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The Golfers Who Should Have Been Ryder Cup Captain

By: | Fri 19 Feb 2021

Progressively growing from its earliest days, the Ryder Cup has developed into a seismic sporting event, one that draws the eyes of millions. That scrutiny brings added focus onto the men who have been chosen to captain Europe and the United States, a position that has become more sophisticated in recent decades. 

Being named captain is a momentous honour and responsibility, one designated for greats of the game and for those who have shown unique aptitude for the demands of leadership in a pressured environment. But there are only so many Ryder Cups and more than enough candidates, an oversubscription of talent that has seen numerous storied names being passed over for the role.

This is further complicated when several figures have been captain on multiple occasions, further reducing opportunities for those waiting for their chance.

In the coming decade, it is expected that the likes of Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Zach Johnson will become captains, but what about those for whom that treasured call to action didn't come?

We have picked out 16 notable golfers - eight Europeans, eight Americans - who never became a Ryder Cup captain.

Sandy Lyle

Sandy Lyle

Two-time major champion and veteran of five Ryder Cups, Lyle was widely expected to follow in the footsteps of his fellow 'Big Five' comrades - Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo - and captain Europe in 2010. Ultimately, the Shropshire Scot was overlooked in favour of Colin Montgomerie, who led the team to victory at Celtic Manor, an omission that has sadly remained uncorrected.

As the pursuit for captains who remained "connected" to the players intensified following Faldo's ill-fated captaincy in 2008, there was a sense that Lyle's time, unfairly, had passed him by, a tremendous shame for a true trailblazer in British golf.

Speaking to the BBC in 2013, Lyle said: "If they want me it'll be most welcome but I'm not going to cry about it or lose any sleep if they don't."

Neil Coles

Undoubtedly one of England's most underappreciated golfers, Neil Coles was among the finest players of the 1960s and 70s, winning dozens of professional tournaments, contending for Open Championships, and was part of eight Ryder Cups. That was despite a noted fear of flying that saw the London-born star sail across the Atlantic for matches in the United States.

Coles was later inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and was Chairman of the European Tour's Board of Directors for decades. The Englishman may not have been suited to the limelight of the captaincy, but he would have certainly commanded respect from his team.

Peter Alliss

Before his legendary career as a broadcaster, Peter Alliss was a magnificent golfer, competing in eight Ryder Cups between 1953 and 1969. He clearly had the profile and charisma to be a captain, perhaps suited to matches in America, but figures like Bernard Hunt, Brian Huggett and John Jacobs held that position through the 1970s before Tony Jacklin transformed the role, closing the window on any opportunity that Alliss would have had to lead the continent. 

Christy O'Connor Snr

An icon of Irish golf, O'Connor played in a staggering ten Ryder Cups, and like Alliss would have been a suitable captain during the 1970s. His distinguished playing career unquestionably merited that honour, but it wasn't meant to be. 

When O'Connor died aged 91 in 2016, then European captain Darren Clarke said: "Christy Senior was a golf icon and a wonderful person as well. He did so much for the game he graced for many years while the Ryder Cup to some extent is what it is today because of his passion for it."

Dave Thomas

Welshmen Dai Rees, Brian Huggett and Ian Woosnam have been captains, but compatriot Dave Thomas arguably should have joined them, a veteran of four Ryder Cups (only losing one of five singles matches) and twice runner-up in the Open Championship, his career ended prematurely due to injury, but he later forged an impressive legacy within course design and captained the PGA during its centenary year in 2001.

Peter Oosterhuis

Claiming 15.5 points and holding a match win percentage of 55.36, the Englishman is rightly considered one of the finest Ryder Cup golfers of his era, coming at a time when the odds were stacked against the non-American side. Few players had a more impressive record, including securing four Order of Merit titles before competing on the PGA Tour until his career tailed off in the 1980s, later becoming a successful broadcaster on television.

Speaking to Golf Digest's Guy Yocom in 2015, Oosterhuis reflected on missing the captaincy: "Living in America so long hurt my chances from the beginning. It didn't help that I'd lost touch with the players. Easy come, easy go. I'd say they've had pretty good success without me, wouldn't you?"

Miguel Angel Jimenez

Miguel Angel Jimenez

Since continental European golfers were incorporated within the Ryder Cup in 1979, only Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Jose Maria Olazabal, and Thomas Bjorn have been captains from outside Britain and Ireland. Some would argue that should be more - and few can be seen as more deserving than Miguel Angel Jimenez.

The colourful Spaniard, who holds the European Tour's appearance record, played in four Ryder Cups, and was a vice-captain in 1997, 2012 and 2014. That's considerable experience to ignore, but whether it's a question of his desire to lead or suitability for the job, the honour has not been bestowed upon Jimenez.

Brian Barnes

Famously beating Jack Nicklaus twice in one day at the 1975 Ryder Cup, Brian Barnes was a formidable competitor in the contest, forming a solid partnership with Bernard Gallacher in a career that spanned six appearances.

