How to Lead Any Team to Victory

Paul McGinley lays out his blueprint for building, motivating and captaining a winning Ryder Cup side

His playing résumé was solid: four European Tour wins and three Ryder Cup victories, including holing the winning putt for Europe in 2002 at The Belfry. But Paul McGinley’s greatest mark on the game came as captain of the 2014 European Ryder Cup side. His style and methods in guiding his team to a 16 ½ to 11 ½ thumping of the Americans still reverberate today.

Paul McGinley will never be topped as captain,” four-time Ryder Cupper Eamonn Darcy said in 2017. “Tony [Jacklin] lifted it up another level, there’s no doubt about that…but he didn’t have the detail that McGinley had.” In 2023, Shane Ryan of Golf Digest devoted a podcast to McGinley’s triumph titled, “The Massacre at Gleneagles: When Paul McGinley schooled Tom Watson at the Ryder Cup.”

So what was his secret? The following are McGinley’s keys to leading a winning team. Let the record show that whether your team competes alone in a cubicle or on Marco Simone Golf and Country Club in front of millions, these lessons apply just the same. 

Episode 73: Lessons in Leadership with Paul McGinley The Golfer's Journal Podcast

Create an Unburdened Environment

The three captains I played under in the Ryder Cup—Sam Torrance, Bernhard Langer, and Ian Woosnam—were all great in their own ways. There’s no one way of captaining. But the one I learned most from and the one I was closest to in terms of what I did was Sam Torrance. 

Sam was a great communicator. Of course, the role of a Ryder Cup captain is putting groups and strategies together, but more than anything else—and this is a little bit of the secret sauce of what we do in Europe—my role as captain is to create a platform for these guys to go out unburdened and be creative. 

You’ve got to create the environment. If you layer them down with too much structure and you don’t make it simple, you create all kinds of complexities and you’re not going to get a performance out of them. 

For me, a Ryder Cup captain creates a brilliant platform. Most of it happens away from the golf course, in the team rooms. You’re creating a fun environment and an unburdened environment, so they are like greyhounds. Did you ever see a greyhound before he goes? As the hare is going around the track, he’s gnawing at the box for the box to open and then go and chase the hare. That’s the attitude you want from the players. 

Make it Fun

Of course, there’s a billion people watching and all the pressure that goes with it, but the players have got to be excited about it. You’ve got to create an environment of excitement rather than fear. That’s what I felt I did, and a lot of that comes from good communication, integrity, dealing with them in an honest way, and having fun. Putting them in a place where they’re going to play the best golf. If anything, the common denominator between all the teams I’ve been involved in has been fun. 

Sam Torrance (center) pops the bubbly with Paul Way (left) and Ian Woosnam (right) after Europe claimed the 1985 Ryder Cup. (Photo by Phil Sheldon/Popperfoto via Getty Images)

Treat Individuals as Individuals

Everybody’s very, very different. You’re coming with 12 guys who’ve got skills and who are mentally trained from a very young age to be individuals. They’re not trained to be part of a team. One of my things that I was big on was keeping them individuals, keeping their mindset in the individuals. Don’t make them too much of a team because they’re not trained that way.

In the evening, I didn’t have a sit-down dinner. I had a buffet running from 5 o’clock to 10 o’clock. If you want to eat at 5 o’clock, off you go. If you want to eat at 10 o’clock and have a glass of wine, off you go, you do your own thing. 

The first time all 12 guys had been in the same room together was the Monday of the Ryder Cup. You’re not going to turn these guys into amazing teammates all of a sudden. You put them together, but you make sure that they’re also in their own heads and let them go and play and keep it really simple. 

If you try to make them a team player and it’s all about your partner—you have to read the putts, help with the clubs they’re going to hit, talk to the caddy and keep the spirits up—they’re all things that they don’t do on a week-to-week basis. My message to them was the opposite: “I don’t want to see four people reading the same putt. Whatever you do on a week-to-week basis, that’s what you do in the Ryder Cup.” 

