Us vs. Them

Us vs. Them

Yeah, yeah I know, the U.S. Open is just around the corner, but the real story for me is how the Ryder Cup teams are shaping up. I can hardly believe it, but the great event is just a few months away.

It seems like yesterday that the villainous Justin Leonard was draining his horrible anaconda on the 17th green at Brookline.

Disgusting behavior if you ask me. But then again, I’m an ex-European Ryder Cup player.

Every two years, after the event, I am invariably asked to explain why some of the lesser-known European players seem to play so well against their higher ranked and more famous American opponents, so this year I thought I’d go early with my theory.

We have more idiots-in-arms, you see, and this is caused by an affliction, which, like foot-and-mouth disease, is rare in the U.S., but inescapable if you play in Europe for long enough. It’s called Eurosis, which is an all-pervading, malignant, brain disorder, caused by years of being ignored by the French, designed by Italians, confused by Norwegians, invaded by Germans, and misled by the Irish.

There is something about playing for a living in 20 different countries that binds the men of the European Tour close to one another. Playing in Europe is harder than playing in the United States, particularly from a travel standpoint, but it can also be more rewarding (although not financially).

Often, there can be 50 or 60 players on one aircraft and almost the entire field might be staying in just one or two hotels, so nobody’s life is private. Both celebration and sorrow are shared experiences. In Europe, it’s not the destination that matters; it’s the journey, and boy, did we have some journeymen when I was playing.

There was a guy named Brian Sharrock, who played the tour on a shoestring, and often drove from tournament to tournament to save money. Brian “Save-a-Shilling” Sharrock was a really nice guy, but, shall we say, a little tight with the old purse strings. He used to deliberately wake up in the middle of the night just to make sure he hadn’t lost any sleep.

Anyway, I digress. We were playing the Italian Open at Is Molas, on the island of Sardinia, a venue that was particularly hard to get to. Save-a-Shilling had elected to drive the early part of the tour, starting off in London, and had made the long journey through France, over the Alps, and down the length of Italy to a small fishing village south of Rome.

Rather than pay to put the car on a ferry, he parked it and decided to negotiate a foot-passenger rate with the captain of a fishing boat. He figured he could hop off at the port of Cagliari, and catch a cab to the hotel. Unfortunately, the captain spoke no English, but nodded and smiled politely as Save-a-Shilling pointed west, and repeated over and over again in very slow, loud English the word “SAR-DIN-EEA!” The captain beckoned him on board with his golf clubs and suitcase, and shortly thereafter they set sail out into the shimmering Tyrrhenian Sea. More than a day later, Save-a-Shilling realized that the word “Sardinia” was remarkably close to the Italian word meaning “sardines” — for which they were in the process of fishing. The captain had no intention of going anywhere near the port of Cagliari, and furthermore, he couldn’t understand why this silly English person was foaming at the mouth, pointing at the island, and dancing a hornpipe on his deck.

Of course, we didn’t know this as we played our practice rounds, but the boat was clearly visible from the coastal holes of the golf course. Had we been in possession of a good pair of binoculars, we might have caught a glimpse of Save-a-Shilling jumping up and down on the deck, gesticulating wildly at the smiling captain.

After 36 hours at sea, the old Italian sea dog spun the wheel around and headed at full steam back to the mainland, with a hold full of writhing, shining, silver sardines, which, incidentally, Save-a-Shilling said were absolutely delicious. Sadly, after he had paid the captain 100,000 lire (about $75) for the privilege of being unceremoniously dumped back onto the same wharf from whence he came, the fish worked out to about five bucks a pop. What a bummer, especially when you had to listen to a bunch of jeering colleagues do the math for you.

But that’s just the way it is over there. Every week you have to go through customs, and coming through Heathrow on your way back from Amsterdam, it can be difficult to explain to the greasy little official with the Hitler mustache that the marital aid in your carry-on luggage must have been planted by someone among that bunch of sniggering morons who have already gone through and are now mooning you through the plate glass.

These are idiots, and you love them. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen very often between Phoenix and Pebble Beach, especially since we lost Payne Stewart. If there is a God in heaven, Payne’s eternally naughty soul will be confounding somebody somewhere, you can be sure. Oh, how I miss his evil, gum-chewing chuckle.

