Because what used to be called the Great Britain-Ireland team was supposedly strengthened by the addition of two strong Spanish players and the Americans were supposedly weakened by having too many rookies, last week's Ryder Cup matches were expected to be very close. It was thought they might even come down to a last pressure putt, on which would hang the honor of flag and country. And for two days and much of a third the series was indeed more suspenseful than usual. But then the visitors ran into some kids who felt they were back playing college matches, and in a matter of an hour or so the whole affair turned into another rout for the good old U.S. of A.
Our leading patriots in the singles competition, in which the issue was ultimately decided, were Larry Nelson, Tom Kite, Mark Hayes, Andy Bean and finally John Mahaffey—all of them considerable names on the pro tour but rookies in international team competition. They had been sent out early against some of the best players Great Britain and Europe could muster. And because they were the ones who were the most excited about playing for the U.S. in the first place, it was more than fitting that they did the job.
After two days of best ball and foursomes play at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., the U.S. had taken an 8½-7½ lead, mostly because of the partnership of Larry Nelson and Lanny Wadkins, who were undefeated in four matches, three of them blistering triumphs over the Spanish twosome of Severiano Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido. The home folks needed something like that. The U.S. was playing without Jack Nicklaus, who failed to qualify for the Ryder Cup team for the first time since he became eligible; Tom Watson, who departed just before play began to attend the birth of his first child, a daughter; and Ben Crenshaw, another non-qualifier. So it was a pleasant surprise that this somewhat unlikely combination of Wadkins, a Ryder Cup veteran who is reckoned temperamental, and Nelson, who has a reputation for unflappability, produced four of the U.S. points going into the showdown.
In Sunday's decisive head-to-head matches, Nelson kept it up. The luck of the blind draw put him against Ballesteros, and all the straight-hitting Nelson did was bury Seve, the visitors' biggest gun, with three birdies on the three opening holes, plus three others further along. He ended up whipping the British Open champion 3 and 2.
September 23, 1979
It was the start of the American drive to victory. Earlier, Wadkins, who had never lost in Ryder Cup play, had run into a very tough Scot named Bernard Gallacher, and Gallacher had given the Europeans hope by stunning Wadkins, 3 and 2, evening the team score.
Now it was time for Kite to give it the rookie try, and some try it would have to be, because he was three down to Britain's Tony Jacklin with only eight holes to play. Kite promptly ripped off birdies at the 11th, 12th and 13th holes, and suddenly he had drawn even. Then an eight-iron shot to within kick-away distance of the cup on the 16th got him his fifth birdie in a stretch of eight holes and all but sewed up the win over Jacklin that started the landslide.
The day before, Kite had hit a beautiful iron into the pin on the 17th, and his partner, Hale Irwin, had allowed him to try an eight-foot birdie putt before he struggled for his own par. The putt fell in, which said everything one needed to know about the attitude of the young U.S. team. Fired up.
"What was the strategy in letting Tom putt first?" Irwin was asked.
"I let him putt," Irwin replied, "because his eyes were this big!"
On his way back to the course on Sunday to see what his teammates were up to, Kite ran into Mark Hayes, who had just holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the last green to nail Garrido and give the U.S. a 12-9 lead.
"Way to go, babe," said Kite, as he and Hayes bumped directly into one another. "Awriight!" said Hayes.
Kite and Hayes then quickly went out on the 18th green and waited for John Mahaffey to protect a one-up lead on Brian Barnes. It had just gone up on the board that Andy Bean had defeated Britain's Michael King, 4 and 3, so the young Americans knew that a Mahaffey victory would clinch at least a tie in the match, and, under the rules, the Cup would be retained by the defending country.
When Mahaffey got home with his win, Kite and Hayes were the first to leap onto the green and congratulate him. Kite had been saying all week that he had not been so nervous on a golf course since he played for the University of Texas. Now on Greenbrier's 18th green, there were three very happy former collegians who had done the job not for money, just for pride. It was the University of Texas (Kite) embracing the University of Houston (Mahaffey) and both of them embracing Oklahoma State (Hayes).
Only one more match would truly matter, and moments later it was settled when Irwin finished demolishing Des Smyth, 5 and 3. The win guaranteed a U.S. victory. That a couple of old pros, Lee Trevino and Hubert Green, who were still on the course, would win their matches, too, mattered only in the final tabulations, which read 17-11.
The kids had done it earlier. Nelson had gone undefeated in five matches, four of them against none other than Ballesteros. Nelson, whose single previous experience at match play occurred seven years ago, wanted to give Wadkins the credit. "He coached me through those team matches," he said. "I didn't even know how to mark my ball in match play. He made most of the birdies. I just kept driving it in the fairway."
Hayes, too, deserved credit. He had arrived as a last-minute substitute for Watson and was able to play only the quickest of practice rounds among the oaks, maples and hickory trees that spill down the hill from the enormous and elegant hotel. He even missed hearing the Radford (Va.) University band play a variety of national anthems at the opening ceremony. In fact, he got to The Greenbrier barely in time to put on one of the team's color-coordinated ensembles and go listen to non-playing U.S. Captain Billy Casper introduce Lee Trevino at the pre-match banquet as "a credit to his race." Casper then introduced a woman named Rose as Trevino's wife. Now we're getting somewhere, because Rose is the wife of black golfer and Ryder Cup player Lee Elder. Casper obviously had his Lees crossed up.
There are always "international incidents," albeit minor ones, in Ryder Cup play. This year nobody found anything to get worked up over until Sunday morning, when a great deal was made over the Envelope Case. The rules state that on Saturday night both captains could put the name of a player in a sealed envelope, which was to be locked in a safe. In the event that either of those players had to withdraw because of injury, his match would be declared a tie—and the player whose name was in the other team's sealed envelope would sit out the singles. The foreign captain, John Jacobs of Britain, understood the rule. Casper did not, nor did any of the U.S. PGA officials until the last minute. Jacobs put the name of Mark James, who had sustained a rib injury in Friday's competition, in his envelope. Casper put Trevino's name in. Why? "I was told to put down the name of a player I wanted to protect," said Casper. "I thought putting in Lee's name meant he was guaranteed to play. It was just the opposite."
On Sunday morning Casper learned the truth and asked Jacobs if he could please have the U.S. envelope back. Rather than cause a scene, the Europeans agreed. Casper took Trevino's name out and put Gil Morgan's in. Morgan, who had dislocated his left shoulder when he fell on Friday, and James did not play, but each earned half a point for his team. Having gotten his envelope back, Casper now had the benefit of seeing the British-European lineup, so he put Trevino against Sandy Lyle, in the cleanup spot.
It might well have mattered if the Ryder Cup had been decided by the last match and Trevino had won it. But the rookies had taken care of everything earlier. As long as Nelson and Kite and Hayes and Bean and Mahaffey were out on the golf course, Trevino could have stayed in the envelope.