-1 defeat in that opening session and the entire match was slipping out of reach even at that early stage. How Harrington acted in those ominous few hours of the first morning would come to define his captaincy.

The plan

With the foursomes facing ruination, Harrington elected to stick with the script he and the stats guys had come up with weeks, if not months, before.

It is understood that at least one vice-captain urged him to send Rahm and Garcia out again in the Friday fourballs after their impressive 3&1 win over Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. Europe needed points immediately.

But that is not what it said on his sheet so Garcia was benched and Rahm was sent out with Tyrrell Hatton. They earned a valiant half courtesy of a brilliant Hatton birdie on the 18th, but with Fleetwood and Hovland halving with Thomas and Patrick Cantlay, despite being two up with seven holes remaining, the Americans were able to make it 6-2 at the end of the first day.

Paul Casey and Wiesberger were beaten a long way out in the leading fourballs against Johnson and Schauffele and the wisdom of sending out Wiesberger, the world No 63, in any top match of a session was doubtful.

McIlroy did not play well in the morning but Harrington kept loyal. McIlroy made an eagle but not a single birdie and it was too much of a carrying job for his countryman Lowry in first Ryder Cup encounter. It was America’s biggest first-day advantage in 46 years and only the Medinah fundamentalists still believed.

McIlroy was belatedly dropped on Saturday morning, but Lowry and Fleetwood bizarrely also sat it out. Another 3-1 win to the US. Hovland had not won any of his first three games but was sent out again. By now, it was obvious that the US were simply a far better team and the Harrington apologists will contend that no captain could have won.

Maybe that is right, maybe this is cruel. Yet mistakes were definitely made.

Harrington’s style

Harrington can only be what he is and it is clearly not his fault if it is concluded that he was not ideally suited to the leadership role.

The Irishman talks a wonderful game and his three majors show he plays a wonderful individual game. Furthermore he won a World Cup alongside Paul McGinley for Ireland.

Yet his record in six Ryder Cups was below 50 per cent, winning only nine of his 25 matches. Of course, that did not dictate that his captaincy would stumble, yet there were fears that this quirky qualified accountant would struggle to command the collective.

There is no doubt this US team are formidable, yet that does not mean Europe could not have put up more of a fight. The team palpably did not perform. It will be claimed that this inquest is unfair because Harrington did not hit any shots. But he did call them and as he told me in May: “Hey, it comes with the gig”.