Playing Captain

Hear Me Out: Playing Captain Rory McIlroy

With the Europeans in a pinch, the best candidate to lead their Ryder Cup team should be obvious

By Michael Bamberger

AUCHTERARDER, Scotland—Have you heard about the Ryder Cup chat that was going around at the Senior British Open here at Gleneagles, a former Ryder Cup venue, and won by Darren Clarke, a former Ryder Cup captain?

Rory McIlroy is in the running to be the emergency replacement for the Europeans at next year’s Ryder Cup, now that Henrik Stenson has been sacked from the job.

OK, in the interest of full, necessary and immediate disclosure:

When I say “going around,” what that means is that I floated the idea to my Scottish colleague John Huggan while having lunch here on Sunday. So when I say “people,” I pretty much mean Huggan and me.

So far.

The way I see it, McIlroy would be the playing captain and the face of the European team, the first playing captain the Ryder Cup has had since Arnold Palmer in 1963. A deputy would be the details man.

Regarding Huggan: Remember Phil Mickelson’s “obnoxious greed” quote, about the PGA Tour? Mickelson said that to Huggan at the Saudi International at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club on Feb. 2. In that same interview, Mickelson said, “My ultimate loyalty is to the game of golf and what it has given me.”

There was no mention of the LIV Golf league in Huggan’s GolfDigest.com story because the name was not yet in public circulation. Huggan posed this question in the piece regarding Mickelson: “Will he make the jump to the still-to-be-born Saudi-backed Super Golf League?”

It’s been a long half-year since then. Stenson’s removal as European Ryder Cup captain, just before he announced his intention to join LIV Golf and play his first LIV event this week in New Jersey, is part of the upheaval. Now Ryder Cup Europe is trying to figure out his successor. Among the candidates under consideration are Luke Donald, Paul Lawrie and Thomas Bjorn.

My suggestion is to install McIlroy as the playing captain and make Lawrie, his new and fellow honorary member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, as his top deputy, the person who does everything behind the scenes. McIlroy would be the lead actor at the many Ryder Cup press conferences and TV appearances and corporate meetings, but he would get a break from all that while playing. McIroy won the Open at Hoylake in 2014. Lawrie won it at Carnoustie in 1999.

Lawrie, by the way, played in two British Opens this year, the Open at St. Andrews and the Senior Open at Gleneagles. Part of the considerable charm of the Senior Open is seeing Open winners trying to complete an unlikely double.

Clarke, who also teed it up at the Old Course, won the Open in 2011 and with his win here is now in a small club of golfers who have won both, along with Gary Player, Tom Watson and Bob Charles. Maybe Stenson, who won at Royal Troon in 2016, will someday join the club. He’s 46, so his wait for 2026 is underway. Next year’s Senior Open is at Royal Porthcawl, in Wales.

Regarding Porthcawl: If you can get yourself there, for the Senior Open or any other time, I’d urge you to do it. Alan Shipnuck and I played there in 2010, when the Ryder Cup was down the road, at forgettable Celtic Manor. Porthcawl, on the other hand, is one of the best courses you could ever hope to play (or see). Stewart Cink, winner of the 2009 Open, can try to become the fifth player with an Open-Open career double at Porthcawl. He turns 50 next May.

The runner-up at this year’s Senior Open, played on the King’s course, was another (two-time!) Open champion and former Ryder Cup captain, Padraig Harrington. Mark James, Bernhard Langer, Paul McGinley and Colin Montgomerie, all former Ryder Cup captains, were in the field. In 2014, here at Gleneagles, McGinley’s team defeated the U.S. team, captained by Tom Watson. Stenson was one of the stars for Europe, although he lost to Patrick Reed in the Sunday singles.

It was at that Ryder Cup, in the losing team’s Sunday night press conference, that Mickelson first exerted his influence on global golf matters by opening his mouth. He called out Watson’s captaincy, and the system by which U.S. Ryder Cup captains were groomed and selected was lifted high, shaken hard and totally revamped.

Stenson has forfeited something special. McGinley and Bernard Gallacher, neither of whom won a major, are golfing royals throughout Europe because of their success as European Ryder Cup captains. Portraits of both hang on the walls of the breakfast room at Rusacks, the hotel on the 18th fairway of the Old Course, alongside portraits of Palmer and Ben Crenshaw and Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam, to cite four winners of majors who captained Ryder Cup teams. (Well, at the moment, the Woosnam portrait is in a basement room at the hotel, presumably awaiting repairs. But the painting exists.)

Since that memorable 2014 Ryder Cup, the Americans have won twice and lost once. Mickelson’s own path to the captaincy was clear. He was a decidedly engaged assistant captain to Steve Stricker when the U.S. routed the Europeans at Whistling Straits last year. He almost surely would have been an assistant captain next year to Zach Johnson, when the Ryder Cup will be played in Italy. And he almost certainly would have captained the U.S. team in 2025, when the Ryder Cup will be played at Bethpage Black.

Mickelson will not be an assistant to Johnson in Italy. He will not be the captain at Bethpage Black. (Tiger Woods would be a good guess.) Everybody knows why Mickelson is out: His second foray into golf’s global politics by way of his mouth did not play out, for him, anything like his first. It wasn’t his reference to the “scary motherfuckers” in the House of Saud that changed his life. It was his admission to Shipnuck that he helped engineer and finance the lawyering for what one British paper likes to call “the rebel, Saudi-backed golf league.” That is, LIV Golf.

For Phil’s sake, and for the sake of fan interest in the game, I hope he tries to win a Senior Open, to go with his 2013 Open win. The Senior Open is one of the most enjoyable events in golf. You’ll see many legendary golfers, and a lot of golfers still in their 50s and clinging to boyhood dreams, on courses that have stood the test of time.

I’ve been to the Senior Open at Turnberry, at Muirfield, at St. Andrews and now at Gleneagles. It is held the week after the Open, in part so that former Open winners over the age of 50 can play the two Opens in consecutive weeks. It’s fun.

For years, Palmer, Player, Watson, Charles, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo and John Daly played back-to-back weeks in that manner. Ernie Els did it this year. The champion gets a wee Claret Jug. This year’s winner’s check was for $432,000.

Mickelson could have had a Scottish fortnight in this hot summer of ’22, a week in St. Andrews followed by a week at Gleneagles. He does the grand hotels as well as anybody, and the hotel here is as grand as grand gets, if you’re into baronial splendor. But he was overbooked. Had he played the two Opens, that would have meant three straight tournaments, as he is obligated to play in the LIV event at Trump Bedminster, in the New Jersey horse country, this week. The Senior Open was not going to happen, not this year.

Woods will qualify, by age, for the Senior Open in 2026. He can try to join the Open-Open club. Louis Oosthuizen will get his first turn in 2033. McIlroy in 2039.

But he has the things to do before that. Like, for instance, his playing captain role at the 2023 Ryder Cup.

Maybe you heard.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com

6 thoughts on “Playing Captain Rory McIlroy?”

  1. My exact thoughts when I heard Stenson was fired. The list of Euro likelies is quite uninspiring. Rory would be terrific.

  2. I don’t see Rory or anyone ever being playing captain;; it isn’t worth compromising their game in their prime playing years..

    You either commit 100% to playing or 100% to captaining. You can’t do both together effectively – it’s too much.

  3. The Ryder Cup is dead to me now. I’ve loved it for 40 years. It’s been great but now it’s run its’ course. Caught in the crossfire between new tour alliances and everyone’s greed at the top of pro golf.
    Everyone always said it means more to the Europeans than the Americans and now it means nothing to either. Shame.

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