On the 1st green, in his first match, in his first Ryder Cup,
Peter Oosterhuis leaned forward to look at the hole. "And a
butterfly flew out," he recalls.
Sprang out of the cup and fluttered off a Missouri green
sparkling with dew. His foursomes partner, Peter Townsend, and
their opponents, Arnold Palmer and Gardner Dickinson, paid no
particular attention to this colorful omen. But they caught the
next portent. Oosterhuis sank his putt--"from right across the
green"--for his first Ryder Cup birdie.
In Oosterhuis's time--specifically, Ryder Cups from 1971 to '81,
all won by the Americans--the hopelessly outmanned British
golfers looked for inspiration wherever they could find it. As
often as not, they found it in Oosterhuis, a towering Englishman
who underwent a metamorphosis every two years from lackluster
presence on the U.S. Tour to Ryder Cup sensation.
"We just didn't have the depth in Britain," Oosterhuis said
recently, stretching his 49-year-old frame to its full 6'5"
after a long session behind the mike in a cramped studio on
wheels. "Our top handful of players, Brian Barnes, Bernard
Gallacher, Tony Jacklin, could compete, but our last few players
really couldn't be expected to beat the last few Americans."
Oosterhuis is the lead (and only) analyst for the Golf Channel's
coverage of the European tour. For 2 1/2 years he and the wry
Scottish anchor, Renton Laidlaw, have conducted a civilized
dialogue, in back-of-the-church voices, while watching golf
balls veer and wobble on bumpy European greens. Oosterhuis's
voice--precise, preternaturally calm and authoritative--is the
one that after an hour or so seems to be generated from
somewhere in your own head. Says Laidlaw, "It's very listenable,
a voice you never get tired of."
Or so CBS, Oosterhuis's new employer, hopes. Pleased with the
results of a low-key tryout that put Oosterhuis in the 14th-hole
tower at this year's Masters and PGA Championship, the network
would like the well-traveled Brit for a full season of hushed
comment. Since Oosterhuis also plans to play the Senior tour
after his 50th birthday, next May 3, it's a safe bet that
America will soon be Oosterized.
What's it like, to be Oosterized? If you were a U.S. Ryder
Cupper in the '70s, it was like being pinned by your wings to a
piece of felt. Ask NBC's Johnny Miller, another well-known
player turned TV voice. Miller won 12 tournaments and dominated
American golf in 1974 and '75, and he already had 2 1/2 points
from the partners matches when he drew Oosterhuis in the singles
of the '75 Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley Golf Club, in Ligonier,
Pa. Miller was 2 up on the front side and about to go 3 up
through the 12th hole when the Englishman made a long birdie
putt and Miller missed a short one. Oosterhuis then made five
straight 3s and won the match, 2 up.
Ask Ray Floyd and Lou Graham, who were 4 up on Oosterhuis and a
young Nick Faldo after four holes of their 1977 foursomes match
at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. (The Brits rallied, running the
Union Jack up the pole on the 17th hole.) Ask Jack Nicklaus, who
replaced Graham as Floyd's partner for the afternoon four ball,
and lost 3 and 1 to Faldo-Oosterhuis.
Ask Gene Littler, Jerry McGee and J.C. Snead, all losers to
Oosterhuis in Ryder Cup singles. Ask Arnold Palmer, who was 0
for 2 against the Big O. (Or is it Big Oo?)
And certainly ask Lee Trevino. In 1973 at Muirfield, in
Scotland, Trevino was so confident the night before the singles
that he told his teammates, "If I don't beat Oosterhuis, I'll
kiss every ass in this room." When Trevino trudged back to the
U.S. locker room the next day after halving the match, he was
met by the entire U.S. side--all sitting with their pants around
Of course it was not all butterflies and rainbows for
Oosterhuis. He was a loser in his first three Ryder Cup matches,
twice paired with Townsend and once with Gallacher. The third
loss, which like the first two came against Palmer and
Dickinson, was notable for an incident that foreshadowed the
more intense Ryder Cup competition of the '90s. On the par-3 7th
hole at Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis, Palmer had just
hit his tee ball when Gallacher's caddie--a local looper and a
Palmer fan--said, "What did you hit, Arnold?"
Palmer, without thinking, said, "Four-iron."
"The way I remember it," Oosterhuis says, "an official
determined that the caddie was 'seeking advice' and the penalty
was loss of the hole--even though it was just a fan talking to
his hero. So that made things a bit tense."
