I should be tired, but I’m not. We lost the Ryder Cup about six hours ago, and now I’m at the team hotel, a Westin in suburban Chicago, trying to make sense of what just happened. Through two days we had Europe on the ropes — a four-point lead! — and yet we lost. Mayhem at Medinah — it was something like that. Tiger just texted me on his way to the airport. There were wrong turns, construction traffic, I’m not sure what all exactly, but it wasn’t a smooth trip. He wrote, “A perfect ending to a perfect day.”
I’m sitting here on a porch off our team room. For a week it was brimming with life but now it’s empty. I’m wearing the red, white and blue pajamas that Tabitha Furyk, Jim’s wife, gave to everybody on the team. Payne Stewart was wearing the same pajamas after our improbable (to say the least) win in 1999 at Brookline, when we did to the Europeans what they just did to us.
Ryder Cup Sunday has already turned into Bears-Cowboys Monday. One team will win and one team will lose that Monday Night Football game. And then they’ll go get ready to play somebody else. The next time Europe and America play in a professional golf match will be at the 2014 Ryder Cup in Scotland. The next home game is two years after that.
Brandt Snedeker, a rookie on our team, wasn’t crying when he won $11.4 million at the Tour Championship in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. But he was crying on Sunday night, and the only thing at stake was the right to bring a short, odd-looking trophy named for a British seed merchant to a display case at the PGA of America headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. The cast and crew in Scotland will be a different one. Not entirely, but in places. In Ryder Cup golf, it’s now or never. The whole thing is absurdly, ridiculously intense and personal and communal. I think that’s why we all love it.
I spent 20 months getting ready for three days of golf. My shot as the U.S. Ryder Cup captain has come and gone. I feel a sense of satisfaction. I gave it my all. (My team gave it more.) I feel a sense of emptiness. (Losing stinks.) I feel a sense of pride. My team handled its 48 hours of prosperity without ever being cocky and handled its Sunday defeat with true graciousness. From start to finish, in good times and bad, José María Olazábal’s European team showed nothing but class. Golf is better now than it was last week.
If you need to blame somebody for this loss, blame me. I’m the one who signed off on the Sunday lineup, for the 12 singles matches. Europe won eight of those matches and tied a ninth. The final score was 14 1/2–13 1/2, Europe.
The last two holes were not kind to us and hard to watch. Euro putts were dropping, and ours were not. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Too much trying, if anything. José María was suffering just like I was. He was wind-whipped, and his face was lined and his eyes were red. I’m glad I couldn’t see myself.
I said to Scott Verplank, one of my assistants, “Which match do I watch?” You want to do everything, and you really can’t do much of anything. You’re a baseball manager, and every one of your pitchers is on the mound in the ninth inning of a Game 7. Jim Furyk walked by me after losing the 17th hole. The Ryder Cup on the line. I wanted to say something, but what could I say? He walked by me with that fierce game face of his on, and frustratingly I found myself saying nothing. I turned to Jeff Sluman, another of my assistants, and said, “Well, that was brilliant.” But the fact is, in golf it’s better to err on the side of saying too little than too much. And I’m sure there were times I said too much.
On Sunday, on 18, Steve Stricker had a long, fast downhill putt. All our guys were saying that Steve needed to know how fast it was. I called over his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, and told him to tell Steve something about the speed. Jimmy said, “He’s not having me read any putts.”
And then Steve asked Jimmy about the putt, likely for the first time that day, and Jimmy relayed what I had told him about the speed. Steve got the speed correct. As it happened, he read too much break into it. Steve Stricker is one the best putters in golf history. It’s not science. And he did drop the eight-footer for par, forcing Martin Kaymer to make the six-footer that clinched the Cup.
Steve was where he was in the Sunday lineup, in the second-to-last group, because of his exceptional putting. We loved our Sunday lineup. I say we because this team functioned as a group. I was a players’ manager. I listened to my assistants, the caddies, the wives and most particularly the players. We reached a consensus on every big decision we made, from the four players I hand-picked for the team (Furyk, Snedeker, Stricker and Dustin Johnson) to our Sunday order. Tiger said, “Put Strick and me at the end. I don’t think it will come to us, but if it does, we’ll be ready.” Tiger has won three times this year. He’s the greatest match-play golfer ever. He’s the greatest golfer ever. Hearing those words from him was enough for me.
I believe the soul of Seve Ballesteros, José María’s mentor and the greatest of all Ryder Cuppers, who died last year at age 54, truly inspired Europe on Sunday. There were tributes to Seve, who played golf as an artist and a matador, in the sky, on the yardage books and on the golf bags and uniforms of the European players.
