Formerly pugnacious, Pavin playing it close to the vest in Wales

Corey Pavin answers questions at Tuesday's Ryder Cup media conference at Celtic Manor in Wales.
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NEWPORT, Wales — Whatever happened to Corey Pavin the bulldog? You remember him: the street fighter who won the 1995 U.S. Open, the provocateur who wore that camouflage Desert Storm army cap at the ’91 Ryder Cup. Ever since he was appointed to captain Team USA at this week’s Ryder Cup in Wales, Pavin has turned into a polite but uber-defensive political leader.

His first showdown with the media at Celtic Manor was as beige and colorless as his jacket, a performance so lacking in noteworthy comments that he has now earned the sobriquet “Borey Pavin.” Perhaps Pavin no longer likes playing to the crowd as he did at Kiawah Island back in ’91, opting instead to cruise through this assignment in the middle lane with a persona entirely opposite to his on-course reputation.

Catch him in a smaller group, though, and he drops his poker face. But just a little. Asked about the worst example of gamesmanship he ever experienced in his three Ryder Cup appearances, Pavin responded with a sly grin and this gem: “I don’t know, I never played against Seve.” And he’s still not willing to apologize for that Desert Storm cap, either. “I wore it to support the troops — and there were British troops out there in the Gulf War, too,” he said. “Emotions were really high with the fans that week for some reason. I just thought it was a really cool cap that would honor the troops. But people took it the wrong way.”

So the bulldog still has a hint of a bark, the same competitive steel that has helped the 50-year-old to win 27 tournaments around the world, including his sole major at Shinnecock Hills. For all that success, Pavin rates his Ryder Cup experiences as the highlight of his career.

“I’d rather play the Ryder Cup every week,” he said. “And it’s the most pressure by far. I love its intensity. I wasn’t out there laughing and joking, but I was having a blast. Coming down the stretch at the U.S. Open was a piece of cake compared to playing in the Ryder Cup.”

As pumped up as he is for the 38th edition of the matches this week, Pavin is under no illusions about the limited influence he will have on the final result, and the potential backlash if his team falls short. “I can’t make the ball go in the hole,” he said. “The players win the Ryder Cup, but the captains lose it. That seems to be the way it is. Which is fine.”

Pavin seems well aware that the U.S. hasn’t won in Europe since the Belfry in 1993. “It’s been a long time,” he said. “It’s important to prepare the guys for the reception we are going to get at Celtic Manor. Quietness will be a very good thing for us.” With 50,000 fanatical fans following just four matches at a time, silence could signal only two things: nighttime or a U.S. lead.

And perhaps that is why Pavin is trying so hard to say nothing. He doesn’t want to present the home crowd with an excuse to give his team a hard time. And he’s doing a great job of it. “There is no place for booing or cheering when something bad happens,” he said, reminding any potential local yahoos of golf’s unique etiquette. “At the K Club, there were a few moments of silence before cheering missed putts because it meant Europe had won the hole. It was respectful.”

Pavin says he has consulted the captains he played under in the Ryder Cup: Dave Stockton, Tom Watson and Lanny Wadkins. So what has he learned and brought to Wales? “I was playing very well in ’95, and [Wadkins] called me up a couple of weeks before and he said, “Just make sure you’re in shape to play five matches, because you’re going to play five matches.” Even though I felt pretty good about my game, him just giving me that confidence that I was going to play, and he wanted me to play that much, is something that I’ll always remember with Lanny. So you can never be short on compliments to the players on the team. I’m certainly using it this week.”

So has he had a similar conversation about playing five matches with anyone on his team this week? “That would be giving something away,” Pavin replied, shutting down as quickly as he had opened up.

He did reveal that he had spoken to Watson just before the team boarded the plane for Wales. “Tom’s advice was to let the guys go out and play and to get the jet lag out of the way and not to be too concerned and for them to practice a lot of chipping and putting. Let them have fun,” he says.

Despite his mortician’s mien, Pavin has spoken for months about the pride he feels as captain of Team USA. The passion is in his eyes and his voice. His team certainly won’t lack for a gung-ho, go-get-’em team talk, and the captain isn’t inviting anyone else in to give that speech for him. (Previous U.S. skipper’s have used Michael Jordan and George W. Bush as speakers.) “I need people around me who know golf,” he said. “This is professional golf.”

As much as he is desperate to win, Pavin says the Ryder Cup is not the be-all and end-all. Come Sunday night he intends to party the night away with both teams. “You wanna beat the crap out of everybody when you are playing, but after it’s over, you have a beer and hit the karaoke machine,” he said. “All the players coming together, plenty to drink, enjoying each other’s company. That’s part of what the Ryder Cup is all about.”