Given the serious nature of recent Ryder Cup competition, it goes without saying that the job vacancy for Captain of the European team needs to be filled by an upright man of solid reputation, given to neither frivolity nor mischief. As the master of the great ocean-going steamer which carried Sir Samuel Ryder and his little golden trophy across the Atlantic might have told you, a Captain must never gamble, and show no tendency toward strong liquor.
Bearing all this in mind, one could be forgiven for asking, why the hell would anyone pick Sam Torrance?
Maybe it’s because the competition itself has changed over the years since Sir Samuel got used to steaming back across the Atlantic, empty-handed. For so many years, the Great Britain and Ireland team was hindered by the great British and Irish tradition of losing with an almost institutionalized grace, accompanied by 12 quivering, but stiff upper lips. Thank you, sir. May I please have another?
Still, the men of those teams fell in love with the Ryder Cup, because it was about playing the game, and nothing else. The Ryder Cup is the last bastion of pure professional sport on the planet. Okay, maybe the Iditarod dogsled race is in there, but it’s not exactly made for television. Actually, now that I come to think of it, the Iditaassrod is similar to the Ryder Cup in another way because during the event the competitors sometimes have great difficulty in locating their testicles, albeit for entirely different reasons.
In my only Ryder Cup experience, Kiawah in ’91, I was so nervous that as I stumbled onto the first tee for my initiation, mine took up residence on either side of my tonsils, where they stayed until late Sunday evening. My partner for that afternoon four-ball against Lanny Wadkins and Mark O’Meara, was this year’s captain and my dear friend, Sam Torrance.
I was shaking so badly, that on my first two swings it was a miracle I made contact with the ball, but somehow I managed to fudge it up there about 20 feet short of the hole. The ground was moving as I set up over my first test of fine motor skills, and during my putting stroke, everything moved, except my bowels. And that was close.
I kind of scuffed the putt up to about four feet short, and three feet left of the hole. O’Meara looked away, and if that little swine Wadkins had been drinking anything, it would have shot out of his nose. Sam made the half, and on the way to the next tee he put a bear-like arm around my shoulder, and squeezed me tight. It was a delightful shade of green I was, apparently. He grinned, let me go and began to roll a cigarette, as we walked to the second tee.
“Just think,” he said to me, “you’re on the same team as Seve, Faldo, Langer, Olazabal, Woosie, Monty, and most impressive of all, me!”
“Aye, I suppose I am,” I said, feeling an irresistible smile creeping onto my face.
“This only happens tae a few people,” he continued, “so you’d better be up tae enjoyin’ it.”
He flicked open an old brass Zippo, took an enormous hit on the Old Holborn, and blew the smoke in my face. I still love the smell of it.
“So dinnae be a prick,” he grinned, “or ah’ll join Wadkins an’ O’Meara, an’ ye can play all three of us!”
I made a 10-footer on the last green that afternoon to halve the match, and give us a vital half point, and as I write I can still feel the electricity from Sam’s bear-hug. The thought of it gives me goosebumps. During that week, Sam made me feel bigger, and better, and more important than I ever had. He, Bernard Gallacher, and the veterans on the team gave me and the other rookies, including David Gilford, Paul Broadhurst and Steven Richardson, a sense that we were part of a special club, a brotherhood if you like. It’s a feeling that lasts a lifetime, and one upon which Sam has thrived for more than two decades.
Some of the greatest armies in history were filled with men who were willing to die for their leader, and in order to earn such devotion, those leaders spent a lot of time with their men.
Sam has not lectured his team, unless you consider a lecture to be telling dirty jokes over cold beers in smoky bars, or playing cards in a hotel room. Over cold beers. He has gambled on the golf course, and probably robbed them, but more than anything else, he has made them feel special, because now, numbered among their friends, is Sam Torrance.
Sam has given the media short shrift, at least in press conferences, because he has no time for anyone who wants to make a story out of anything but the golf. He cares little for speeches, or ceremony. Like a fighter, he just wants the bell to ring, and to get it on. It’s killing him that he isn’t playing, but he knows he has a great team, that has a great chance.
Win, lose, or draw, you can be certain of one thing, there will be no stiff upper lip, largely because no one has seen Sam’s upper lip for years. For the best part of three decades, the European golfing public has known exactly how Sam Torrance has felt. The Belfry holds special memories, tears of joy and a red V-neck, a broken toe, and bitter disappointment. For the record, he tackled a Yucca, and no, he hadn’t been drinking. (If he had, he probably would have beaten the crap out of the cactus as well.)
I think Sam will be the greatest Captain the Ryder Cup has ever seen, but then again, I’m a little biased. Like the rest of the European team, and many of the Americans, I love the man. I know him so well, but then, if you’re a golf fan, so do you.