Lanny Wadkins often relives the moment when he officially
qualified to shepherd others through golf's most harrowing
night, the Ryder Cup.
On the 18th hole of the penultimate singles match in 1983, with
the U.S. dead even with Europe, Wadkins, one down to Jose Maria
Canizares, faced a third shot of 80 yards to a pin cut hard
against the edge of a watery peninsula. Anything more than a
birdie and the U.S. would fail to win the matches for the first
time since 1957.
Encircled by anxious teammates, wives and U.S. captain Jack
Nicklaus, and sensing that history was watching, Wadkins stepped
up in his brisk way and buzzed a low-flying shot directly at the
flag. An eerie, Malamudian lightning bolt tore across the purple
sky a moment after impact. The ball spun to a stop 18 inches
from the hole, earning the most precious halve the Ryder Cup had
ever seen. The shot was so instantly legendary that moments
later, after the U.S. had won 14 1/2 to 13 1/2, Nicklaus kissed
the divot made by Wadkins's sand wedge.
Wadkins has his own measure for why the moment was a keeper.
When, on his walk to the green, he attempted some characteristic
nonchalance amid all the backslapping and congratulations, he
opened his mouth only to find he couldn't speak.
"That was the most pressure I have ever felt over a shot," says
Wadkins, who will captain the U.S. against Europe this week at
Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., in the 31st Ryder Cup. "But feeling
pressure means you are where you want to be. That's when it's
fun. That's when it means something. And it never means quite
what it does at the Ryder Cup."
The words are those of a natural Ryder Cup leader. And ever
since 1983, when the biennial matches suddenly became drenched
with paralyzing pressure and desperate competition, leaders have
become more valuable than ever.
By design and by necessity, the 12-man squads have been built
around "go-to" guys, players who know that in the team concept
of golf, it's not just how many, but how. As much as with their
solid golf, they can hold a team together with their solid
character, their empathy and their knack for remaining calm when
silent panic seems the natural reaction. A Ryder Cup leader can
sense the collective uncertainty and, through example, body
language or just plain chutzpah, not only say "follow me" but
also back it up.
Ryder Cup leaders over the last decade have come in several
packages. While Wadkins has brought brash insouciance, Curtis
Strange has inspired with a barely contained passion, Paul
Azinger with edgy intensity and Tom Watson with a tight smile
and an iron will. Leadership has even taken the form of Chip
Beck's down-home optimism, which in both 1991 and 1993 proved as
irresistible as it was corny. The Beck Effect reached its zenith
at The Belfry in '93, when during a team meeting he stood up and
uttered a particularly clunky homemade bromide: "Positive
thinking can overcome a mechanical breakdown." But the phrase
was so awkwardly earnest, and Beck's play with partner John Cook
in a crucial Saturday afternoon four ball against Nick Faldo so
inspired, that it became a team mantra. And when Beck came from
3 down with five to go to defeat Barry Lane one up in his
singles match on Sunday, he permanently transformed himself from
Gomer to "go-to."
"There is no question," says Wadkins, "that the things guys say
in those team meetings and at team dinners, the way they carry
themselves win or lose--all that adds up to how a team feels
about itself and how it will perform under the heat. It's
definitely been hard to swallow during the last few Ryder Cups,
and strong leaders free up the other players mentally to play
better. You need them to win."
The team dynamic is what makes the Ryder Cup such a desired
experience. In a sport that offers an ideal refuge for insular
types who prefer to plug along in a vacuum, the Ryder Cup allows
golfers to be real jocks, with a common burden as they share
each other's otherwise lonely struggles.
Of course, many players prefer the solitary route, and that
temperament has kept some top performers from becoming leaders.
Faldo, for example, has been the most consistent and best player
from Europe for several years, with a career 19-13-4 record
capped by brilliant play at The Belfry in 1993. But Faldo's
distant manner has kept him from being an inspiration to his
teammates. In 1991 a taciturn Faldo barely spoke to partners Ian
Woosnam and David Gilford in three losing matches.
On the American side, Fred Couples, though well-liked by his
teammates, has not felt comfortable in a leadership role in any
of his three previous Ryder Cups. In 1993 Couples snapped at
Watson, the captain, when Watson told him not to get discouraged
during a four-ball match he and Azinger would lose 6 and 5 to
Woosnam and Peter Baker. Afterward, Couples did not want to join
the rest of the team to watch the remaining matches until he was
convinced by Davis Love III that his presence would be important.
