Here’s how the Ryder Cup is different from the Presidents Cup.
Last week the PGA of America held a One-Year-To-Go media conference at Hazeltine National, a sort of kickoff to the Ryder Cup that will be coming here 367 days later.
I asked the respective captains, Darren Clarke and Davis Love III, to recall the single most memorable shots of their Ryder Cup careers. It was an invitation to tell tales about heroic match-winning moments, and in Love’s case, how it felt to make the putt to beat Costantino Rocca on No. 18 at the Belfry in 1993 to win the Cup for the U.S.
Those were not the answers I got.
Two men, consummate pros who each played in multiple Ryder Cups and won a major championship had something in common. Their most memorable Ryder Cup strokes were their opening shots.
Love recalled his first Ryder Cup match, partnered with his mentor, Tom Kite, at that ’93 event in the opening alternate-shot pairings against Europe’s best duo, Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal.
The Cup will be decided on the course in South Korea, not on a spreadsheet, however. And while history records the past, it does not forecast the future.
“We had decided that I would hit off the odd holes and Tom would hit off the even holes,” Love said. “Then we had a fog delay Friday morning, so I had an hour and a half to think about it. By the time we finally walked to the tee, I’d figured out that [hole] one was odd and I’d have to hit the first shot, and now I wasn’t ready for it. I tried to convince Tom to hit off the first tee. Tom handed me a 3-iron and said, ‘Just get me in the fairway and get us going.’”
Kite and Love stunned the Spaniards, 4 and 3, but it’s not the win that Love remembers most; it’s how that first shot felt.
“It was an unbelievable moment,” Love said. “I’ll never forget that. When you walk up to that first tee, whether you’ve played six Ryder Cups or it’s your first one, it’s a nerve-wracking experience.”
Clarke’s most memorable stroke came at the K Club in 2006 in his home country of Ireland. (He’s from Portrush.) He tried hard that week to make sure the focus was on the team and not him, but he was the story. He brought his two sons, ages 8 and 5, along to watch, but Clarke’s wife, Heather, wasn’t there. She had died six weeks earlier after a long battle with cancer, and Clarke’s tragic loss was the elephant in the room that no one was sure how to address.
Well, the European golf fans figured out a way. When Clarke walked to the 1st tee on Friday morning with his partner, Lee Westwood, the fans cheered madly in an incredible eruption of noise that echoed through the trees, a standing ovation that wouldn’t stop.
It was the only way they knew to support Clarke, share in his pain and maybe help him forget for a few moments. It was the loudest roar I’ve ever heard on a golf course, and the most genuine. There were fans in the stands who were crying as they cheered. There has been nothing to match it—not the Phoenix Open, not the Masters—before or since.
The roars helped, Clarke said, but they also added to his nerves.
“I didn’t know if I was going to miss it, pop it duff it, whiff it, hook it, block it, whatever,” he said with a golfer’s grin. “I had no idea, genuinely no idea, where the ball was going to go. I got lucky and made contact, and it went straight down the middle. That was the most nervous I’ve ever been on a golf course.”
At Hazeltine, Clarke had a Sean Connery look going. He wore a gray, double-breasted suit with a white handkerchief. He had a perfectly trimmed goatee and graying hair, more hair than Connery had on his best day. Clarke is quick to smile and talks rapidly. After the press conference, I told him I’d never heard a roar like that on a golf course and that asking him about it gave me goose bumps.
He smiled gratefully and was glad, it seemed, to share that cherished memory with someone else who had been there. Just talking about it again, Clarke admitted that he, too, had goose bumps. He said he knew how much the crowd wanted to extend its sympathy and how the American players did too.
The cheers helped, Clarke said, every single one of them. Every member of the European team wanted to win it for him, and, remarkably, Clarke conjured up some of his best golf. He played a starring role in Europe’s stirring victory, even though he will never say so.
He talked about what a good place he’s in now, how his boys are doing fine, how fortunate he was to have his years with Heather and how he was blessed to find his second wife, Alison. But the first tee shot at the K Club, that was the golfing moment of his life. Even more than his Cinderella-story British Open win at age 44.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said in a wistful tone. “I’ll remember that moment and that tee shot until the day I die.”
The Presidents Cup remains a fun international competition and a jolly good show…but that’s all.
The Ryder Cup is so much more. Just ask Love and Clarke.