I let them all have their own team in, whether it be their own masseuses, physiotherapists, psychologists, whatever they would do. I made all of those guys part of the team as well and let the players have access to them to keep them in that bubble. It’s easy to overcomplicate it and become too much of a team because, of course, it’s important to be a team, but the best part, the easiest way to be a team, is if you’re an individual first and you deliver for yourself individually. 

Rory McIlroy Hazeltine
Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed put on an unforgettable show at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Expect Adversity

I’m a very visual person, and we had a lot of big images hung around the team room in Gleneagles. The players were inspired when they were back in the team room. I put carpet on the floor with the Ryder Cup logo on it. All the players had big images around the team room, the locker room, the meeting rooms—some of them were 6 foot by 6 foot. 

We had a picture of a rock in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of a raging storm. The waves are belting up against it. It’s off the coast in Ireland. It’s getting battered by the sea and the elements, but it’s not moving. Underneath the message was, “We will be the rock when the storm comes.” Because when you’re playing against America, it’s going to get tough. Expect it. Don’t expect this to be an easy ride where we win the first session 4-nil, and we run off into the sunset and win. Expect adversity. 

Be the Hunter, Not the Hunted

In my meeting room, right behind where I stood, was a faceless hand holding the Ryder Cup. This was to deal with the expectation of us being slight favorites to win at Gleneagles. For the first time ever, a European team was going to be favorites. It was about complacency. 

The point about it is, and what the media would’ve been saying, was that we’d won seven of the previous nine Ryder Cups before I became captain in 2014. It’s easy to get run off and thinking, “Yes, we’ve got this thing licked, we’re going to keep on winning.” 

So I had this faceless hand holding the Ryder Cup, and out of the Ryder Cup was this huge big scroll. On that scroll was the year the Ryder Cup started, and every subsequent Ryder Cup that was played after it, and beside it was the flag of the winning team. In recent times, yes, seven out of the last nine have been blue, but look how many America have got on the left-hand side. 

We are the ones chasing them. They’ve won far more Ryder Cups than we have historically. It’s not about being defensive and being a bit worried or a bit complacent—we still have a lot of work to do to catch up with the amount of Ryder Cups that America have won. Being the hunter, not the hunted, being on the front foot rather than defending. 

You Don’t All Have to Get Along

Not all of our players always get on. They compete against each other. They’re not always best buddies. That’s where one-on-one communication is really important. My communication with somebody like Martin Kaymer, for example, [in 2014] was around the fact that he was German, and yes, Ian Poulter is English, and German and English don’t necessarily always get on with each other. You don’t have to be best friends with Ian Poulter. You don’t have to spend time with Ian Poulter. That’s not a problem. 

Not that there’s any problem with Ian Poulter, they’ve both got on well. I said, “Look, Martin, you are here playing for Europe, but this is not Europe you’re representing. You’re representing your town, your village, your country of Germany. Everybody in Germany is tuning in to see what Martin Kaymer is doing.”

Engage the Heart

I made it my business to get to know all the players as individuals, not just golfers. I had all the stats to show where they were as golfers, but the real secret of managing people is managing their personality and managing them as individuals. Saying, “You’re not representing this faceless big blue flag that wraps around everybody. Let’s forget about that. Let’s go into who you really are, what you represent, where you come from.” 

2014 Ryder Cup, Gleneagles, Scotland
The 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. Photo: Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Back to Martin Kaymer, I said, “When you’re on tee boxes and you’re standing over a 6-foot putt, just picture the scene in the pubs and in the restaurants and in the houses all over Germany, and in your town, in your village. That’s who you’re representing.” 

It’s just a way of getting him engaged in something that’s really close to his heart, which is obviously his country. We’re all proud of where we come from. Germany had won the World Cup soccer that year, 2014, and he’s a big soccer fan. I said, “Those guys are heroes; you will be a hero, Martin.” 

And that just doesn’t happen. I spoke to [Martin’s team] separately, asked them questions and got to know his family background and what inspires him. That’s what I did with all of the players. I knew all the players and I learned a lot of it from the teams around them.