Stick to the plan. It may sound simple, but in the face of adversity it was these four words which Captain Thomas Bjørn uttered to his players and back room staff after falling 3-1 behind to the United States after the first morning of The 2018 Ryder Cup.
For many Europeans severe doubt was already starting to creep in following that opening Fourballs session. This American side were just too strong. They had overpowered us at Hazeltine. They had 11 of the world’s top 20 – we only had six. They had won 31 Majors – we had only won eight.
But deep down Bjørn was confident, for this was a side crafted over 22 months. He had experience, team spirit and – significantly – the statistics, hugely in his favour.
He's re-written how captaincy is supposed to be. He's dealt with all the players in such an amazing way, and he's made everyone feel so special, Thomas Bjørn, September 28, 2014.
This was the glowing tribute Bjørn paid to Paul McGinley after Europe trounced their American opponents 16 ½ to 11 ½ at Gleneagles. For Bjørn, then the oldest member of the 12-man team, winning had become a formality in the biennial event, with the ‘Great Dane’ triumphing in his two previous playing appearances in 1997 and 2002.
Two years after those lofty highs Bjørn experienced a crushing low, suffering a heavy defeat for the first time in his Ryder Cup career, acting as a Vice Captain as Darren Clarke’s charges were brutally swept aside 17-11 at Hazeltine National.
That pain wasn’t something Bjørn wanted to feel again. A proud European, The Ryder Cup has always been so much more for Bjørn, and with his continent hurting on the golf course, and divided off it, it was announced in December of 2016 he would be at the helm in Paris in 2018.
The identity of Europe in The Ryder Cup comes from the team; how they see themselves, through different countries, as Europe coming together. That, for me, is a thing The Ryder Cup does so well. It brings us together, Thomas Bjørn, September 21, 2018.
How would he go about bringing his team together?
There would be the nurturing of new talent, the reassuring of an out-of-form Sergio Garcia, and the reintegration of Paul Casey into the European fold, to come.
But straight from the start Bjørn’s first big call was to make sports statistics specialists 15th Club central to every part of his decision-making process.
Immediately changes were made. There would be four Captain’s picks, not three or two, as historically those chosen performed better than those taking the final qualification spots.
This was just the beginning. Over the next 22 months Bjørn and the team at 15th Club examined all the potential candidates for his side forensically, always weighing up their performances in tournaments against a multitude of factors.
“Thomas welcomed us from the start,” said, Blake Wooster, the Chief Executive Officer of 15th Club.
“He was to prove a brilliant Captain throughout – and he also had a team of Vice Captains who would frequently ask us to crunch the numbers to answer difficult questions.
“Debates could be anything from ‘how important is experience in the Ryder Cup versus form?’ to ‘what are the most important factors that determine success in Foursomes and Fourballs?’
“It speaks for Thomas’ leadership that he naturally created an environment for rigorous and open discussion, with all of us totally focused on one common goal: a victory for Team Europe.”
The first hurdle for Bjørn came in January of 2018, at Glenmarie Golf and Country Club in Malaysia, where he captained Europe for the first time in the EurAsia Cup.
With his first big decision he chose Paul Casey as a wildcard pick to form part of his 12-man side, which in turn saw the Englishman represent his continent for the first time in a decade.
As it transpired the event was a success, with Europe beating Asia by 14 to 10, and the likes of Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and Alex Noren gaining vital match play experience in a team environment.
There was also a chance to get an early look at a partner for Casey. He was paired with his compatriot Hatton and they intriguingly won the one match they played together in the Far East.
As the qualification race heated up in the summer of 2018 it was becoming increasingly clear who would be leading the line for Bjørn in Paris.
Francesco Molinari had held off the challenge of Rory McIlroy to win the BMW PGA Championship, finished second in his National Open and landed a top-25 at the U.S. Open, but had opted to play in the US for two weeks in the build up to The Open Championship.
With no qualification points on offer in the two events he teed up in across the Atlantic, Bjørn contacted the Italian who had a fine record at Le Golf National – a trio of runner-up French Open finishes – and a great relationship with Fleetwood.
Bjørn wanted him in his side – something he made clear – a move which paid off handsomely with a determined Molinari going on to win The Open.
“I was a bit like, is this the right move?” Bjørn said. “I spoke to him about it and he was like: ‘Well, I have to do this for how my year’s planning out,’ so I said to him: ‘I’m a little bit worried about it because I really want you to be on this team.’ I really did on this golf course because I thought it suited him perfectly.
“I had the conversation with him and he said: ‘For me I have to do this but I promise you I will make the team.’ I got a message on the Sunday night after The Open saying: ‘Is this good enough?’”
