Back in the day (to use a choice Tigerism), Ryder Cup golf was insanely personal. But then Europe’s leading players began to decamp to Florida in large numbers. (British subjects Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter are all Sunshine Staters now and PGA Tour regulars.) And Tim Finchem invented the FedEx Cup, a four-tournament, five-week stretch of big-bucks “playoff” golf that muffles the noise from the Ryder Cup hype machine. By last week at the Tour Championship in Atlanta, you could barely get the guys to contemplate Medinah, so distracted were they by the prospect of winning $11.4 million. Kids today.
This week Brandt Snedeker will become a 31-year-old Ryder Cup rookie. But last week at East Lake, a guy who could do 30-second spots as the Most Unassuming Man in the World had his hands full. His mind too. He was trying to win the Tour Championship, worth $1.4 million. If he did, he’d win the FedEx Cup grand prize too. A cool $10 million for that. His surrogate kid brother, Tucker Anderson, the 18-year-old son of his swing coach, was in a responsive coma after a serious car accident. Snedeker’s wife, Mandy, was at home with their second child on the way. The best players in the world were chasing him. Busy.
But Snedeker’s final-round 68, two under par, gave him a three-shot victory and the XXL haul. He won’t be kicking tires anytime soon. His car is a GMC Yukon Denali, with 24,000 miles on the odometer after nearly five years. “Why do I need a new car?” he said last week. “It is new.”
His victory also made his Sea Island, Ga., neighbor, Davis Love III, look like a genius. On Sept. 4, Love handpicked Snedeker for his Ryder Cup team. In victory, Snedeker was asked if he thought at all about the Ryder Cup on Sunday.
“No,” he said. “Not at all.”
Can you blame him? Of course not. Anyway, as a rookie, he can’t really, truly know what’s coming. He’ll find out soon enough. Lift the shirt of any of the old warriors -- Love and Euro captain José María Olazábal, players Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson and Sergio García -- and you will see Ryder Cup scars. Your Dave Stocktons, your Tony Jacklins, your Curtis Stranges, scores of others, the same.
Stockton, the winning U.S. captain of the ’91 War by the Shore team, will be at Medinah this week and was back at the scene of the crime last month for the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. At a press conference there, he was asked about his lineup for the Sunday singles 21 years ago, the one that had Bernhard Langer batting in the final spot for the Europeans. Langer missed the last putt on the last green, which meant U.S. victory. Stockton’s 500-word answer included this interesting revelation:
“The thing that really ticked me off is that on Tuesday night at our get-together with the other team, I find out that Langer’s daughter, who was then right around two, had a possible terminal illness. I mean, what do you say to somebody? I’ll tell you one thing you do is you don’t put him off dead last the last day. I was absolutely flabbergasted when I saw that pairing.
“As I’m out there by 18 green, I know he’s going to make the putt because I don’t want him not to make the putt. Which means we’re going to tie. I had given it my best shot. I was so mad, and I felt -- I don’t know. Obviously I’m glad we won. I felt terrible that it came down to him. I was mad at [Euro captain Bernard] Gallacher for putting him last.”
Mad. Flabbergasted. Possible terminal illness! Back in the day, kids, Ryder Cup golf was insanely personal.
When the author Curt Sampson heard Stockton’s juicy quote last month, he was surprised. Sampson had just published a comprehensive book about the ’91 Ryder Cup titled The War by the Shore. He had never heard a word about Langer’s daughter and her “possible terminal illness.” Others who follow these matters closely had the same reaction, Langer among them.
“That story has been going around for years,” Langer said recently. Going around the pro golf fishbowl but not circulating in public. “Where it comes from I have no idea. I played the week before the Ryder Cup in Japan. I played the week after in Germany. If there had been anything seriously wrong with my daughter, I would not have played in the Ryder Cup. Ryder Cup is important, but family comes first.”