The accommodation on the PGA Tour is pretty standard each week, which is another difference between the tours. A Holiday Inn is a Marriott is a Radisson or whatever. But in Europe, one week the players might be staying at the Palace in Madrid, and the next at some mildewed timeshare apartment on the Costa del Sol, a shoreline that is formed entirely out of the encrusted vomit of drunken British tourists. No such vagaries exist on this side of the pond, and probably never will, unless the Tour suddenly decides to go from Pebble Beach to Myrtle Beach.

In a freak accident, I won the 1986 Italian Open at Albarella, a resort island just outside Venice. I won it in a playoff — with whom I can’t remember. Some loser, obviously. I do recall, though, that there were no vehicles allowed on the little island, and all the players were issued with a bicycle, or in some cases, a tricycle, all of which were orange.

I was sharing a waterfront bordello with a couple of fellow morons, Richard Boxall and Derrick Cooper, who, because of their formidable circumferences, were known as the “Inflatable Friends.” Right next door, John Bland was sharing with Robert Lee and Mark Roe. Every morning we had a race to the course, and every morning Bland, the old windbag, dawdled behind Cooper and me and the rest of the young bucks, but was somehow magically waiting for us as we gasped our way into the clubhouse.

It was obvious, even to us, that this devious old dirigible had found a shortcut, but try as we did, we could never find it on the way home. Then, on the eve of the last round, we uncovered his secret. As we rounded the final bend, we found that he had been cutting through a sparse patch in the hedge and racing across an area of flat dirt, entering the clubhouse area between two concrete bollards which had been placed so as to disallow the entrance of anything wider than the two rear wheels of a tricycle. So naturally, Lee and Roe moved them closer together.

The following morning, Bland had just stubbed out his second Marlboro of the day, and was gloating as the boys sped off as usual. We had made a big production about how he was never going to catch us this time. Unfortunately, none of us was fast enough to get there in time to see him arrive, as he sailed majestically over the handlebars into the dirt, crumpling his third Marlboro up his nose in the process, leaving a twisted morass of spokes and rubber behind him. It would have initiated a lawsuit over here.

I will never forget leaving the golf course later that afternoon, with the Italian Open trophy under my arm. It was my very first win on the European Tour, and as I rang the bell on my bicycle to warn the departing spectators that I was wobbling behind them, they turned and applauded, shouting, “Bravo, Seve! Bravissimo!”

“My God,” I thought. “These morons think I’m Ballesteros!”

And just then I felt a slap on the back of my head as Seve breezed past on his tricycle, grinning like a basket of French fries. He looked over his shoulder as the crowd parted, and yelled, “Come on Irishman, I’ll race you to the apartments!” and set off, with his head down and his butt up.

I had just performed one of the greatest feats of my career, and right at that moment, all I could think of was that I had nowhere to put my prize. Then and there, I would have swapped the trophy for a basket in which to place it. (And if that isn’t Irish, my nose is a goldfish.)

With one hand on the handlebars, I wobbled furiously and pumped the pedals as hard as I could after Seve, but to no avail. He was sitting on a bench grinning broadly as I wheezed into the bike sheds outside the apartments.I did, however, get a handshake and a smile, which flooded me with goose bumps.

If I were to try to put my finger on why we Europeans seem to play better in team events than we do as individuals, I would say it’s probably because of the way Seve made me feel that day. I felt that one of my heroes was now my friend, and I was filled with a sense of childish glee that was totally devoid of any self-consciousness. Also, it was plain to see that Seve took pleasure in my reaction.

I wouldn’t make the Ryder Cup team until Kiawah Island in 1991, but when I did, I felt like a member of the club. Sam Torrance, my greatest friend and this year’s captain, would play four-ball and foursomes with me, and he, Seve, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Mark James, Bernhard Langer, and Jose Maria Olazabal all took the time to share with me the fact that they were just as nervous as I was.

Players on this side of the Atlantic are not thrust together like they are in Europe. They generally travel alone, and stay in many different hotels. This is not to say that they do not share adversity or form lasting friendships, but the game is more businesslike, less intimate, and as a result, I think that players are less likely to feel the same kind of thrill that I did.

I was in awe of the players on my team. On the PGA Tour, nobody can afford to be in awe of anybody, or they will get eaten up, like a sardine by a shark.

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