You never leave the baby with the gardener. You never leave the good china with the piano mover. And you never leave the biggest putt of the Ryder Cup with a chunky former plastics worker from Italy.
But on Sunday at a shivering Belfry, in central England, the European team did exactly that. When the Eurostars—the millionaires and the guys with their own sweater lines—had pretty much spat out their chances, their dreams were left in the grip of a 36-year-old Ryder Cup rookie named Costantino Rocca, a man who looks less like a golfer than like the guy who carves the pork at the Rome Hilton buffet. "The tension," Rocca said later in uncomfortable English. "Very big."
Yeah, well, welcome to the Ryder Cup, during which salivary glands fail and lungs don't inflate. "I think everybody was stretched to where he had never been before," said Nick Faldo.
For Rocca, this was a place he had never even thought of before. He had led America's Davis Love, then trailed, then gone one up at 17, with the Ryder Cup almost certainly turning on the outcome of his match.
So here was Rocca—a man who has never played in the U.S., a man who was still making boxes in a plastics factory at age 25—suddenly with all of Europe at his feet, which he could barely sec anyway. If you could have seen behind Rocca at that moment, you would have seen how Euro was suddenly getting trashed. After having moved ahead 12½ to 10½ midway through Sunday's pairings, the Europeans were in trouble. America's Jim Gallagher Jr., a Ryder rookie, was stunning the dashing Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros, 3 up with two to play. Raymond Floyd, who is 51 and playing like 21, was on his way to upsetting Dashing Spaniard, the Sequel (Jose Maria Olazabal) 2 and 0. Tom Kite, who may never lose a Ryder Cup singles match (he's now 5-0-2), was driving par 4s and slaying the great Teuton, Bernhard Langer, 5 and 3. Even the brave Faldo, who had made a hole in one with a six-iron on the 189-yard 14th, was getting nowhere with Paul Azinger.
If you could have seen ahead of Rocca (rhymes with polka) at that moment, you would have seen that Fred Couples of the U.S. had finally gotten the bats out of his Belfry and had fought the unbeaten Welshman, Ian Woosnam, to a tie. The middle-rung Europeans were also finding that the Americans had sewn holes shut. Barry Lane was 3 up with five to play against America's Chip Beck—the man supposedly born with no guts—when Lane was sucked Beckwards and lost. It wasn't really Lane's fault. On the par-5 15th he made birdie and lost the hole. Beck made eagle. Six-time European Ryder Cupper Mark James was getting his knickers handed to him by Payne Stewart 3 and 2. Didn't matter how you looked at it, the match would pretty much come down to this three-footer, which must have looked like 33 to Mr. Rocca.
Welcome to the best week in golf. If every week were Ryder Cup week, golf would not trail Veg-o-Juicer infomercials in the Nielsens. Unfailingly, Ryder Cup offers the most thrilling, ulcerogenic, nonstop story line in the sport. This time, however, it was not like that. It was better.
The gamesmanship started at the pre-tournament banquet when U.S. captain Tom Watson refused to let Europe's Sam Torrance get his menu autographed by the U.S. players during dinner, thereby getting himself in the soup. Torrance fumed and all England simmered. FORK OFF! one tabloid headline read.
The pressure, however, seemed to make the play only more focused. Good players got great. The abbreviated American, Corey Pavin, won three of his four team matches. No problem for the Euros, who countered with their own sawed-off shotgun, Woosnam, a man no taller than a carry bag, and 93% of that is heart. Woosie simply won his first four matches.
Great players got godly. Europe's Godzilla, Faldo, took on America's King Kong, Azinger, and the result was one of the best ties in Ryder Cup history. Nearly every time Azinger made a birdie in that Friday four-ball match, Faldo would top him. Their partners—Colin Montgomerie for Faldo and Couples for Azinger—might as well have been roaming the ear-splitting crowds selling pork pies. Faldo and Azinger made 13 birdies between them, seven for Faldo, six for Azinger.
Finally, on the 16th hole, Azinger made a birdie that Faldo couldn't cover, and the Americans led by a hole. But even as moonlight began to fall, Faldo answered with still one more birdie, at 17, and the match was tied again, with no light left. They slept that night with a 7:30 a.m. tee time to play one lousy hole.
Playing in a nose-reddening 49° chill, facing the scariest tee shot at The Belfry, Couples hit his drive into the water, and Montgomerie hit his second shot into the same. So much for the junior varsity. Azinger made a stirring two-putt par, leaving Faldo with a 12-footer to save the tie. He dunked it. Monster match halved. "Man," said Azinger, shaking his head, "that guy's just stronger than dirt." The Europeans led by a point.
Try this out for killer golf: On Saturday afternoon the team of Olazabal and Joakim Haeggman of Sweden were 2 down with two holes to play to Floyd and Stewart. Both Europeans had half-wedges into the par-5 17th green. Haeggman went first and left his shot four feet from the pin, to the vibrating roar of the fans. That, however, was not good enough for Olazabal, who has been trained by Ballesteros to think he is Anthony Quinn in The Guns of Navarone. He asked Haeggman to run up 80 yards and mark the ball. Nobody had seen gall like that since Walter Hagen once asked his caddie to tend the pin from 180 yards.
