Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 2023 Marco Simone Golf & Country Club, Rome, Italy
Photo Credit: (Getty Images / Stephen Munday)

Thirty years hasn’t clouded Dave Stockton’s memories of the 1991 Ryder Cup at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, a venue set once again to welcome the world’s best players for this week’s PGA Championship.

The theretofore untested seaside layout, combined with a live national television audience and 24 determined stars from the United States and Europe, delivered arguably the most memorable Ryder Cup in the modern era.

Stockton captained the U.S. team at Kiawah Island and can still recite the most mundane details from the 14 ½-13 ½-victory with impressive clarity. These are his recollections of the made-for-TV legacy of the ’91 matches: Did the build-up to the matches bring more pressure to the U.S. team?

DS: With Jack Nicklaus getting beat four before at Muirfield Village and Raymond [Floyd] doing a great job getting a tie across the pond [in 1989], the Europeans really had the winds behind their sails. Once Nicklaus lost at Muirfield I thought, ‘my God, this is going to be a lot tougher than I thought.’

The pressure to me was that when I was picked to captain, [the Ryder Cup] was supposed to be at PGA West in California, which would have been an hour from my home and I could have gotten down there easily and spent a lot of time.

Because it was a different golf course for everybody, the pressure was getting a feel for the golf course. The pressure was, we hadn’t had the Cup in quite a while and we better plan right and know what we’re doing.

I, honestly, never thought it was going to be that close. I was shocked we were tied going into the final round.

RC: How did your game plan change once the matches had started?

DS: Until we had the limo wreck and Steve Pate, who was going to play every single match because he was playing better than anyone else, got hurt, he was going to play with [Corey] Pavin and that was the biggest stumbling block.

It really messed me up because Pavin wasn’t the type of player I’d had practice with anybody else. I wanted everybody once they arrived at Kiawah to have a really good idea who they were going to play with and why they were paired.

RC: You’re tied, 8-8, going into Sunday singles. What’s your message to the team that night?

DS: The message was, this is where we want to be. I wasn’t happy we were tied. We’ve always sent our better players out first [in singles play] and you tried to hide the guys in the middle who aren’t playing as good as you want. I wanted to put Lanny [Wadkins] out early because he likes to play fast, but he asked to go later because he was tired.

I was totally shocked when [European captain Bernard Gallacher] put all his strong players right in the middle. That put his best against the weakest for us. It was interesting, I’d never seen it paired like that before.

We had a song that week, “Point of Light” by Randy Travis, which was essentially you want to get it done, you want to do your job and do it the right way.

My guys just needed to play the golf course better than who they were paired against and I seriously liked our odds.
— Captain Dave Stockton

RC: Why did you send Hale Irwin out late on Sunday?

DS: Because he won three U.S. Opens. I can’t fathom winning one, let alone three. I put Hale out late and Lanny was right in front of him, so I’ve got two really good veterans and I was really pleased and comfortable with that situation.

I didn’t learn anything about most of the European team, I didn’t know who [David] Feherty was at the time and I really didn’t care. My guys just needed to play the golf course better than who they were paired against and I seriously liked our odds.

RC: If you had one mulligan what would it be?

DS: I would have had the PGA of America cancel their [Wednesday night] party in Charleston where the limo wreck occurred on a rainy night. I would have rather just had a cookout with our team and stayed in Kiawah and relaxed instead of driving back and forth to go to a formal dinner.

The only night we had open was Tuesday, so I contacted Gallacher and said I’d like to have your team and their families to a Low Country cookout, but I don’t want any press and I don’t want any officials. He agreed.

It was fantastic. We were wearing shorts, families and team members – [wife] Cathy and I had a great time.

They were much more gracious in defeat than we would have been. When we came down from our condos after the matches to go to the dinner there were two buses, one for us and one for them. I came down and both teams are on the first bus, we were only missing three [players] and Ian Woosnam turns to me and says, “Captain, no worries, Pavin is small like me.” He picked Pavin up and carried him on the bus.

RC: Who were the leaders on your team.

DS: It was mindboggling to me how good [Paul] Azinger was. He was one of the leaders on our team. Unfortunately, he kept drawing Seve [Ballesteros] which I could not believe. You would think Gallacher and I put them together just to see them fuss at each other all the time.

RC: Since you mentioned Azinger, what was his demeanor like after his Friday four-ball loss? He looked devastated after that loss [2 and 1 to Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal].

DS: He was devasted. There’s one person on this planet he didn’t want to lose to. I think if he would have been paired against anybody but Ballesteros he would have been fine. But that was like oil and water and there wasn’t much I could say.

RC: Did the ’91 Ryder Cup change the legacy of the matches?

DS: They moved to Kiawah because of the television [schedule] as it was going to be the first time the matches were televised all three days and I just think it set the stage for something huge.

It was a venue nobody had seen before, it was spectacular. You had so many great players and the TV exposure just set it over the top.

It set off a trend that elevated the matches.

RC: Did you know your team was going to throw you in the ocean after you won?

DS: No. When we started picking out the team clothes I was in New York with Cathy and I saw this blue coat I really liked and the PGA official who was with me said I couldn’t pick that color because they used it last time. I said I wasn’t on the team last time.

The blue coat that I went in the ocean with is the only one that fit me. When I came out of the ocean it wouldn’t have fit [actor] Billy Barty because it had shrunk up.

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