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The Gift of Empathy
John Garrity
September 28, 1998
Why Judy Rankin ranks so high with the Solheim Cup rank and file
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September 28, 1998

The Gift Of Empathy

Why Judy Rankin ranks so high with the Solheim Cup rank and file

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Let's give Judy Rankin the sandcastle test. Take her down to the beach. Give her some pails, spoons and Popsicle sticks. Tell her to build something. My guess is, we'll come back in three hours to find her putting the final touches on a cathedral, complete with flying buttresses, spires and brooding gargoyles. I'd expect a lot of other detail too-mock stonework, maybe, or window mullions drawn with a key.

Of course you don't need sandcastles, ink blots or word-association tests to get a read on Rankin. In two winning terms as captain of the U.S. Solheim Cup team, Rankin has built an edifice that future captains will find hard to maintain. "She worked at the captaincy as if it were her full-time job," LPGA commissioner Jim Ritts said on the final day of this year's Cup, won by the Americans 16-12. "There was no question about whose team this was. It was Judy's."

Ask the players why Rankin is so good, and they tend to gush. They respect her for her playing record (26 LPGA wins, three Vare Trophies for lowest scoring average, player of the year awards in 1976 and '77). They are in awe of her organizational skills ("All we had to do was put on our clothes and go play golf," says one player). And they love her earnestness ("She's fun to tease," says Beth Daniel, who played for Rankin in 1996). The players also consider Rankin a wily matchmaker—although some of us suspect that the players could do this overrated job themselves.

My own view is that Rankin is a great captain because she has the gift—some might call it a curse—of empathy. As Rosie Jones put it, "Judy's like someone who puts on a big party and wants everybody to be happy when they leave." Rankin considers it her responsibility to make every player's Solheim Cup experience a positive one. Not only the players, but also the players' parents, siblings and children. Also the caddies, who were invited to team functions and treated by Rankin as full partners in the U.S. effort. During Sunday's singles, Rankin even walked into a bunker and raked the sand for one of her players.

O.K., men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Seve Ballesteros, who captained Europe to victory in last year's Ryder Cup, is as imperious as a medieval lord, and woe to the serf at Valderrama who got in his way. But there are other means of motivation, and Rankin is a master of the softer forms. "She has a little bit of the maternal instinct," says Patty Sheehan, another veteran of the '96 team.

But Rankin didn't become one of the game's best players and one of television's better golf analysts by playing mommy to grown-ups. This year she issued her players a "for your eyes only" booklet about the Muirfield Village golf course—a pamphlet filled with course management tips from the course's co-designer, Jack Nicklaus, and a handful of PGA pros. For once, an American team looked better prepared than its European opponents, and the players were quick to credit Rankin.

The downside of Rankin's approach is that it consumes inordinate amounts of her energy. After the U.S. won in Wales in 1996, Rankin wandered the wooded grounds around the team's hotel like an accident victim, talking to whomever crossed her path. This time she had more bounce at the end, but she admitted that she spent Sunday afternoon—when the Europeans seem poised for a stunning comeback—haunted by the "fear...that this thing could turn wrong." Builders of sandcastles know the feeling.

Rankin says she is through as Solheim Cup captain, but there may be a move to draft her for the matches in 2000 at Sunningdale Golf Club in Surrey, England. Team leader Dottie Pepper very much wants Rankin back, and Dottie says, "I think there are 11 other players who would agree with me."

Two years ago the players put their feelings in song, to the tune of Guantanamera: "One Judy Rankin," they sang to their blushing captain, "there's only one Judy Rankin...." Cute at the time, the song now seems profound.

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