Paul McGinley blog 12 2013: 2002's winning putt

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In his latest blog post for EY, Europe’s Ryder Cup captain recalls the putt he made to win The Ryder Cup for Europe in 2002.

Back in 2002, Paul McGinley played in Europe’s Ryder Cup team, under the captaincy of Sam Torrance. Like most recent matches, this one was close. On the final afternoon of play, it became clear that the singles match between McGinley and Jim Furyk of the US could prove decisive. In front of expectant team-mates, and hundreds of millions of TV viewers around the world, McGinley stood on the 18th green at The Belfry, with the fate of The Ryder Cup in his hands.

Here, Paul reveals how he removed distractions from his mind and prepared to hit the putt of his life.

The build up

The real story begins on the previous hole. I was one down against Jim Furyk, playing the 17th. He had a 12-foot putt and I had a 10-foot putt, both for birdies. He missed. It left me with a putt to go all-square. I knew the points score was really close. I didn’t know how close it was, or how important my match was at that stage. I didn’t know whether or not it would be the winning point. But I was very much aware that my match was going to be hugely important. I stood over the putt on 17 and I holed it. So now it’s all-square playing the last.

On 18, we both missed the green left. Sam Torrance had spoken to me the night before and assured me that the reason why I was playing such a pivotal role in the team was because he knew that I could come through for him in a high-pressure situation. I’d done so the day before. On the Saturday afternoon, I played with Darren Clarke against Scott Hoch and Jim Furyk. I won the last hole to halve the match, which meant the teams were level going into the last day. On the back of that, Sam put me in that pivotal role in the singles.

So when I walked across the bridge on the 18th, Sam walked with me and explained why I was in this position. He asked me to do it for him and do it for the team. Immediately, rather than think “oh my god, all the pressure is on me”, I had a real sense of loyalty toward him. He’d instilled loyalty toward him and the team – and it made me doubly determined to get the ball up and down. As I walked by Jim’s ball, I could see that he had a pretty straightforward bunker shot – although the circumstances made sure it wasn’t that easy. Immediately, I thought he’s definitely going to get up and down from there and I need to get mine up and down too.

The 18th green

He nearly holed his bunker shot, but it went about 15 inches past the hole. By this stage, I’d chipped on to about 12 feet from the pin. I remember looking at his putt and I thought: he could miss that. It was downhill, 15 inches. With the nerves and the situation, he could miss it. Then, immediately, I had a second thought. No – give him the putt. Clear the decks mentally. Rather than think “oh well, if I miss it, he might miss his”, I wanted to have clarity in my head. So I said: “That’s ok, Jim.” I gave him the putt. And he looked at me as if to say: “Are you sure?” I repeated: “That’s ok, Jim.” He looked at me again as he bent down to pick up his ball. I indicated for him to pick it up. So he did.

Now, the odds are he wasn’t going to miss it. But the point about it is that, in my own head, I had a clear thought that I wanted to clear the decks here. It’s up to me, or it’s not up to me. I’m going to do it, or I’m not. I don’t want to think: well I might miss and he might miss. As I read the putt, I remember my caddy started talking to me about the line. I said: “I got it.” He continued talking and I said again, raising my voice: “I got it.”

The putt

If you look back at the video, I hit the putt extremely quickly. And not because I was nervous – although I was. It was because I had formed a picture in my head of what I needed to do. I envisaged the ball breaking about six inches left to right across the hill. I knew it was a sliding putt. So when I stood over it, I saw the line. I saw what I had to do.

People ask me if I knew that I was going to hole the putt. And the answer is no. But I did know I was going to hit a great putt. I didn’t think: this is going to be a piece of cake, I’m definitely going to make it. I didn’t think that way. It could have hit a spike mark, it could have lipped out of the hole. But I knew that I was going to make a great effort at the putt. And that was very comforting.

The second thing people ask is whether I was nervous. Of course I was nervous. But I can honestly say that there was also a huge sense of excitement. I couldn’t wait to hit the putt. I remember hitting the putt – and it felt like I hit it so hard. Because I hit it so firmly, as I looked up it was about two-and-a-half feet away from the hole. It was tracking in left to right. I just knew then, because there was such a true roll on the ball, there was no way that it could miss.

The aftermath

As the putt went in the hole I raised my arms in the air. And you know when they say time stands still? Well, time did seem to stand still. I remember having two thoughts. First of all, why are my teammates not jumping on top of me? I knew they were close to me, by the edge of the green. And then I had a second thought. Remember, my arms were in the air and I was looking to the sky. And suddenly I thought: maybe it lipped out. Maybe it didn’t go in the hole. Just as this thought went through my head, I think it was Sergio Garcia who was the first to jump on top of me. And then everyone in the team jumped on me.

That was what I honestly thought as I put my arms in the air. Now, if you watch the video footage, it was only two seconds between the ball going in and the players jumping on top of me. But it felt like an eternity.

The truly great sportsmen have the ability to feel excitement rather than nerves in the highest-pressure situations. I couldn’t feel that enough in my career. I wish I had. I’ve been in a lot of pressure situations when I felt only pure nerves. The excitement wasn’t the same. It was pure fear. Whenever I played in the Ryder Cup, I’ve had that great sense of excitement in high-pressure moments. But I’ve played in individual events where it hasn’t been there.

The true greats – the likes of Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan – get such a thrill out of the excitement of the high-pressure situation they are in. That, I think, is what distinguishes phenomenal people under pressure.

The views of third parties set out in this publication are not necessarily the views of the global EY organization or its member firms. Moreover, they should be seen in the context of the time they were made.