It's not often that you get 25,000 consultants on a business
decision, as Tom Kite did last week at the Ryder Cup Q school
(sometimes known as the PGA Championship) at Winged Foot, just a
three-wood or two from New York City. Kite needed to make two
at-large picks for his team by Sunday night, and the
tristate-area citizenry were very helpful.
"Tommy, go wid Freddy!" a man from Queens opined. "Fuhgidaboudit!"
"Tom, you're stoooopid if you don't take Payne!" an expert from
the Bronx offered.
"Screw 'em, Tommy!" an overserved Long Islander put forth. "Pick
Then the players would deposit their two cents in his ears.
"Mags [Jeff Maggert] and Freddy [Couples]," Davis Love III kept
whispering to him. "Unless I screw up ... then you've got to
"Go old," the older players told him.
"Go hot," the younger players told him.
When Kite was done trying to play golf through that all day, he
would go back to his hotel room at the Rye (N.Y.) Town Hilton
and settle in for a long night of more chips and flops--on his
laptop, that is--examining the day's leader board, the stats,
the year's results and his mountains of E-mail. "You can't
imagine all the E-mail," he said wearily.
Then he would work on his ups and downs. Up for an hour. Sleep
for an hour. Up. Sleep. Seven and eight times a night, he would
wake up and stare at the ceiling, trying to make his decision.
"I'm sure I woke up my wife every night yelling out names of
guys in my sleep," Kite said.
He had already committed to Love, his longtime protege and Ryder
Cup partner, promising that if Love somehow was bumped from 10th
place on the points list, he would pick him anyway. "Just go
play the PGA and don't worry about it," Kite told him. Freed,
Love went out and blistered the Foot, moving up to fourth on the
list and, oh, yeah, winning by five.
Maggert kept peopling Kite's sleep. Maggert had played well all
year but has a reputation for having his shirt collar shrink
three sizes on Sunday (see 1997 U.S. Open). He was 11th on the
points list, not good enough, and sitting in fifth or 10th place
last Saturday night at Winged Foot, depending on how you look at
a six-way tie for fifth. He had to finish eighth to make the
team on points. If he failed, would Kite risk taking him?
"Probably not," said Maggert. "I think I have to make it on
Problem? What problem? Maggert nailed the round of his life on
Sunday, a course-record-tying, five-under-par 65 that vaulted
him straight to Spain. "I played to try and win," said Maggert.
"That's the only way I could play it."
Greatest day of your life, Jeff? "Not yet," he said.
Maggert's Christmas was Tommy Tolles's root canal, since it was
Tolles whom Maggert bumped from in at nine to out at 11, after
Tolles had spent the entire summer in the top 10. "I stuck a
dagger in my own heart," he said. Would Kite pick him? "No way,"
Tolles said. "I haven't won, I have no Ryder Cup experience, and
I'm not a big name." He was right.
With four rookies on the team (Tiger Woods, Justin Leonard, Jim
Furyk and Scott Hoch), Kite worried that he needed some
graybeards around, so he spent a few dozen lightless hours
pondering 47-year-old Tom Watson or 52-year-old Hale Irwin.
Watson blew himself out by missing the cut at the PGA, but Irwin
played a practice round with Kite last Tuesday--"a beautiful,
flawless round," Kite said--and would finish a respectable 29th.
Hale Irwin? Senior tour? Glasses? True, but also a six-time
winner on the over-50 circuit this year and the owner of a
driver that goes straighter than a Kansas highway, perfect for
tricky and tiny Valderrama. Plus, he and his .700 winning
percentage in the Ryder Cup (13-5-2) have been through more
tight spots than a ventilator repairman.
Still, when word got out that Kite was thinking of going with a
creamed-corner, helpful opinions flowed in. "Why go old?" said
Paul Azinger. "I say go hot. How much experience does a Tiger
Woods, a Justin Leonard or a Jim Furyk need? These guys don't
need a babysitter."
"I think you need someone who's been there," said No. 28 Payne
Stewart, lobbying hard for himself. "You know what a Ryder Cup
is like? It's chaos. No matter how good a young guy is, you
can't imagine how wild it is. They've never had people pulling
against them before, people everywhere, people hanging in the
"To me, all this talk about experience is absurd," said No. 15
David Duval, whom Kite was also eyeing, though Duval has never
played in the Ryder Cup. "It's like a guy trying to get a job.
They won't hire you without experience, but how do you get
experience if they won't hire you?"
Besides, why go with Irwin when there was an old guy playing
better than him. That would be Tom Kite himself. Well, who
wouldn't want a guy who this year was second at the Masters,
tied for 10th at the British, was fifth at Winged Foot, is
undefeated in Ryder Cup singles (5-0-2), and wouldn't bug the
captain about being left out of any matches? This, too, was a
matter Kite heard much about.
"No," said Watson, who captained in '93. "Under no circumstances
should he pick himself. You can't do both. There's too much
peripheral work." Said Maggert, "If Tom wasn't the captain,
everybody would be saying he ought to be one of the picks." Said
Lehman, "I'd take Kite." Said one well-dressed New York woman,
"Take himself? That would be so tacky."
Kite's tympanums were starting to ache. "People keep saying it
can't be done," he grumbled. "Well, doggone, I've been told all
my life that I can't do something and there's nothing I like
more than proving to 'em that I can, too, do it."
The awful truth, though, is that rookies seem to do just as well
as vets at these things. U.S. rooks are 59-63-8 since all of
Europe joined the Ryder Cup fray in 1979. It wasn't the rookies
who cost the U.S. the last Cup, anyway. They went 11-6. It was
the vets, who went 11-15-1 at Oak Hill.