Also a bit daunting for Oosterhuis, who was soon 0-3 as a Ryder
Cupper. Fortunately the 0-for-O ended in the sec ond afternoon's
four balls, as he and Gallacher edged Trevino and Billy Cas per
one up. That was apparently all the confidence-boosting that
Oosterhuis needed. The next morning he won a surprise point with
a 4 and 3 victory over the veteran Littler--"a player I greatly
admired"--and then got the thrill of his young life when he
learned in the team room that his afternoon opponent was Palmer.
("I was 23 years old, a wide-eyed kid, and I wanted to play
Palmer.") By the 13th tee Oosterhuis was 5 up on Palmer. It was
raining and the Americans had already won when Palmer jokingly
asked, "You just want to go in?"
Oosterhuis said, "Are you conceding?"
Palmer, of course, was not. The four-time Masters champion made
it to the 16th hole before falling 3 and 2.
Oosterhuis's Ryder Cup record (14-11-3) doesn't reflect how well
he played at his peak. He lost five of seven points in '79 and
'81, when his game was leaving him, but he was undefeated in
singles (6-0-1) in his first four Cups. "I'm proud of what I
achieved," he says, "but everything has to be tempered by the
fact"--and here he shrugs helplessly--"that we lost every match."
There is, of course, this question: How did one of Britain's
greatest Ryder Cuppers wind up so...so...obscure?
Oosterhuis has already provided one answer. His team went 0-6 in
his six matches, losing as badly as 21-11 and never finishing
within five points.
Another reason: He was less effective in stroke play. "He was a
great up-and-down guy," says Laidlaw, "second only to Michael
Bonallack. Peter could save par from anywhere." The young
Oosterhuis's swing was not particularly reliable, but he won 19
tournaments and led the European tour money list four straight
years, from 1971 to '74. When he jumped to the U.S. Tour in 1975
Oosterhuis found that his style didn't unnerve those American
stars who didn't have to actually watch him scramble. Or as
Laidlaw, who loves to needle Oosterhuis, puts it: "Most of the
American players could hit the green."
Consequently, Oosterhuis won only one tournament on the PGA
Tour--the 1981 Canadian Open--and finished no higher than 28th
on the money list in 12 seasons. His best finishes in majors
were second in the British Open (twice) and a third in the 1973
Masters, which he led after three rounds. In 1986, at 38, he
quit the Tour and took a club pro job at Forsgate Country Club
in Jamesburg, N.J. Six years later he became director of golf at
California's esteemed Riviera Country Club. There he divorced
his first wife, Anne, and married Riviera member Ruth Ann
Pittluck. In 1993 the Oosterhuises moved to London, where Peter,
according to Ruth, "began talking like an Englishman again."
That caught the attention of a Sky TV sports producer who needed
to fill an empty chair for the British feed of the 1993 PGA
Championship, at Inverness, in Toledo.
"I had never played at Inverness, but I did my homework," says
Oosterhuis, who supplied opinions whenever the American
commentators disappeared for commercials. The week after his
tryout, two European tour players praised his work, and one
said, "It must have been really helpful, having played the
course." Says Oosterhuis, "I decided if I could fool those
fellows, maybe I had a future in television."
Three years later the barrel-chested analyst is a seasoned
veteran, his natural gifts sharpened by the Golf Channel format,
which has him on mike with Laidlaw for three hours at a stretch.
His CBS stints, by way of comparison, rendered him invisible and
almost mute--a distant sentry interjecting the occasional "it
should break left to right" when prompted by anchor Jim Nantz
and longtime analyst Ken Venturi.
"With CBS you always have the option to push the button and make
a comment," Oosterhuis says, bouncing across the
Crans-sur-Sierre course in a golf cart on his way to tape an
opener for the Golf Channel's first-round coverage of the Canon
European Masters. "As a rookie I was hesitant to use it. The
action moves quickly and you don't have a lot of time. Mostly
it's a question of confidence, and that will come."
As a CBS full-timer, Oosterhuis will start as Nantz's man at the
17th hole. He may find, though, that he's needed closer to the
clubhouse. "I think he's a natural for the Venturi role," says
Laidlaw. "Peter belongs at the 18th, in the commentary box with
A meticulous planner, Oosterhuis has already launched his
American campaign--moving, for instance, to Scottsdale, Ariz.,
not far from CBS colleagues Gary McCord and Peter Kostis and
buying a house at Desert Mountain, where he'll have four courses
on which to hone his game for the Senior tour.
Today, though, he's standing with Laidlaw in an Alpine meadow,
20 yards below the 7th tee and some 5,000 feet above the Rhone
Valley. Each man holds a microphone and each looks over his
shoulder, as if expecting Julie Andrews to burst over the ridge
in her dirndl.
The hills are alive, as it happens. Not with music, but with
sweet yellow grasses and little blossoms that attract bees and,
dare we say it, butterflies.
Could be another omen.