Moments frozen in time - My First Ryder Cup
When you’ve attended 11 Ryder Cups and witnessed just three United States victories, you know that you won’t be a Captain’s pick for mascot in the next team room.
You don’t forget your first Ryder Cup, just as you don’t forget that first day of school, that first bicycle or sitting behind the steering wheel of your first car. The Ryder Cup is justifiably the most compelling event in golf and arguably one of the best spectacles in sports.
I reached those conclusions on Sept. 22-24, 1995, while working my first Ryder Cup, at Oak Hill Country Club outside Rochester, New York.
I’ve witnessed multiple pivotal Ryder Cup moments over 28 years as a PGA of America employee. Somehow, I found a tiny window in the gallery and a perch on a hill to see Justin Leonard’s 45-foot birdie bomb in 1999 at The Country Club; saw Seve Ballesteros motion Colin Montgomerie to concede a 15-foot par putt to Scott Hoch that ensured an outright team victory at Valderrama; and was stunned to see Justin Rose’s 25-foot laser birdie at Medinah in 2012.
What wedges alongside those more recognizable highlights was a weekend at Oak Hill that was a short course in how quickly momentum shifts in a Ryder Cup.
The margin of talent between American and European sides is often perceived as quite wide before a Ryder Cup, but it becomes indistinguishable once the gauntlet of three days of intense pressure and a raucous gallery is in place. How well a player handles the noise and his emotions is the true test of success.
At Oak Hill, l recall Fred Couples chipping in during a Saturday afternoon four-ball match on the arena-like par-5 13th hole, answering a Colin Montgomerie birdie. The crowd went crazy as Couples and Brad Faxon went on to close out Montgomerie and Sam Torrance, 4 and 2.
Nearly 90 minutes later, Corey Pavin, the “Bulldog” competitor, chipped in from the high grass surrounding 18 for birdie to give him and Loren Roberts a 1-up win over Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer. The Americans could sleep on a 10-8 lead, but Captain Lanny Wadkins warned, “a two-point lead is not big enough.”
The Sunday Singles transformed into an agonizing afternoon march. Of five matches reaching 18, Europe won four and halved the other.
England’s Philip Walton and America’s Jay Haas strode up the hill to inspect the putting surface and accept the adulation of the crowd. Their match was tied and the Cup hung in the balance. Haas had rallied from three down with four holes to play, including holing out from a bunker at 16.
I mixed into the crowd behind 18 and in the grassy area in front of the grandstands. Inching his way past me was European Captain Bernard Gallacher. This is a man who competed on seven losing Ryder Cup Teams and had twice suffered defeat as Captain.
We all watched as Haas hit a weak wedge that left him with a 60-foot chip to save par. It didn't come close. The partisan crowd groaned.
Ryder Cup rookie Walton, who missed a 4-footer to secure victory on the 17th hole, needed to get down in two putts from 15 feet. When the first putt stopped a foot from the hole, Haas conceded the putt and shook his hand.
Gallacher sprung out of his crouch and jumped high with both legs tucked back. It wasn’t as stylish as Sergio Garcia’s scissor kick in 1999 at Medinah after a recovery shot around a tree, but I gave Gallacher an “8.5” on effort.
The Captain grabbed Walton and hoisted him into the air. That little gold-plated Cup was going back to Europe on the Concorde.