Ryder Cup teams have always had leaders, but their roles never
seemed particularly vital when the Americans were administering
biennial drubbings. Walter Hagen, the captain of the first six
U.S. Ryder Cup teams, not only insisted that his teams be
outfitted by the finest New York tailor, but also compiled a
7-1-1 record in the five Cups he played in. Ben Hogan, a
three-time captain, in 1967 spooked an already outgunned team
from Great Britain by coolly introducing the U.S. squad as
simply "the finest golfers in the world.'' The same brawny
charisma that made Arnold Palmer so attractive to fans made him
a magnetic leader to his teammates. Palmer won 22 matches, the
most in Ryder Cup history.
Truly significant leadership in the Ryder Cup began with the
emergence of Seve Ballesteros as a force in the event in the
'80s. By the consensus of his peers, both teammates and
opponents, Ballesteros's competitive spirit and gift for the
clutch shot almost singlehandedly transformed the matches into
the ultimate showcase of mano a mano golf. His partnership with
countryman Jose Maria Olazabal has been the most potent in Ryder
Cup history, while his singles matches, particularly those
against Fuzzy Zoeller in 1983, Tom Kite in 1985 and Azinger in
1989, have provided some of the game's greatest theater. And
even though he has not been Europe's best player for several
years and he comes to Rochester in the throes of a terrible
slump, Ballesteros at 38 remains the team's heart and soul.
"Seve has always been their leader, and he should always be on
the team as long as he can play at all," says Strange. "Europe
plays well because of Seve. He does everything possible to
win--coaching, making the pairings, being out there for every
match. He's also pretty intelligent about reading people. He
knows who he can intimidate and upset and who he can't, and how
to use that knowledge to win."
"He has a sort of tunnel vision," Mark James told Lauren St.
John in Seve: The Biography, "and at the Ryder Cup he channels
that into the performance he can get out of the team as a whole,
whereas someone like Faldo would tunnel it into his own personal
performance. Seve is very much on top of everything that's
happening to this team. Faldo isn't."
At the Ryder Cup, says Ben Crenshaw of Ballesteros, "it just
seems like he goes into a different gear.... It actually helps
his game. Some people, it frightens them and they have to go
into the week hoping they're playing well. But I think, no
matter how Seve is playing, it charges him up to the point where
he will be playing well."
American players carry some of the same feelings for Azinger,
who won't be playing at Oak Hill, and Strange, who will be, as
one of Wadkins's two captain's picks.
Despite his middling 6-9-2 record in four previous Ryder Cups,
Strange exudes a contagious ferocity upon which Wadkins based
his choice. Strange also turned in one of the great performances
in the history of the matches when he birdied the last four
holes in the final singles match in 1989 to defeat Woosnam 2 up
and salvage a tie for the U.S.
Strange learned how to flourish under Ryder Cup pressure by
observing veterans like Watson and, particularly, Raymond Floyd,
the captain of the 1989 squad, whom Strange credits with helping
him stay focused in his match with Woosnam. "Raymond has got
that presence that gives you confidence," says Strange.
Indeed, Floyd takes pride in bringing out the best in other
players. He has long been a student of leadership, having
absorbed the wisdom of Leo Durocher when the latter was the
manager of Floyd's beloved Chicago Cubs, and of Miami Dolphin
coach Don Shula, who has become a close friend in recent years.
He also paid attention to his own golfing models, Palmer and
Floyd's leadership was conspicuous when he nurtured Couples, who
had suffered a traumatic Ryder Cup in 1989, as his partner at
Kiawah Island in 1991. Floyd didn't miss an opportunity to
bolster Couples's conception of his own immense talent, and
Couples himself has said that the knowledge and confidence he
garnered from Floyd were instrumental in his prodigious level of
play in early 1992, when he won three tournaments, including the
"It's a subtle thing," Floyd says of his mentoring. "It's mostly
reassurance. There are certain things you can do in a team
situation to make your partner very comfortable. There are
players who can just absolutely carry another guy. Your partner
can freewheel because he feels in his mind that you can handle
it if it gets tense. And then he watches how you handle it and
learns from that."
But leadership can take many forms, and nobody taught Wadkins
what he did in 1993. After Europe's Sam Torrance withdrew from
Sunday's singles competition with an injury, thereby canceling
one of the final day's 12 matches, Wadkins went to captain
Watson and volunteered to be the U.S. player to sit out.
Watson at first resisted but then realized that Wadkins's
gesture was a masterly stroke of leadership. "I think the other
players realized the sacrifice he was making, because no one
wanted to play more than Lanny," Watson told John Feinstein in A
Good Walk Spoiled.
Before sending his team out to battle on Sunday, Watson told
them to think of Wadkins. And when Love made his six-footer to
defeat Costantino Rocca, one up, to guarantee a U.S. victory, he
pointed at Wadkins and said, "That was for you." Once again, as
he fully anticipates to be this week at Oak Hill, Wadkins was a