When Fred Couples was playing week after week in the spring, and going low most every time out, there were people saying he’d make a great captain’s pick for Corey Pavin’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, even at age 50 and with a putting stroke that sputters at times from five feet.
Couples has cooled off this summer, but it still wouldn’t be a total shock to see him get picked, especially with such a young U.S. team. You could see Fred hanging out happily in the players’ room with Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, two players who are about half his age.
But if you really want to see some veteran leadership in the Ryder Cup this year, there’s one obvious player to bring back out for an encore performance: Herr Bernhard Langer, winner of the senior British Open and the senior U.S. Open in back-to-back weeks last month. Can you imagine a European team of Langer and Martin Kaymer, the new PGA champion? Two golfers who will drive opponents crazy simply by never making a mental mistake. There are lots of ways to win 18-hole match-play matches. You can win with ridiculous length, as D.J. will bring to Celtic Manor in Wales in the first week of October. You can win with outrageous charisma, as Seve Ballesteros, where opponents feel, “This guy wants it more than I.” You can win with out-of-this world putting, as Corey Pavin and Justin Leonard did. And then there are the Ryder Cup plodders and plotters. Europe’s had a score of them over the years, like Paul Broadhurst and Philip Walton, who played once, did their jobs, and never came back.
Of coruse, Nick Faldo got himself knighted after playing that way. Langer’s the same way. His game isn’t much different now than it was in the 1980s and 1990s and early 2000s. In 2004, when Langer was the European captain and the Euros trounced the U.S. team at Oakland Hills in Detroit, he nearly played his way on to his own team. Had he qualified on points, I think he would have taken the spot. That’s how his mind works. And now he’d take a spot if he were offered one.
In a telephone interview, Langer told me that he’d “be honored and thrilled if I was selected to the team.”
I asked him if he had talked to Colin Montgomerie, the European captain, or any other European Ryder Cup official about whether he is a candidate.
“I know from my own experience it doesn’t matter who you talk to unless it is the captain,” Langer said. “The captain and only the captain makes the decision. I haven’t talked to Colin about it. I played with Colin [before the British senior win] and we talked about Ryder Cup, but not about me playing. But to play on the Ryder Cup team would be very special.”
Langer has watched Kaymer’s development over the course of his career and is not surprised to see him winning so regularly in Europe, and to see him win a major. “He is a very fine player, plays very intelligent golf, with a beautiful swing,” Langer said. “And as good as his golf is, he is even a finer person.” The Hall of Famer said, sounding almost like a proud father.
If he’s in the team room every day, Langer may also be able to give Montgomerie insight into Pavin’s thinking as he fills out his lineup card each day. Langer has been playing golf with Pavin — in Ryder Cup play, at majors and in regular Tour events — for more than 25 years. They have crossed paths at Tour Bible Study over the years. Langer knows the thinking of the three Ryder Cup captains for whom Pavin has played, the three captains who will shape what kind of captain Pavin will be. There’s a lot to be said, in Ryder Cup play, when a player can get in his opponent’s head and when a captain can think like his opposing captain. For all the emotion Ryder Cup golf brings, it’s a chess match, too.
Pavin played for a markedly varied trio: Dave Stockton in 1991, Tom Watson in ’93 and Lanny Wadkins in ’95. I asked Pavin the other day what he gleaned from each of his captains and how it will inspire him.
“Dave Stockton was highly organized, and the first captain to turn the job into a two-year full-time commitment, going wherever you needed to go in the interest in the Ryder Cup,” Pavin said. “I’ve treated it the same way. I’ve been thinking about being Ryder Cup captain for years and years and years.
“Waton,” Pavin said, “was one of the guys. He had such a competitive nature, but he also said, ‘Play hard, have fun, enjoy it.'”
I asked Pavin if, as captain, he could be or would want to be “one of the guys.” By reputation, he has long been a lone wolf — except when he had a partner in Ryder Cup play.
“I think so,” Pavin said. “I think I have a fairly decent rapport with most of the guys. Early in my career I was more intense and maybe aloof, but in the last 10 years I’ve mellowed quite a bit.”
Before Pavin played for Wadkins as a captain, they were a paired together three times in Ryder Cup play. Wadkins knew of Pavin’s extraordinary resolve, which was actually heightened in his Ryder Cup golf.
“Everybody knows how fiery Lanny is, but the thing I remember best from when he was captain is he called me and said, `Be ready to play five — you’re gonna play five.'” Five matches is the legal maximum: morning and afternoon the first two days, plus Sunday singles when everybody plays. “That was a great show of confidence in me and really meant a lot to me.”
Will Pavin call one of his players and tell him that he’ll be playing in all five matches? He might.
Could Langer play five times? Monty would never do that, but in terms of fitness and mental agility, he’d have no problem playing that much golf over three days.
Monty was one of Langer’s stars at Oakland Hills, where he won three points and lost one, and the Euros won, 18.5 to 9.5. Thomas Levet, who played on that team, says that Montgomerie, acting almost like a captain, gave the team excellent advice.
“He said, `Make every hole count and every point count,'” Levet said at the PGA. “He said, ‘Things can change incredibly fast in Ryder Cup. You can see nothing but American flags on the scoreboard but they might all be one-up matches and if you can win the hole you’re playing right then everything might start to change.'”
Well, as Pavin and Monty both well know, if there was ever a Ryder Cup player who lived by that credo — this point counts, this hole counts — it’s B. Langer. Bombers are exciting, but bombers are often nonfactors in holes once or twice or three times a round. The thing about Langer is that he’ll keep you in the game, hole after hole, probably as well as anybody playing today.
With the possible exception of Martin Kaymer.