This story originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of GOLF.
When England’s Peter Oosterhuis played in the Ryder Cup, from 1971 to ’81, “We weren’t going, ‘Oh, we’re going to beat the Americans,’ ” Oosty says. It was a mismatch. Even when Peter Jacobsen made his first Ryder Cup team, under U.S. captain Lee Trevino in 1985, the event was not what it is today. “We had a ball with Lee,” Jacobsen says.
No one outside the golf world gave the event much thought because the Yanks always won. Then the competitive balance shifted, and with it everything else. Europe won at The Belfry in England in ’85, breaking a three-decade string of U.S. dominance. Then, in ’87, Europe won for the first time on U.S. soil, at Muirfield Village in Ohio. “They had six major winners on that European team,” Oosterhuis says. “So they weren’t scared.”
The most polarizing of those players, Seve Ballesteros, was in his prime, and he met his match, Paul Azinger, in a memorably tense singles match, won by the American, in 1989. Ballesteros and Azinger made no secret of their ill will for one another, and it spilled over when Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal accused Azinger and partner Chip Beck of cheating at Kiawah Island in 1991.
In just six years everything had changed — from the likely outcome, to civility among players and fans, to the ever-mounting pressure. By the time Jacobsen made his second team, in 1995, the Ryder Cup wasn’t friendly, it was frightening. “I was more nervous for the second one,” Jacobsen says.
Call it golf’s ultimate stress test, where players are simply trying to remember how to breathe. It’s that scary. But don’t take it from us, take it from the players who have been there…
“In my first one, which would have been at the Belfry in ’89, it wasn’t one particular shot where I was nervous, it was three days of it. I didn’t quite figure it out. Each time I heard a roar I thought it was somebody making a birdie, but it was really just them putting up the scores, like ‘Padraig Harrington, 1 up.’ The biggest shot I ever had was at the 17th at Kiawah in 1991, the par-3 where everyone was struggling. It was alternate-shot, and Ray Floyd took me aside and was screaming at me because I’d just laid the sod over a lay-up the hole before. He said, ‘Look, I just want you to take the deepest breath you can and smash it.’ I hit a beautiful shot to about 12 feet. I don’t think he had to make the putt because they made a bogey.”
“The most nervous I ever felt was my first practice round in my first Ryder Cup, in 1995. I was on the first tee, and George [H.W.] Bush was there with Byron Nelson and 40,000 other people, and I honestly thought I was going to s— in my pants. But I got the ball airborne and drew it into the left rough. I was playing with Peter Jacobsen, and Lanny Wadkins was our captain. When I got out to my drive, it was in the fairway. Lanny had thrown it out there. He said, ‘Fax, I threw it out there because I know you’re not going to be in the rough in the tournament.’ That only added to the pressure. Overall, I’d describe the feeling as a tightening, both inside and out. But there’s a difference between fear and pressure. When you’re playing well, you might get nervous. But it’s nerves, it’s not fear.”
“The first time was probably the scariest, at Oakland Hills in 2004. I didn’t play Friday, but on Saturday I played with David Howell, best ball. The one thing that Langer, Captain Langer, said to us was, ‘Routine, guys. You’ve done it hundreds, thousands of times before. Stick to your routine.’ I think Howell went first and hit the fairway, which made it even worse. I could top it, I could hit it right, I could hit it anywhere — the things that go through your head are just…hopefully you don’t want anything to go through your head. You just want to react and do it. You just have to remember to breathe. I didn’t hit it very good. [Laughs.] But it found the middle of the fairway. I hit driver, scuffed it out there. I’m the only person who knows how much I missed the center of the club, but it went straight! And it got down there.”
“My worst moment was the missed two-footer at 17 against Colin Montgomerie at Kiawah in ’91. [Calcavecchia blew a 4-up lead with four holes to play to win only a half point.] I was shaking. I’d just hit it in the water after he did. It was to win the match. Anywhere else it would have been a gimmie, but I just completely panicked. That was the most pressure I’ve felt. Pressure can only get so bad. The Ryder Cup is as bad as it gets. But if you’re confident and playing well you can get through it. The perspective is what usually comes after you blow it. You try to tell yourself, ‘Hey, it’s just a game, I tried it, I blew it.’ Then you go home and see your kids.”
“My first Ryder Cup in 2002, we qualified and formed the teams in 2001, but 9/11 moved it back a year. So I had like 13 months to wait. Then I sat out the first session, so I had 13 months plus a morning session to wait. I was paired with Jim Furyk and he said, ‘What holes do you want to go [first] on?’ I said, ‘I don’t really want to go on the first one. I’ve waited this long, I think I can wait to hit the second shot.’ When he said he’d take the odd holes I was like, ‘OK! That’s fine with me.’ He hit a good drive down there, first cut, which was the perfect place for me because it was teed up nice. It was an 8-iron, a simple shot. I remember taking my club out of the bag, putting my glove on, standing behind the ball and literally thinking, ‘What’s my pre-shot routine again?’ You’re so nervous you just don’t want to mess up. I hit a good shot. It went directly at the flag but about 30 feet too far. The other team made par, and Jim ran the putt like four feet by, and then I had to make that! And I made it and was immediately kind of calm, like, ‘OK, I’ve done this before. It’s not the first time I’ve ever played golf.'”
“In 2006, Stewart Cink and I were playing Paul Casey and Robert Karlsson, best-ball on Friday morning. The Ryder Cup can be totally overwhelming if you don’t feel confident about your game. I really felt very comfortable in the moment, but at the same time, I’m standing on the putting green about five minutes before my tee time, and I’m watching on the big screen as Tiger and Furyk are teeing off, and you can hear the roars like you’re walking into a heavyweight title fight. So sure enough, it’s our turn to get up there and I think it was Loren Roberts, Tom’s assistant captain, who came up and said, “I have a message from the captain: ‘Go out and play the best round of your life today.’ And gosh, I’m thinking, ‘Play the best round of my life? I’m just trying to get it airborne off the first tee!’ Obviously I was nervous, I was anxious, but at the same time I was excited, and this is why we play the game, why we work so hard, and I got up there and just laced it down the fairway and we were off to the races. As disappointing as the Ryder Cup was, for the most part when I got a chance to play I played pretty darn good. But if you want to talk about nervous, emotional and pressure-packed, it doesn’t get any bigger than the Ryder Cup. With the crowd and the roars and all that, every shot feels like the 72nd hole of a major.”