But wait. Ollie proceeded to hit his wedge off the pin, to within two feet of the hole. Remember this, kids: When Jose Maria says he needs it marked, he needs it marked.
That's when Stewart stepped up and sank a 15-foot putt that rendered the pin-rattling moot. It was sweet redemption for Stewart, who had been benched for Friday's opening rounds of foursomes (alternating shots) and four-ball (better ball). "On the back nine Payne was just putting the eyes out of it," said Floyd like a proud father. Floyd would end up winning three of his four matches and announcing his Ryder Cup retirement. "I won't be this good a player in two years," he said.
Even that wasn't the best story of the day. The best story was how America's scrubs, Beck and John Cook, who had sat the pine for the first three rounds, finally got called in by captain Watson for the four-ball on Saturday afternoon. Their assignment was to beat Faldo and Montgomerie, who hadn't been beaten. It was like telling the 12th man on the bench to go cover Jordan. Write if you live.
So what happened? The usual. Faldo made his 35-footer for a birdie on number 1. But then Cook did something crazy. He drained one on top of Faldo's ball from 18 feet to tie the match. Cook made another birdie on four and another one on seven. Then a funnier thing happened. The Yanks refused to give back the lead. It was U.S. Steel, 2 and 0.
"There he is!" Beck kept hollering at Cook afterward. "John the Lionhearted! Lionheart! The guy made so many clutch putts today! There he is!"
Cook wasn't gloating, but you could see how much the win meant. Faldo had taken away his British Open at Muirfield in 1992, gaining three strokes on him in four holes after Cook had taken a two-shot lead. "All this time, that's what the whole thing was about," said Cook's father, Jim. "He wanted to play Faldo."
Beck wasn't gloating either, but he could have been. Roundly criticized for having laid up on the par-5 15th at the Masters this year with a chance to win, Beck proved himself grittier than Lava. He won both his matches and is now 6-2-1 in Ryder Cup competition. "Anybody who can criticize Chip Beck now," said Azinger, "better look in the mirror."
All of which put the tinsel on a remarkable Saturday afternoon rally for the Americans, who had come from three points behind after that morning's foursomes to within one, 8½ to 7½. It marked the first time in 12 years that the U.S. had won the Saturday afternoon session of four-ball, and it set up a blustery, emotional Sunday nobody on either side of the Big Duck Pond will soon forget.
Come to think of it, the emotions began Saturday night, when the Europeans announced that the Menu Man, Torrance, might not play. Not only was his heart broken over his autograph collection, but he had an injured toe as well. That meant Watson had to put one player's name in an envelope before the singles drawings. If Torrance couldn't play Sunday, neither could the man in the envelope. "Who you putting in the envelope?" Lanny Wadkins asked Watson that night.
"I haven't got a clue," said Watson.
"Put me in it," said Wadkins.
Wadkins insisted that because he hadn't earned enough points to make the team on his own and was there as one of Watson's two selections, he should step aside, even though nobody wanted to play the Ryder Cup more. "I had tears in my eyes," said Watson. On Sunday as he was sending his players to their matches, Watson said, "If it gets too tough out there for you, remember what Lanny did for you."
Nobody remembered that more than Love. Standing on 17 as Rocca looked at his 25-footer for birdie, Love sidled over to Watson and said, "It's about time for him to miss one and me to make one." Sure enough, Rocca ran his approach putt too far and began to unravel. He started fidgeting. He took too long.
Now the match was tied and so were Rocca's nerves. This is the former caddie-master of the Golf Club L'Albenza near Bergamo; an eight-year polystyrene worker; a man whose only win in 11 years on the European tour came this season; the first Italian to play in the Ryder Cup. He wasn't ready for this. Love let him walk alone to the gruesome 18th tee and wait there for a full minute, wallowing in the bile of his mistake. Then Love arrived and hit the best drive of the week there, a drawn three-wood that was too perfect to copy. Rocca, the poor man, made a scared, quick swing that left him way right and with no chance for par.
Still, Love needed a six-footer to win the hole, and six feet at the Ryder Cup is just enough room to dig yourself a very nice grave. "I almost threw up on myself," said Love, a Ryder Cup rookie himself. "I couldn't breathe. There was no saliva in my mouth. It's one thing for me to miss a putt to lose the Masters. But to miss a putt to let down your team, that's bad."
He stepped up to the putt, put it in the center of the hole, walked over to Wadkins and said, "That putt's for you."
Maybe no Ryder Cup will ever again come down to the final putt on the 18th hole, as it did in 1991 in Kiawah, S.C., but the Americans are still playing for their reputations in this event, and it is here they are judged like no place else. So, for these Americans, on a day they won the final round of singles 7½ to 4½ to secure a 15-13 victory, this year's Cup was as sweet as sugar candy. "This," said Watson, "is the best feeling I've ever had in golf."
Across the way, Rocca's eyes were rimmed red, and his heart was taking up six times its weight in excess stomach acid. "The team is sorry for me," he said. "They all pat me. I miss putt because I go to look too quickly the ball go at the hole."
There was a heavy silence. "The tension," he said. "The tension."