Captains commence phoney war
A phoney war is being waged in Wales as Ryder Cup captains Colin Montgomerie and Corey Pavin lock horns for three days of bluff and intrigue at Celtic Manor.
Every utterance, every action will be scrutinised for signs of strength or weakness in the build-up to Friday's first tee-off.
The pair will compete in a series of challenges designed to test ambassadorial skills, leadership qualities, public speaking ability, charm... and a thorough knowledge of golf with specific reference to the matchplay format.
"I think the captains are more important than the players," said Padraig Harrington recently. "If Monty can get the pairings right and get the atmosphere going, we will win - and vice versa with Corey Pavin."
Whether you agree that the captain's role is key to the whole event, or think that he is just an overblown figurehead, there's no denying the sport of captain-watching makes for fascinating viewing.
Montgomerie has already admitted he has opted not to set up the course specifically to favour the Europeans; Pavin revealed he hasn't yet written a speech for the opening ceremony. Are these missed tricks, or just incidental irrelevances?
"The captains are forever trying to get an edge," says former Ryder Cup player and 1999 assistant captain Ken Brown. "'My speech was slightly better than your speech, my shoes are shinier than your shoes...' Each little ingredient, even if only in your own mind, is to give your team a little edge."
When Montgomerie and Pavin faced the media at Celtic Manor on Monday, the former assumed the air of a headmaster, revelling in the attention and the elder statesman role, a little too pleased with his own jokes, perhaps, but in formidable form.
The slightly built Pavin, quietly spoken, stared impassively ahead until questioned, interjecting answers with a gentle humour, almost unrecognisable from the moustachioed army-cap wearer from Kiawah Island in 1991. The old college nickname "Bulldog", though, suggests inner steel.
The pair first came under real scrutiny back when the team qualification process was nearing its climax. And while Pavin came through the wildcard wrangles relatively unscathed despite the will-he, won't he teaser over Tiger, Montgomerie is still trying to live down his decision not to pick Paul Casey.
The Englishman climbed to seventh in the world after finishing fourth in the finale of the FedEx Cup series on the US Tour on Sunday. If one of Montgomerie's side should drop out through illness or injury before 1500 BST on Thursday, he can select a replacement - but Casey has made it clear he will be mountain biking in Canada.
Pavin's chief issue at this stage is making sure wildcard Woods toes the party line and doesn't opt for his usual dawn practices away from the others.
The captains' first task was to issue a rallying call to their men on Monday night, as the players and backroom staff gathered in their respective team rooms in the temporary pavilion running along the left of the 18th fairway.
Europe have prided themselves on having superior team spirit but the noises coming from Nick Faldo's camp in 2008 were that the atmosphere was somewhat lacking, with Graeme McDowell revealing the "team room was not fizzing as it should have been".
Montgomerie's view, probably shared by the vast majority of the general public, is emphatic on that score. "If they [the players] need motivating, they shouldn't be here," he barked, his face suddenly as dark as the skies above the Usk Valley.
Faldo's counterpart at Valhalla, Paul Azinger, employed his by now famous pod system, borrowed from the US Navy Seals, placing his players in three groups of four to bring them closer together and develop camaraderie.
Was this the key to success, or was it a coincidence that his players performed better? We'll never know, but Pavin hasn't stuck with it.
The American's hardest job, he reckons, is to calm his young team down. "The guys are so excited to be here," he said.
The intrigue will ramp up over the next three days as the captains experiment with different groups, trying the nail the combinations without giving too much away.
They will finally put us out of our misery at Thursday's opening ceremony, an occasion which has taken on inflated significance over the years.
There have been good speeches and bad but the relationship between a captain's oratorial skills and a player's ability to hole a downhill double-breaker from 15 feet have yet to be fully researched. Suffice to say it is all part of the psychological warfare.
Montgomerie, who, like Sam Torrance in 2002, has prepared both a winning and losing speech for Sunday night, said a well-presented opener is crucial: "My job is to make sure my team leave thinking to themselves, 'Captain Monty, we'll be alright in his hands."
Pavin admitted hasn't got one speech yet, never mind two. "I just like to jot down a few notes and just speak from the heart," he said.
So what of the pairings for Friday morning?
Montgomerie has already revealed some of his hand, saying he knows his opening four groups, and has made no secret of the fact that the Molinari brothers will play together at some stage, as will Northern Irishmen McDowell and Rory McIlroy. That should narrow down the guesswork over the next few days, at any rate.
Montgomerie and Pavin face questions from the media. Photo: Getty Images
But what is it that the skippers are looking for in a pairing?
"Partnerships are all about chemistry," said McDowell. "Knowing each other's games, knowing how to interact with one another on the golf course. Having a good friendship is another factor. If we need lifting, we can. If we need calming down, we can."
The two different formats also play a role in determining pairings. Fourballs - where both partners play their own ball and take the lowest score - is all about making birdies and generally favours a more aggressive player. Foursomes - where they play one ball and hit alternate shots - requires a steadier approach.
"There's no magic answer," says Brown. "The key is players in form playing with people they feel comfortable with. I don't think the format really makes a huge difference."
How often a captain keeps any of the pairs together is another question and will largely depend on results.
"The key to being a good captain is being very open-minded and flexible," says Brown, who came close to taking over as captain in 1999 only for Mark James to just miss out on qualifying for his own team. "In theory, you can have automatic pairings but if one player is not playing very well you need a plan B and plan C."
James was heavily criticised for leaving out three players - Andrew Coltart, Jarmo Sandelin and Jean van de Velde - for the first two days of the 1999 contest at Brookline. His side led 10-6 going into the singles but were eventually beaten 14-5-13.5.
"It is my belief that using just the minimum of eight players over the first four sessions would be the right tactic if it gained you the maximum number of Friday and Saturday points," says Torrance.
However, Montgomerie has already pledged to give all 12 players an outing on the first day, while Pavin is keeping his options open.
If getting the pairings right is the number one priority for the captain, nailing the singles order must rank second.
Torrance's captaincy is hailed as the benchmark in 2002, when, with the sides locked at 8-8, he sent out Montgomerie first and loaded his top order with strength.
US captain Curtis Strange was shell-shocked when it became clear the match may be over before his big guns Woods and Phil Mickelson could fire. And so it proved as Europe ran out convincing 15.5-12.5 winners.
According to Brown, this now seemingly obvious tactic of front-loading was borne out of the 1999 defeat. Then, James peppered his strength throughout but was scuppered when the US mounted a dazzling comeback, winning the first six matches.
Brown says that, in hindsight, they concluded that the order was a mistake.
Faldo's singles order was also criticised in 2008, with Harrington and Lee Westwood held back until the end. But while hindsight is 100% accurate, it's also 100% useless. How could the skipper have foreseen, for example, that Sergio Garcia would surrender so tamely in the first group?
"You can really overthink it," says Brown. "No matter how good the captain is, if your team doesn't play the best, you're not going to win."
Montgomerie and Pavin will have learnt many lessons from past captains and watching them negotiate the Ryder Cup minefield will be intriguing, and great fun. But, in the final analysis, it's how the 24 blokes holding the clubs get on that really matters.