With Henrik Stenson being stripped of the 2023 Ryder Cup captaincy following his switch to LIV Golf, it has fallen to Luke Donald to pick up the baton to lead Team Europe into battle in Rome. Here, the Hertfordshire-born 45-year-old lays out his thoughts on taking the captain’s reins at short notice, the on-going issues around team selection, and how he plans to win back the cup
I know it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, but how does it feel to be a second choice Ryder Cup captain?
I can’t pretend that I wasn’t disappointed when I wasn’t selected first time around in March, as I thought I was in with a decent chance, but I’m delighted, excited and extremely honoured to have been given the chance to lead the team into Rome in 2023.
Obviously, the circumstances around Henrik’s situation are well known, but it is what it is. Sometimes in life we’re given second chances, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to making the most of the one that I have been handed.
This is something I’ve always wanted to do, so when I was offered the chance, I grabbed it. I’ve had amazing experiences in Ryder Cups, and in many ways this [the captaincy] feels like a lifetime achievement award; a reward for everything I’ve done in my Ryder Cup career, so to be a part of it again is truly special.
I’ve been involved in six Ryder Cups – four in a playing capacity and two as a vice-captain – and I’ve learnt a lot along the way. Some of the best experiences of my career have been at Ryder Cups, so I’m excited. I’ve got 12 months ahead of me and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.
Given the shorter lead time that you will have as captain, what’s the most pressing thing to get sorted ahead of the next September’s matches?
I think we will have plenty of time to get everything in order. There are obviously some unknowns right now, but I’ll have to just deal with those as they come along. First and foremost, we needed to sort out the qualification criteria and we’ve done that now.
You’ve opted for six wildcards, with three automatic places from the world points list and three from the DP World Tour points list, as well as some changes to the points weighting behind some of the events. Are you confident that will give you the strongest team?
The changes to the qualification process follow in-depth analysis with the team at Ryder Cup Europe and I’m delighted that when we presented our thoughts to the Tournament Committee, they were 100% behind them. The revised overall process removes the need for points multipliers in the last few months of the qualifying period, and the six picks give me flexibility to ensure we have the strongest line-up at Marco Simone in terms of in-form players, players with Ryder Cup experience and potential pairings.
As far as the European Points List is concerned, modifying the points allocation will give an improved chance for DP World Tour members playing predominantly on the DP World Tour to make the Ryder Cup team through one of the now three spots available from that list. We have also moved the end of the qualification period forward to give the players the right amount of preparation time once they have made the team.
We are all focused on reclaiming the Ryder Cup in Rome next September and this qualification system gives us the best opportunity of doing just that.
What is your personal position as to whether those players who have gone to LIV Golf should be available for selection for the Ryder Cup team, either as players or vice-captains?
I’m not here really to talk about LIV Golf and whether they will be eligible or not. That remains to be seen, as there are legal appeals currently going on, but part of my role as captain is to create a strong and unified team, and I’ll be working on that as we build towards the matches. Hopefully, we’ll soon have some clarity on the situation [regarding LIV Golf players] and we can start making some decisions about the team when the picture becomes clearer.
Given that the American Ryder Cup team may lose a third of its 2021 winning team due to LIV Golf, how balanced do you think that the two teams might be in 2023?
Well, it’s hard to answer hypothetical questions. I think our top guys against their top guys match out pretty well, to be honest. I think there’s room for some great young players to show form over the next year, and I’m glad we do have a year to find those players. The Ryder Cup has always come down to fine margins, even when the final points tallies have been skewed one way or another. I know last year wasn’t that close judged by the end result, but it felt like the matches were a lot closer out on the course. Ryder Cups are always close, no matter where the players are in the rankings, and we’ll certainly be ready to take on whoever the US has in its team.
Did LIV Golf ever approach you to join their tour?
They have not approached me with a contract to play on the LIV Golf Series, but they did reach out to me very early on in the process about being a broadcast commentator, which I quickly said I wasn’t interested in. That’s all in the past and right now I want to keep moving forward. I’ve been gifted this opportunity to be Ryder Cup captain and this is my only goal, my only interest, over the next 14 months.
You played in last year’s Italian Open at Marco Simone, host venue for the 2023 Ryder Cup. What sort of a test do you think that course will present for the teams next September?
Yes, I played last year, and I’ll be playing again this year. I think it’s going to be an amazing golf course and an amazing venue. There are lots of great vantage points for crowds to watch the action. Obviously, I’ll be meeting with my vice captains and the Ryder Cup Committee over the next few weeks and thinking about how we can set up the course, but I think it’s going to be a great venue.
What do you think is going to be the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part for me will be to get these 12 guys into the team room in a very motivated, unified way. There are obviously some distractions going on, but there’s been lots of Ryder Cups where there have been issues for captains to deal with. We saw that last year with the pandemic and then in 2001 we had to deal with the fall-out from the terrorist attacks of 9/11. You know, these things happen, and we’ll just have to deal with them in the best possible way.
