Paul McGinley's Populism is Europe's Ryder Cup Answer to Tom Watson

The Ryder Cup sails into uncharted waters next October – and not just because, should the meteorological combination of Scotland + autumn x Celtic Manor 2010 hold true, Gleneagles will be battered by so much rain that half the estate will aquaplane up the A9 towards Perth.

No, new maps are being drawn up as a result of the United States team's inspired choice of Tom Watson as their captain. In strict golfing terms Watson's appointment is a no-brainer. He has eight major titles to his name but, perhaps more pertinently, led the US team to a statesman-like Ryder Cup victory at The Belfry in 1993. That win came two years after the Americans made a royal show of themselves during the War on the Shore at Kiawah Island; given the team are once again trying to salvage some dignity after another self-inflicted embarrassment, admittedly of a vastly different stripe this time, Watson is the obvious go-to guy for the task in hand.

Yet this is all a side issue compared with the real game-changer: Watson's wild popularity in Scotland. The man's an honorary highlander. He won four of his five Open Championships on golf's home soil, half of his total haul of majors. His most heralded victory was at Turnberry, the famous duel in the sun with Jack Nicklaus at the 1977 Open. His favourite course in the world is a couple of hours in the car from Gleneagles at Royal Dornoch. And he is one of the few men who does not look wholly ridiculous while sporting checked trousers.

Watson took Scotland to his heart and Scotland reciprocated. As a result the time-honoured dynamic of the Ryder Cup will be totally altered. European crowds feel comfortable going along to holler abuse at boors like Hal Sutton, or point and guffaw – rather cruelly, we should be big enough to admit – at terminally confused souls such as Corey Pavin.

But Watson? Few will wish to witness any ill fate whatever befalling one of the game's true gentlemen – not least because there is a feeling Scotland still owes Watson a little something, after Stewart Cink snatched an improbable Open from the old boy's grasp at Turnberry in 2009, thus ensuring the entire planet will never dare to hope, dream or harbour romantic thoughts about a single thing in their entire lives again.

Watson's status may explain why Team Europe this week plumped for Paul McGinley as their leader. They are fighting fire with fire. McGinley did not pull up many trees as a player – two top-10 finishes in the US PGA represent the sum total of his achievement in the majors – but, while he is nowhere near Watson's class with club in hand, the popular and easy-going Irishman can at least give him a run for his money as a stand-up chap. When he sank the putt that sealed victory for Europe at The Belfry in 2002, it was not long before he was exuberantly fannying around in a lake.

He spent the following joyous days modestly telling the press how, now his name might ring at least one or two distant bells, he hoped to blag a couple of free tickets to see Celtic sometime. Towards the end of the 2006 rout at K Club he conceded a huge putt to JJ Henry, shaking hands on a half when a streaker skedaddled across the green and busted the American's concentration.

But McGinley boasts a jaw-dropping record in the Ryder Cup. A winner as a player in 2002, 2004 and 2006, he had left the stage by the time of Faldo's Farce in 2008 – proof that multiple majors do not guarantee getting the job done – before returning as vice-captain for the victories at Celtic Manor and Medinah. His exact backroom duties for those two wins remain vague but, even if they ran no further than lining up the players' celebratory pints and ensuring his fellow vice-captain Darren Clarke did not get his hands on them, he was considered important enough for Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell and Luke Donald to proselytise vigorously for his elevation to the captaincy.

Maybe it was just time for a change after the high-intensity Colin Montgomerie and José María Olazábal eras. McGinley's relaxed style is a conscious shift down the gears, a throwback to the pint-and-a-pie-and-another-pint populism of Sam Torrance and Ian Woosnam, and one that is probably necessary considering he will be up against someone oozing a similarly insouciant charm.

Whether he will be able to maintain his happy-go-lucky equilibrium is another matter altogether, mind you. Take the legendary American player Lloyd Mangrum, who cut as cool a figure as has ever sashayed down the fairways. There is a shot of him contesting a Masters during the 1940s, leaning up against a tree at Augusta, hair slicked back, a pencil-thin moustache, sucking leisurely on a cheroot as the world went by. The man made Rhett Butler look like Travis Bickle.

Mangrum was given the playing captaincy of the US team in 1953 at Wentworth. He won his foursomes match 8 & 7 but in the singles it soon became apparent that his noggin had gone. He four-putted one green, got involved in a surreal argument with his opponent about the colour of his jumper and lost his match by two holes. His team still won, but only just and only because poor Peter Alliss suffered a golfing nervous breakdown with the cup in his grasp. "I will never, never captain again," stammered Mangrum, "because of the 9,000 deaths I suffered in the last hour."

Such is the pain that awaits our two mild-mannered heroes. There will be no such stresses for European spectators, though. McGinley or Watson? Watson or McGinley? Either way we win. It is the first no-lose Ryder Cup! Providing the weather does not sluice Gleneagles back down the road towards Auchterarder.

Powered by article was written by Scott Murray, for The Observer on Saturday 19th January 2013 21.59 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Gary Denham