As the identity of the eight automatic qualifiers became clear, all attention turned to the Captain’s Picks. The statistics had said four as it was best to encourage flexibility, but in doing so this also opened up the potential for far more scrutiny on the one choosing.
Stenson, Poulter, Casey and Garcia all in. No place for the in-form Matt Wallace, who had won three times on the European Tour that year. Neither for the likes of Rafa Cabrera Bello and Thomas Pieters, both bright sparks who emerged from the gloom of Hazeltine with their reputations intact.
While much maligned at the time for favouring experience – particularly the choice of Garcia – these were arguably the key decisions which won Europe The Ryder Cup, with that quartet later earning a remarkable 9.5 points on the formidable L’Albatros course.
“People tend to underestimate the level of work that goes into making such crucial selection decisions,” said Wooster, the CEO of 15th Club.
“Some in the media suggested he had gone for the easy option by picking his friend. We knew, however, that like all good leaders he had done his due diligence.”
With his 12 players locked in, focus shifted to the pairings.
Here Wooster gives further insight into the strategy behind Bjørn’s big decisions:
“While the pairings for the opening day’s matches were a combination of knowledge and data, we used the numbers to identify at least two optimal pairings options – for both Fourballs and Foursomes – for each player, in order to give the Captain flexibility.
“Some of the key decisions included: deciding to pair Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton in Fourballs; selecting Henrik Stenson in Foursomes only – and ideally as an approach-heavy partner with Justin Rose; picking Ian Poulter as an approach-heavy partner with Rory McIlroy in Foursomes; and recommending that Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood played four times together as they suited the course – and each other – so well.”
Despite the early setback the statistics showed the 3-1 score line after the opening morning didn’t tell the full story, as Wooster explains:
“On that first morning, for example, Casey and Hatton lost their Fourballs match on the final hole.
“However the data showed that Casey was the top performer in the team – gaining +5.83 strokes on the field, while Hatton gained +1.33 (putting him third).
“Our analysis demonstrated that – despite the scoreboard – both players were playing well and they were confident selections for the Saturday morning Fourballs, where they beat Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler 3&2.
“Again, it showed that it is often best to ignore the superficial result and stick to the plan.”
‘Stick to the plan’ worked emphatically that afternoon – and for the rest of the weekend.
A fresh Stenson shined in the Foursomes with Rose, Poulter proved to be an ideal partner for McIlroy, Molinari and Fleetwood made it two wins from two, and the experienced Garcia helped guide rookie Noren to a first Ryder Cup point. A 4-0 win. Europe’s best-ever Foursomes session. The tide had turned – and the rest is history.
While hugely important, stats alone did not win The Ryder Cup for Bjørn – something Wooster stresses:
“The strength of your models, while clearly important, is really just one part of the jigsaw.
“Successfully executing a plan depends on multiple pieces. Often it is as much about emotional intelligence and strong relationships as analytical expertise.”
Nurturing and building such strong bonds was pivotal to Europe’s triumph. They weren’t just 12 men, they represented a continent coming together – something encapsulated by Bjørn’s decision to have a quote widely attributed to David Rocastle, the former Arsenal footballer, written in the team room, which read: ‘remember who you are, what you are and who you represent’.
This was not the only piece of wisdom inscribed in that key space. Bjørn also included a quote from every living Ryder Cup Captain – along with one of his own: ‘he is why we are here today, go out and make him proud’ above the late, great Seve Ballesteros's golf bag – the final thing each player saw before they left the dressing room.
Bjørn’s superb man management did not stop there. First there was the moving motivational video featuring Ryder Cup royalty Brian Huggett, Sam Torrance and José María Olazabal, played to his side the night before the raucousness of the first tee.
Then there were the video messages from Ryder Cup finishers Colin Montgomerie, Paul McGinley, Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer, shown to his team on the eve of the Sunday Singles.
The result was 17 ½ to 10 ½, Europe’s second-largest margin of victory over the US.
Thomas has been incredible. Just over the past two years, he's been great. He's been in constant contact with all the guys that were either going to be on the team or on the periphery, and he's built up a real rapport within the squad. Not just with the players and himself but within the players, as well. We've had this WhatsApp group going for a few weeks now, and it's been a bit of a love-in for the last week, I'll tell you that, Rory McIlroy, September 30, 2018.
A WhatsApp group full of party photos, the promise of a tattoo on his rear and The Ryder Cup trophy. Three months ago Captain Bjørn left Paris with plenty, and as the mastermind behind one of Europe’s most impressive vcitories, his legacy will live on for many years to come.