Having been at Whistling Straits as a vice-captain, how would you sum up the size of the task on your hands on a purely playing perspective to get that trophy back?
Well, I think the European Tour and the Ryder Cup Committee have a great template in place. We have had a lot of success over the years. We’ve won seven of the last ten, nine of the last 13, so last year’s defeat was very disappointing. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
It was the first time I was ever on a losing team and it’s not nice. But sometimes failure can really motivate you, and I certainly know that the players will be motivated to win back the cup, and I will be doing everything I can to get those guys in the right frame of mind to put us in a position to do that.
We had some things going against us last year, obviously COVID, and not having the travelling support that we usually do at an away match. So hopefully this time will be a little bit easier in terms of having great crowd support. I’m excited for it to be in Rome. The Italian fans are very passionate and I’m sure we’ll lots of fans travel from all over Europe.
You’ve obviously played most of your golf in recent seasons on the PGA Tour. How much of a challenge is it going to be to get to know these young guys that are going to be the new era for Europe, and how much time will you spend on the DP World Tour?
I certainly plan to be over in Europe more than I usually would do, and I’ll be meeting the guys and getting to know them better. I obviously know a lot of the players that have played in previous Ryder Cups, but it will be important for me to get over to Europe and catch up with these younger guys and really get them in the right frame of mind that this could be a new opportunity for a new generation to step up and make this team. I’ll be trying to really persuade them to be stepping up their schedules and playing some good golf.
Who are the younger players that you think might break through into the team next year?
I think there’s a lot of young talent out there. We’ve obviously got a lot of guys who played last year. We have some experienced players like Thomas Pieters, Thorbjørn Olesen, and some younger guys, like the Højgaard twins. Obviously, I would love Francesco [Molinari] to make that team. To be in Italy, that would be an amazing thing for himself and for me.
Do you feel like this could be a major changing of the guard in terms of how the European team looks going forward?
There are always shifts in the make-up of Ryder Cup teams, we saw that with the American side last year, and I think we’re probably going to see that with our team next year. I think that’s just a natural shift that happens in Ryder Cup teams.
We certainly had a lot of experience at Whistling Straits, but I’m sure those more experienced players still feel like they are capable of making the team. Then again, this is a great opportunity for the younger guys to qualify. So if I was a young European competing on the DP World Tour, I would be very excited about the opportunity to show how good I am and if what I’ve got is good enough to make the European Ryder Cup team.
Several past Ryder Cup captains have sought advice from managers and leading figures in other sports. I wonder whether Sarina Wiegman, manager of the Lionesses, might be on your ‘to-call list’ after England’s win in the Euros?
I was flying back from Detroit during the Euro finals, so I didn’t watch the match, but obviously we’re all extremely proud of what the Lionesses achieved. Any time I can talk to someone who is able to have such a success around a team is going to be worthwhile. I think you can see such comparisons between something like the Lionesses and the Ryder Cup. I’m sure I’ll be reaching out to many people who have had a lot of success in that team environment, one being Sarina.
The Lionesses made history, and they will inspire a generation. And that’s what really inspires me about the Ryder Cup – the chance to inspire future generations. I certainly remember a lot of my shots in Ryder Cups much more than I do in individual tournaments, because we are playing for something bigger than ourselves.
Your last Ryder Cup as a player was at Medinah in 2012. Is it a source of frustration that you haven’t been in the team as a player in recent years?
As an individual player, you always have aspirations of playing at the highest level, but my golf has not been as good as I would have liked the last few years. I’m 45 now, but I know that other players are still playing decent golf at that age, but just hasn’t been the case for me. If you had asked me after Medinah whether that would be my last Ryder Cup, I would have said you were crazy. That’s how fickle this game is. I still have aspirations of competing and doing well at the highest level, but
What’s your most abiding memory from the six Ryder Cups you’ve been involved in?
I’ve been fortunate to be a part of five winning teams, so the celebrations at the end are always fun. I got to play Oakland Hills last week for a corporate thing, and that was my first Ryder Cup in 2004. I remember the party in the Irish bar afterwards was pretty memorable.
From a personal playing standpoint, maybe the 7-iron I hit into the 17th at Medinah against Tiger and Steve Stricker when I was playing with Sergio. Maybe the bunker shot on 17 at Medinah, too, against Bubba Watson, and putting that first point on the board leading out Europe.
You’ve played and worked alongside six different Ryder Cup captains. What kind of captain will you be and who do you think of those past captain’s you’re most like?
Well, I enjoyed having my first Ryder Cup under Bernhard Langer in 2004. He certainly crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s. I felt like I always knew where I was with him. He was very detail orientated, and I think a lot of the players, including the rookies, were very motivated to play under him.
I suppose I’m somewhere between Langer and a José Maria Olazábal. I think I’m a detail-oriented person. I like to figure things out in my head without blurting them out. José was certainly more of a quiet leader, and I think that will be kind of my stance. That’s my nature. Between those two, I’m guessing I’ll be on the phone to both of them and getting some ideas for my captaincy.