Langer and his wife, Vikki, have two daughters, Jackie, born in ’86, and Christina, born two years after the Kiawah Ryder Cup. Langer cannot remember Jackie having so much as a cold in September 1991. He didn’t hold it against Stockton that he was telling an unfounded story. “He’s not one to gossip,” Langer said. At the same time, he was perplexed that a mythic story, one that didn’t even make sense, was being told in such a public forum.
When Jackie Langer’s health history was reported to Stockton last week, he said, “Well, isn’t that something? I remember that he won the next week in Germany. I remember hearing about Langer’s daughter that Tuesday night, but I can’t remember who said it. I guess I’ll just have to shut my trap on this whole thing. Whenever I see Bernhard, I always ask him about his daughter’s health, and he always gives me a little look like, ‘Why are you asking?’ ” Now Stockton knows.
At Medinah, Stockton said he will be “rooting for 12 Americans and two Europeans.” The two-time PGA champion is a noted putting and short-game teacher who works with McIlroy and Nicolas Colsaerts, the only European Ryder Cup rookie and the most emotional golfer in the history of Belgian golf. McIlroy’s superb play this year is rooted in his improved putting, and he has praised Stockton widely for his help. McIlroy is a keen student of golf history, its major championships and major players in particular, but Ryder Cup less so. He said last week that he and Stockton have never talked about Ryder Cup golf.
Because the FedEx Cup finale leads straight into the Ryder Cup, McIlroy and Snedeker and the 13 other Ryder Cuppers who played all four FedEx events will have endured five Sundays of intense golf in the space of six weeks. McIlroy won two of the FedEx events, was in semicontention at East Lake and will play a closely watched Sunday singles match at Medinah. But he didn’t sound worn out last week. “I’ve been making a conscious effort to pace myself,” he said, “trying not to get too up or too down.”
After turning pro in 2007, McIlroy played down Ryder Cup golf and the prospect of Olympic golf too. Now these matches mean more to him. They touch his football-fan nerve. On Sunday morning in Atlanta, he and the Dublin gang with him were all abuzz about Man U’s 2–1 victory over Liverpool, which they watched at a downtown Irish pub while wearing hats stenciled with the words be optimistic.
Four thousand miles away, in London, Bernard Gallacher was at home, following the football and packing for his trip to Chicago, where he’ll work the Ryder Cup as a BBC radio reporter. He doesn’t expect that this week’s Ryder Cup will have anywhere near the level of animosity it did when Seve Ballesteros and Paul Azinger had their tête-à-têtes. He also used the f-word -- he said he was “flabbergasted” that Stockton would tell such a misinformed story, the phantom-illness story, so publicly.
“Over the years I’ve heard snippets of it,” Gallacher said on Sunday. “I don’t get it. I don’t think Dave Stockton got this in a dream, did he? He won. I don’t know why he would be so ungracious.”
There’s an undercurrent of tension in their relationship. Stockton has called Gallacher “paranoid” for claiming his ’91 Ryder Cup walkie-talkie conversations with his assistants could be heard by the U.S. team. “But they could hear them,” Gallacher said. “Stockton responded to a question I asked one of my assistants on my walkie-talkie.” Back in the day, you see, Ryder Cup golf was personal.
It surely still is. Maybe not as much as it once was, but it still is. Gallacher pointed out that the two captains, Love and Olazábal, as gentlemanly as any two people in the game, came up on Ryder Cup golf when it was at its most intense. Chicago fans are not exactly milquetoast. The players’ nerves are a little frayed after four intense weeks of FedEx Cup golf, with $10 million on the line and so many nights on the road. Gallacher predicted that Snedeker will start the matches at one level of intensity “and finish them at another.”
Snedeker seemed to be predicting the same thing. In answering the question about whether he thought about the Ryder Cup during the East Lake finale, he first said no, then added this: “Couple of times maybe I heard the U-S-A chants going. I thought, This is what it’s going to feel like next week. The whole week. Every match. All day long. And it’s stressful. So a little bit of that sank in. Next week will be twice as intense as this week was.”
He was repeating the accumulated wisdom of old men and decorated veterans, the very people who keep the phrase back in the day alive. Snedeker is a rookie. He’s about to find out what the whole thing is like for himself.