So how about somebody in between? No. 16 Fred Couples has played
in four Ryder Cups but is only 37. "When he really wants to
play, he's as good as we've got," said Kite. Of course, there
are the drawbacks: Couples's tender back, the condition of his
cancer-stricken father, the condition of his girlfriend, Thais
Baker, who is fighting breast cancer and might not be able to
travel to Spain, and his own ambivalence about getting off the
couch. "I know a lot of guys have told Tom they're disappointed
in Freddy's lackluster attitude," said Tolles, "but he's been
playing well lately."
How about No. 12 Steve Jones? He called his 40th-place finish in
the PGA "one of the biggest chokes of my career." A long shot
like No. 126 John Daly, who held the Thursday lead? "Did they
pick me when I won the '91 PGA? [No.] Did they pick me when I
won the '95 British? [No.] Those were both Ryder Cup years."
Would Kite pick him this time? No.
Mark Brooks, No. 13? His missed cut in the PGA was the fifth in
his last seven tournaments. Sorry. Lee Janzen, No. 24, who
bulled his way to the second-round lead at Winged Foot with a
Or what about that kid Duval, who makes birdies the way Contact
makes tiny time pills--which makes him a very good match
player--and was a sizzling 4-0 in the '96 Presidents Cup? Double
That's the trouble with America. Too many choices.
When Kite made it to his Sunday tee time, lodged in third place
but seven shots behind the leaders, things suddenly got simple.
He was paired with one of his applicants, the curly haired
Janzen, and you sensed a wordless job interview coming up. "Huge
break for me," said Janzen.
Janzen put on a dimple-and-groove recital, firing a one-under 69
on the murderous Winged Foot track, getting up and down from
everywhere but the Hutchinson River Parkway and making a birdie
on 18 to knock the captain clean out of fourth place, a little
push that cost Kite $10,000. "You had the team made until you
cost me that money," Kite groused.
Kite went back to his hotel, cleaned up and got a corner booth
in the restaurant with his two main advisers, his wife, Christy,
and his assistant coach, Dennis Satyshur, who is the head pro at
Caves Valley in Owings Mills, Md., and a longtime friend. After
the entrees they pared the list down to five names: Couples,
Duval, Irwin, Janzen and Tolles. By the end of coffee it was two.
First Kite called Freddy and told him he was in. "You know all
this talk about distractions?" Couples said. "Something like
this sort of helps. I get on the course and forget all about
Then Kite called Janzen.
"Lee?" Kite said on the phone.
"Yeah?" said Janzen.
"It's Tom. You're in."
"I'm in!" screamed Janzen, followed by whooping and hollering
and the phone hitting the ground.
"Freddy was the consensus choice of all the players on the
team," Kite said. "Lee? Well, I'm looking for guys who can get
the job done when it counts, and Lee did it right in front of
the Ryder Cup captain. That really impressed me."
Not Irwin? "I felt that Lee was just as hot and playing the
regular Tour," said Kite.
Not Kite? "If I had qualified for the team, or maybe been 11th,
I would have played. But if we lost I would've second-guessed
myself: Did I do as good a job of captaining as I could have?
Did I miss something?"
He hasn't missed much so far. Looking back, it was a
splendiferous week for Captain Insomnia. Start with the fact
that players had to earn almost 200 more points to qualify for
his team than they did in '95. Then figure that he gets Love at
his peak, bumps a kid with no experience (Tolles) for a solid,
heat-glazed pro (Maggert), maybe catches Janzen in one of his
streaks, grabs Freddy when his back is right (and even if it
goes Kite can replace him with, say, Irwin, free of charge) and
ends up with a young, live-wired, U.S. Steel of a team. Even
Kite's two wild cards can't possibly cause much controversy (see
Lanny Wadkins picks Curtis Strange, 1995.)
"Look at this team," says Love. "I mean, you put Woods and
Mickelson on a team, and I'd feel like I'm 2 down when I walk to
the 1st tee." On paper this has the makings of Bush versus
Dukakis. Says Tom Lehman, "This team looks like the future of
But Kite had heard too much. "It does look awesome," he says,
"but you know how it'll be."
We know. Grueling. Tense. Ulcer-making. But easier than last week.
CAN THEY TAKE THE HEAT?
Pressure is the X factor in the Ryder Cup. Only those players
who can keep their cool during the heat of the battle are likely
to succeed on Sept. 26-28 at Valderrama in Sotogrande, Spain.
How will the U.S. team hold up? The SI Heat Index is based on
ability, past performance and--hey, this isn't an exact
science--our best guess. Players are rated by how much heat they
can tolerate before boiling over (the higher the boiling point
the better) and listed in order of qualification.
***** Man of steel
**** No sweat
*** Is it just me, or is it warm in here?
* Gooey mess
1 Tiger Woods
Eats asbestos. Forget experience, he's a surefire W in singles.
2 Justin Leonard
Mr. Freeze. His game's perfectly suited to Valderrama.
3 Tom Lehman
Strong silent type. Could light a fire under someone like O'Meara.
4 Davis Love III
Multipurpose veteran. Could hold Couples's hand or assist Kite.
5 Jim Furyk
Point guard and quarterback in high school. He wants the ball.
6 Phil Mickelson
Awesome at Oak Hill, he's a natural born killer in match play.
7 Jeff Maggert
Got rid of the apple at Winged Foot, but he's still a second
8 Mark O'Meara
Not his sort of gig. Either write him a check or write him off.
9 Scott Hoch
We dare anyone to get in his face. Sleeper pick to reign in Spain.
10 Brad Faxon
Charred at Choke Hill, might burst into flames at any moment.
11 Fred Couples
Experienced, yes; motivated, no. Only good for three matches.
12 Lee Janzen
A reach by Kite? Hope they're not calling him Curtis when it's