Cup overflows with great competition GOLF

PHIL JACKMAN

September 23, 1993|By Phil Jackman

It all came down to a 6-foot putt, the last shot in the last match on the last hole the last day. The Europeans had their lead guy, Bernhard Langer, zeroing in and it looked as if the Ryder Cup would once again belong to the underdogs.

Remember the matches at Kiawah Island in Florida two years ago?

Many have said the excitement and drama of that United States vs. Europe confrontation might never be matched, perhaps forgetting that two years before, in England, the competition was just as gripping.

When you think of golf, you think of guys strolling leisurely over beautifully manicured landscape, stopping every so often to smack shots that never seem to go awry. It's a putting contest, these weekly tests of medal play in Phoenix, Atlanta, Orlando, Fla., New Jersey or wherever.

Then there's the Ryder. "It's the best there is in golf," says Johnny Miller, former great player, team member and now golf commentator for NBC. "What makes it great is it's a team event."

Think about it. For 727 days, professional golf is cutthroat, individuals battling themselves and the inanimate golf course. Ho-hum. Sometimes, there's a playoff and we're reminded of how interesting and intense head-to-head competition can be no matter what the activity.

With team competition, 12-against-12 in this case, comes reliance on others, pressure to contribute, sitting on the sidelines and cheering and nationalism.

"More pressure than you ever dreamed possible on a golf course," says veteran Ray Floyd. "Hey, I've been booed on the first tee over there [Great Britain]."

American fans caught some flak for their, well, boisterous reaction to happenings on the seaside course in Florida in 1991. "If the Brits say they've never been guilty of the same thing when the matches have been played over there, they're fibbing," says Miller. "It's always been intense, the way it should be."

When Langer's putt slid by the hole at Kiawah, it meant he and Hale Irwin halved their match. It gave the United States a 14 1/2 to 13 1/2 victory and possession of the Cup for the first time since 1983. That was our winning score that time, too.

Close? To be sure. The last time the rivals squared off at the Belfry, site of this year's test beginning tomorrow (8 a.m. on USA Network), the teams tied, 14-14, allowing Europe to retain the Cup.

Play commences with foursomes in the morning, fourball in the ** afternoon. Saturday, when NBC moves in for a noon to 6 p.m. show, it's foursomes and alternate shot. After 72 holes and two days in the pressure cooker, the players get a reprieve (?) with singles play Sunday (NBC, 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.).

"But that's when everything is on the line," reminds Miller, who has never ingratiated himself with the players by constantly reminding that choking is a fact of life among golfers and the guys don't always make the right shot, physically or mentally.

Asked to expert the matches during a network preview show last weekend, Miller pointed out how young veterans Fred Couples, Paul Azinger, Corey Pavin and Payne Stewart now have the experience to go with their strong games giving us as potent a team as we've had in years.

"Depth plays into it," he continues, "and, among the young guys, there are question marks." He wondered how Lee Janzen, Davis Love III, John Cook and Jim Gallagher will react to the situation, stating, "these are the guys who are going to make or break our team."

It may sound like a cop-out when Miller sees play ending in a 14-14 tie, but he's been over the likely team pairings and matchups over and over again, and he's properly respectful of Europe's overwhelming talent, particularly at the top of its lineup.

American captain Tom Watson calls the Brit Nick Faldo "the best in the world right now." Then there's Seve Ballesteros, not playing well this year but perhaps the best Cup player ever, Langer, apparently over a neck injury, and Ian Woosnam, winner of a big tourney with a class field in France last weekend.

Couples, leading the Lancome Trophy competition by a couple of strokes entering the final day, had no fewer than six European team members streak by him in the final round. Meanwhile, Couples and Stewart were the only Americans who didn't take the week off.

Two years ago, incidentally, Faldo and Woosnam were paired the first day and lost both matches. The second day, each sat out a match and lost in their other test. Woosnam also lost his singles match, the two stars combining for just one point out of a possible six. Maybe Langer's missed putt wasn't the whole shooting match after all.

FACTS AND FIGURES

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Opponents: U.S., Europe

Venue: The par 36-3672, 7,177-yard Brabazon course at the Belfry

Format: Match play. Twenty-eight matches, one point each match; one-half point to each team for matches tied after 18 holes.

Schedule: Tomorrow: 4 foursomes matches, 4 fourball matches; Saturday: 4 foursomes matches, 4 fourball matches; Sunday: 12 singles matches.

History: United States has won 22 times; Europe (before 1979, Britain) five times; two ties.

Captains: United States: Tom Watson. Europe: Bernard Gallacher, England.

U.S. team: Paul Azinger, Chip Beck, John Cook, Fred Couples, Raymond Floyd, Jim Gallagher, Lee Janzen, Tom Kite, Davis Love III, Corey Pavin, Payne Stewart, Lanny Wadkins.

European team: Peter Baker, England; Seve Ballesteros, Spain; Nick Faldo, England; Joakim Haeggman, Sweden; Mark James, England; Barry Lane, England; Bernhard Langer, Germany; Colin Montgomerie, Scotland; Jose-Maria Olazabal, Spain; Costantino Rocca, Italy; Sam Torrance, Scotland; Ian Woosnam, Wales.

TV: Tomorrow: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (EDT), USA Network; Saturday: 12-6 p.m. (EDT), NBC; Sunday, 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (EDT), NBC.

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