Later becoming a two-time winner of the Senior Open, Barnes, who represented Scotland, was highly recognisable for his distinctive sense of style and heavy drinking, something that eventually spiralled out of control, but those demons did nothing to diminish his love for the game.

Speaking to National Club Golfer in 2012, Barnes was asked about the captaincy. "It would have been nice but they decided to pick other people and they have been proved right. Every captain they have chosen has been great."

The likes of Paul Lawrie, Robert Karlsson, Ken Brown, Eamonn Darcy and Howard Clark were also considered for this list...

And what of the United States...

Larry Nelson

After serving in Vietnam as an infantryman, Larry Nelson took up golf and eventually made it onto the PGA Tour aged 27, ultimately winning ten times, with three majors among them. He played in a trio of Ryder Cups and established an exceptional record, including a perfect nine wins from nine matches in 1979 and 1981. 

Later added to the World Golf Hall of Fame and receiving the the PGA Distinguished Service Award from the PGA of America, the fact that such an impressive individual was never asked to become Ryder Cup captain stands as an oddity. 

Speaking in 2012, Nelson said: “It’s not that you sit back and say that you should have been. I think there are plenty of guys that should have been (captain) but have not. It’s just a little bit of a crying shame when you pick someone to do it twice when there are a lot of people out there who haven’t done it once that deserve it.”

Hale Irwin

Hale Irwin

When it comes to all-time greats not being captain, few have a stronger case than Hale Irwin, the three-time U.S. Open winner. Irwin played in five Ryder Cups, won tournaments on six continents, and later became the most successful golfer on the Champions Tour.

Irwin did lead the United States in the first Presidents Cup as a playing captain, but that's no substitute for someone with the achievements of this revered American.

Commenting to Golf Digest, Irwin reflected: "I would love to have been a Ryder Cup captain. It's one of those things every player who values the traditions we have in our game would want to do. Certainly if you're a member of the PGA Tour and have been around the game as long as some of us have and who have played in the Ryder Cup, absolutely I would have loved to have done it. It's not my choice. I never politicked for it. Would I have accepted it? With glee I would have done it."

Gene Littler

Part of seven Ryder Cups, Gene Littler remains one of the finest American golfers who doesn't receive high recognition, a winner of 29 PGA Tour events, including the 1961 U.S. Open. He also finished runner-up at the Masters and PGA Championship in the 1970s, and made his final appearance for the United States in 1975 aged 45.

He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and received the Bob Jones Award, but never did become captain.

Mark O'Meara

Mark O'Meara

The highlight of Mark O'Meara's career came in 1998 when he won the Masters and Open Championship at the age of 41, but the popular American also enjoyed considerable success before and after then, winning 16 events on the PGA Tour and various titles across the world in Europe, Japan, Australia, and the Middle East. O'Meara was an international star and played in five Ryder Cups - but never captained.

Speaking to Golf.com in 2015, O'Meara said: "I was disappointed that I never got the nod to be a Ryder Cup captain. I felt like I let the PGA of America know how interested I was, especially when they went to Ireland [in 2006]. And Tom Lehman got the captaincy over me. Obviously, [the PGA] doesn’t think that I’m qualified enough to be a Ryder Cup captain."   

Gene Sarazen

It's hard to believe that the legendary Gene Sarazen didn't captain the United States, but it's true. The Squire played on the first six Ryder Cup teams before the Second World War, led by Walter Hagen, but when the event returned in 1947, it was Ben Hogan who took on the captaincy.

Despite remaining active in the game through to an advanced age, playing in championships until the 1970s, the great Sarazen never did lead the American team in the Ryder Cup, a strange anomaly in a historic career. 

Jimmy Demaret

Three-time winner of the Masters Tournament, Jimmy Demaret was renowned for his colourful style and personality, and played in three Ryder Cups, but he never captained, for whatever reason. His fellow Texan, Jack Burke Jr, captained America twice, but Demaret wasn't given that accolade, instead transitioning into broadcasting during the 1960s, which is a shame, as his leadership would have certainly been entertaining.

Justin Leonard

Justin Leonard

The Champion Golfer of the Year in 1997, Justin Leonard's Ryder Cup career is best remembered for the extraordinary 45-foot putt he holed on the 17th at Brookline that ultimately completed an incredible comeback victory for America. The aftermath may have been controversial, but the putt itself was sheer magic.

Leonard additionally represented the United States in 1997, and 2008, another triumph. He also played in five Presidents Cup. Thoughtful and an excellent communicator, the Texan has drifted into broadcasting without much fanfare, and hasn't found himself involved as a vice-captain, which is a surprising oversight for someone who seems a potentially quiet, understated but successful figure to lead his country.

The likes of Fred Couples, David Duval, David Toms, Mark Calcavecchia and Stewart Cink were also considered for this list...

So, there are just some names who could have staked a rightful claim to become a Ryder Cup captain. Let us know who you think should be on this list - and where you see the positions going in the future! 

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