I know such inspiration is possible because I played with Payne Stewart on that ’99 team at Brookline, the only other team to make up four final-day points in Ryder Cup play. Ben Crenshaw, our captain, in some indirect way made us feel his spiritual connection to his late teacher, Harvey (Take Dead Aim) Penick, and to Francis Ouimet, the Country Club caddie who won, improbably, the 1913 U.S. Open at the Country Club.
When we gathered in the team room at the Westin last Saturday night, we weren’t taking anything for granted. President Bush 41 was around, and so was 43. I told people about the keep-up-the-good-work call I had received on the course that day from President Clinton. “You guys are playing good,” Clinton told me. You know the voice. I can actually do a pretty good Clinton because my father was an Arkansan.
When we made plans for our Friday and Saturday pairings, we often started sentences with, “In a perfect world.” In a perfect world we wanted to play each of the two-man teams we established before we arrived at Medinah three times over the four sessions. Golfers tend to be creatures of habit. We like order. I was trying to provide order.
After three sessions we had a considerable four-point lead, with the team of Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson winning three times. Fred Couples, another of my four assistants, said to me, “Man, that Keegan Bradley is on fire. Ride him all the way to the house.”
In other words, he wanted me to play the Bradley-Mickelson team again on Saturday afternoon in Session IV. I know a lot of fans and commentators were thinking the same thing. But Phil told me he was tired after three matches and wanted to rest for the Sunday singles. There was no reason to play Keegan with a partner with whom he had not practiced. There was no reason to mess with order. Things were going according to plan. In Session IV, Europe, and most especially Ian Poulter, caught fire late and won two matches. Still, everything was good. A four-point U.S. lead. Enter Seve.
I’m going to carry this defeat with me for the rest of my life, but the loss will not drown out all the good memories I have from the week. Like trying to get Fred to carry a walkie-talkie. Fred’s not good with walkie-talkies, but he has other, less tangible skills, like making guys feel cool by simply being in their presence. That helps your golf.
There was the inspirational Greatest Hits film that Michael Jordan played for the team. It showed the Bulls winning one title after another. It showed Scottie Pippen making treys and Dennis Rodman losing skin in the name of loose balls. It never showed the man who brought the film doing anything all that special. Michael made his point without ever saying a word: The job of the player was not only to win matches but also to make your teammate a better player.
There was Bill Murray, trying to convince us that “A-MER-I-CA” was a catchier chant than “U-S-A, U-S-A!”
There was Poulter, the Englishman whose eyes look like they would pop out of his head if he got any more excited. He gets under your skin, but there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s Ryder Cup golf. Seve was the same way. Poulter went 4–0 last week. We couldn’t stop him.
And then there were the several times I saw Webb Simpson, the reigning U.S. Open champion, and Bubba Watson, the Masters champion, gathering together with their wives and caddies in quiet moments of prayer and reflection. Nothing left a stronger impression on me.
Ryder Cup golf really is about bringing people together. I played on my first team in 1993, and my wife, Robin, remembers when a Ryder Cup team was much smaller than it is today, with fewer assistants and fewer PGA officials. This year she had the inspired idea to have one giant table in the team room for our first night so that the entire team — the players, assistants, officials and wives — would all be in the same place, doing the same thing. All together now. Robin did the seating. I sat with Keegan’s girlfriend, Jillian Stacey. I had never really spent any time with her. She’s a smart young woman who was suddenly thrust into the middle of golf’s most intense week, and she was enjoying it. It was a pleasure getting to know her.
To me, a big part of the captain’s job is to help people have a dream week. A bigger part of the captain’s job is to put on a TV show that will make people want to take up this great game. The biggest part of the captain’s job is to win, and I lost. I can live with that frustration only because I know I did well in other areas. Not that it’s going to be easy. One thing I know — that we all know — is that Ryder Cup golf is not life and death. We all know what true heartache is.
I said this at Medinah, but I’d like to say it again here, in the permanence of print. It’s something I’d like to say straight to the players, to Tiger and Phil and Jim, to Bubba and Webb, to Keegan and Brandt, to Zach Johnson and Dustin Johnson, to Duf (Jason Dufner) and Strick and Kooch (Matt Kuchar): We came to Chicago as a team and left as an even more united one. We’ll be bonded for life by what we did at Medinah. Being your captain has been the greatest honor of my golfing life.