Queasy Ryder

May 4, 2011

The concorde rolled to a stop at the end of the tarmac at Charleston not-very-international airport. There were hundreds of cars parked along the perimeter fence and thousands of people lining the road. It was at that moment I finally realized the magnitude of the event I was about to take part in. Sam Torrance, the man who was to be my hairy Scottish crutch all week, sat beside me. I mentioned to him that I couldn’t believe how many people had turned out to welcome us.

“They’re here to see the bloody airplane, you moron,” was his tactful reply.

He was right, of course, but, nonetheless, it was quite an experience for a Ryder Cup rookie to walk off the world’s most beautiful aircraft and into the media maelstrom that had by then become a rivalry of cross-global proportions. It’s like childbirth — it doesn’t matter how many times it’s described to you, you still have no idea of what it’s actually like, and I, for one, was blissfully unaware. Torrance, on the other hand, had almost lost count of how many he’d played in. (His golf had always been better than his math.) He and I were destined to be matched against Lanny Wadkins and Mark O’Meara in the last match of the first morning’s fourballs.

Kiawah was so difficult in 1991 that it was possible to drop a shot between the locker room and the first tee. The greens were harder to hit than Oscar de la Hoya’s nose. Sam and I were good friends with both Lanny and Mark, but for the next five hours we had to be enemies, and I had a problem with that. It’s hard to act like a tough guy when every part of your body is shaking.

The introduction of the players to the crowd on the first tee is like no other experience in golf. When you introduce patriotism and pride, national ego and genuine animosity into the equation, you are greeted with a roar that says, “Win, and you are the supreme beings in all the universe. Lose, and may the fleas of a million rodents infect your every orifice.”

I held up okay until I got to the first green. By then it became obvious that putting was going to be a problem. I could get away with flinching my bigger muscles into something that resembled a golf swing, thus fooling most people into thinking that I was cool, calm, and not quite hysterical, but when it came down to controlling the smaller motor impulses, there was obviously a rogue neuron in charge somewhere. On my first attempt with the flat stick, my muscles came to an almost unanimous decision: Everything moved except my bowels (and believe me, it was damn close).

On the way to the next tee Sam, always the diplomat, comforted me with the words, “If you don’t pull yourself together, I’m going to join them, and you can play all three of us, you useless bastard.” I was understandably galvanized.

Over the course of the next few hours, we threw the match at them and they threw it back at us until we reached the 18th, one down. In the gathering gloom, all four of us played the difficult par four as if it was completely dark outside and, somehow, I ended up with a 12-footer to win the hole and halve the match. I had read the greens like a Russian newspaper all day, so I asked Sam to aim me. To his eternal credit, he said, “Hit it firm on the left edge,” in a manner that made me feel he was completely positive. (You know he wasn’t.) Somehow I made a controlled spasm and the ball rolled into the center of the cup. The crowd roared; I almost fainted. Sam and I had made my first Ryder Cup half-point!

Later that evening, after two beers and a Valium, I wondered to myself what it was all about. I had won tournaments and contended in majors, but never had I felt such mind-bending, gut-churning pressure — and worse than that, there was no money involved! I was used to playing my own ball, making my own mistakes, and being in sole charge of my own success or failure. After all, that’s the nature of the game that we play. Now, all of a sudden, 11 of the players that I most admired were baring their souls in the team room, the veterans exposing their soft underbellies for the first time just so the rookies could find some comfort in the fact that the Ryder Cup makes everyone human. It breeds a rare generosity in an otherwise selfish game.

I narrowly missed the team in 1993 and was heartbroken. I went to The Belfry and sat with the players and their wives behind the 18th green, gnawing the bark off that massive oak tree as every match came in. I just had to be there. Once you have played Ryder Cup golf, you feel the call, you feel the anguish and the euphoria of the current players. I only played one Ryder Cup, but I know still that I am one of them.

However, lest any of you think after that mushy bit I may have become less of a cynical son of a bitch, here’s a poem — my ode to the Cup (I didn’t write this, someone broke into my house and left it on my notepad-honestly!):

    In southern Spain, they’ll feel the pain
    when they fight for that Ryder Cup.
    It’s hard to play when you’re so far away
    and the food makes you want to throw up.

    I can’t honestly explain that point when your brain
    feels like it’s about to implode.
    But that’s not the worst thing, your lower intestine
    might spontaneously decide to unload.

    It adds completely new meaning to that uneasy feeling
    as you squeamishly consider your shot.
    Try making a putt when the cheeks of your butt
    have tied themselves into a knot.

    So give them a break as you watch their knees shake.
    For the losers there will be no shame.
    But you won’t cheer them up if they’ve lost the cup
    by saying, “It’s only a game!”