As Nick Faldo staggered in exultation, Seve Ballesteros's
intensity turned to tears and Curtis Strange erected the kind of
stoneface only those with severe internal wounds find necessary,
it was clear why we can't avert our eyes from the Ryder Cup
competition. Its awe-inspiring tension wrenches open windows
into the guts of golf's otherwise opaque heroes.
So after 24 players exposed their games to the cruelest scrutiny
at Oak Hill last week, it was easy to draw a simple conclusion:
A superior U.S. team lost to an essentially ragtag European side
because, when the pressure peaked, a majority of the Americans
were found wanting. What else but a fundamental lack of
character could explain the final-day disaster?
In the singles, which it has historically dominated, the U.S.
could produce only 4 1/2 points out of a possible 12 when only
another half point was needed. Of the five singles matches that
went to the 18th hole, the Americans won none. Not only would a
par on the last hole by either Brad Faxon or Jay Haas have
allowed the U.S. to retain the Cup, but also a par on any of the
last three holes by Strange would have been enough. In a sport
that seems to cry out for definitive statements about its
players, golf's acid test had revealed the Americans as
collectively soft. It all makes for a case that the Los Angeles
district attorney's office would probably envy, except for one
thing: Ryder Cup play is still golf, and golf doesn't work that
As much as we might like them to, even the biggest moments do
not fully define a player. The exasperating truth about golf is
that everyone succumbs to pressure randomly and frequently. It
is well known that players don't like the word choke, but not
because of its rawness. They don't like it because it's the
public's word, and in the minds of the players, the public
simply doesn't understand. While the golf public commonly
perceives a player who "choked" to have a permanent
psychological flaw, the brotherhood of professional golfers sees
the pitfalls of pressure as an everyday obstacle to be dealt
with dispassionately. The wise pro knows that some days you
handle it and some days you don't, and for all the sports
psychologists studying the phenomenon, the fundamental why
remains a mystery.
It's instructive that the victims of ugly collapses draw genuine
empathy from fellow players even as those players may benefit
from the collapses. When Bernhard Langer missed the five-footer
that would have won the 1991 Ryder Cup, he was consoled by
players from both sides. Strange received similar support at Oak
Hill. Dealing with and regularly being defeated by pressure is
what keeps golf pros humble and respectful of the game's
caprice. When players say good luck to each other before rounds,
it conveys a wish not for good bounces but for a day when the
stress of competition is manageable. Fuzzy Zoeller's favorite
invocation, "Just give me a chance to choke," reflects the view
that nerves reduce the difference between good play and bad to
essentially a roll of the dice.
Obviously, some golfers handle pressure better than others.
Corey Pavin has become the exemplar of the clutch player, while
Jeff Maggert's reputation for poor finishes at big moments grew
with his 4-and-3 loss on Sunday to Mark James. Then again, Pavin
recently threw away a 3-up lead on the back nine to lose to Mark
McCumber in the Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf.
And Faldo, who on Sunday hit his wedge stiff on the 18th to beat
Strange, squirted an almost identical shot over the green in a
shockingly inept display to lose a foursomes match on Friday.
Nobody is, or ever has been, bulletproof.
Pressure and the erratic way that players respond to it is the
reason anything is possible in golf. On Sunday it was Europe's
day to handle the heat and America's day not to. If that seems
like a simplistic assessment, it is also why golf is so
intoxicating. If a player can absorb disappointment and remain
in the arena, the game will give him endless opportunities to
"I didn't come through when I should have, and I'm going to
remember that for a long time," said a forthright Strange of his
failure in the Cup's most vital match. "But if you can't take
the bad with the good, you shouldn't be out here. I'll be back.
I'd like to get back out there right now and be put in that same
Such indomitability is why U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins picked
Strange for his team and why he would do so again.
"I'd do everything over again," Wadkins said. "Things just
didn't go right. Really, that's just golf."
And golf is what happened Sunday at Oak Hill.