Tough Calls Picking the Ryder Cup wild cards was a difficult job, but somebody, namely Curtis Strange, had to do it

Aug. 27, 2001
Aug. 27, 2001

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Aug. 27, 2001

Tough Calls Picking the Ryder Cup wild cards was a difficult job, but somebody, namely Curtis Strange, had to do it

Moments after putting out on the 72nd hole of the PGA
Championship, Brad Faxon found a note in his locker, and it felt
to him like a pink slip. U.S. Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange
had left his cell phone number and orders to call. "I didn't
have a great feeling when I saw the note," Faxon says, and no

This is an article from the Aug. 27, 2001 issue Original Layout

Every two years golf's most freighted phone calls go out on
Sunday evening, after the PGA, as the U.S. Ryder Cup captain
delivers the news--a little good, mostly bad--to a select group of
players waiting to learn if they have been selected for the team.
With a simple phone call, dreams can be realized and careers
fulfilled, and the enormousness of it all leaves grown men
huddling by their phones like anxious cheerleaders waiting for
the star quarterback to invite them to the prom. "It's not your
normal phone call," says Lee Janzen, who sweated out Sunday-night
telethons in 1995 (thumbs-down) and '97 (thumbs-up).

For Faxon the already stressful circumstances were made even
worse by what had been a trying week. On Aug. 14 his wife, Dory,
fainted in an Atlanta nail salon. She quickly recovered, but it
was a scary moment. Last Thursday, Faxon fired a 66 that left him
tied for second, an excellent start toward the sixth-place finish
he needed to crack the top 10 on the Ryder Cup points list and
earn one of the 10 automatic berths on the 12-man team. (He had
begun the week in 13th place.) On Friday, Dory was briefly
hospitalized because of stomach pains. That day Brad shot a
scrambling 70, falling to 17th place, and then he was up most of
the night tending to his stricken bride. The next day Faxon
sleepwalked to a 74, stumbling to 43rd place. His only prayer of
making the Ryder Cup team, then, was to be one of the two
captain's picks afforded Strange. Immediately following his
final-round 73, he made the requested call to Strange.

"Curtis asked me to call back later, saying a lot of things were
still up in the air," says Faxon, a member of the 1995 and '97
Ryder Cup teams. "But he also said, 'I don't want to lead you on.
Your chances don't look good.' It was an uncomfortable situation
to be in. I'd rather have just known the answer the first time."

In the meantime Faxon and his wife caught a flight home to Rhode
Island. While they were in the air, the dreams of another Ryder
Cup bubble boy were about to burst. Chris DiMarco had teed off
nearly three hours after Faxon, lying 14th at the PGA and needing
to move up to eighth to clinch a spot on his first Ryder Cup
team. Playing aggressively out of the rough, he double-bogeyed
the 1st and 14th holes but fought back to shoot a 71 and finish

After the round he, too, found a note in his locker. When
DiMarco called Strange, the captain again stalled for time, so
DiMarco packed up his family and headed to the airport for the
flight home to Orlando. En route his cell phone rang, and
Strange's number popped up on the caller ID. "It was a pretty
exciting moment," says DiMarco. "It was like, Here we go. Whether
I made it or I didn't make it, it was cool just to take that
call, you know?"

Strange cut to the chase. "He said it was a hard call for him to
make, but unfortunately, I didn't make the team," says DiMarco.
"It was a little bit of a shocker. So many guys came up to me
this week--guys already on the team--saying, 'I got a feeling
you're in.' To the media Curtis was downplaying the experience
factor and talking about wanting someone who was hot. I was
totally expecting to make the team. I asked him whom he had
taken, and he told me. They're both good players. I hope that
they play well and we kick Europe's ass. But I think it was a
mistake leaving me off the team. I've been playing well for a
long time, and nobody can say that I didn't hold up under the
pressure of the last month."

Not long after DiMarco hung up with Strange, the Faxons landed in
Rhode Island. Brad called Strange while driving home from the
airport. "Dialing the number, we were laughing that it was like
being in second grade and waiting for your report card," Faxon
says. "Curtis was nice about it. He said, 'You're a friend, this
is tough for me, but you didn't make it.' That was pretty much
it. I didn't ask who made it because I didn't think it was my
place. There wasn't a lot of conversation. It's an awkward
situation for both of us."

No doubt it's small consolation to Faxon and DiMarco--and the
others whose dreams were dashed on Sunday night--but delivering
the news is every bit as difficult as receiving it. "All the
phone calls I had to make were agonizing," Strange said on
Monday. "What makes up for that is the other two conversations
you get to have."

Enter Paul Azinger and Scott Verplank, Strange's out-on-a-limb
choices. Before leaving the grounds of the Atlanta Athletic Club
on Sunday, Verplank said "a little bird" told him that he was in
pretty good shape, but he didn't get the official word until he
landed at the Oklahoma City airport that night. While the plane
taxied on the runway, Verplank checked the voice mail on his cell
phone and was greeted by Strange's basso profundo saying he had
made the team. "Sitting in the airplane, I took it real quietly,"
Verplank says, "and then in the terminal, I went into a little
bathroom and was pretty excited; kind of gave it a yelp in front
of the mirror." Having saved Strange's message, Verplank has
already gone back for repeated listenings. "Curtis, you may be in
my voice mail bank forever," says Verplank.

Azinger got his news the old-fashioned way--with a knock on the
door. He and Strange were staying in the same hotel on Sunday
evening. Depending on how Strange's controversial picks play next
month at the Belfry, the masses may be storming the gates of
Strange's home in Kingsmill, Va., calling for his head. Verplank,
37, is the first player with no Ryder Cup experience to become a
captain's choice. Azinger finished a distant 22nd in Ryder Cup
qualifying, which offers a weird bit of deja vu involving
Strange. In 1995, with the sun setting on his playing days,
Strange finished 23rd on the Ryder Cup points list but still got
the Sunday-night nod from captain Lanny Wadkins. When Strange
lost the key singles match at Oak Hill, his inclusion was heavily

To be sure, Verplank and Azinger bring with them a lot of game,
as well as intangibles. On a team full of freewheeling bashers,
they are both dependable players who will be steadying influences
in the foursomes (alternate shot). In announcing his picks,
Strange made repeated allusions to their fighting spirits.
Azinger has famously triumphed over lymphoma, and he was the
heart and soul of the 1989, '91 and '93 Ryder Cup teams, going
undefeated in singles as the U.S. beat Europe twice and forged a
tie in the third match. Verplank has battled diabetes since age
nine and come back from the abyss of a 1991 season in which he
missed the cut in 25 of 26 tournaments while trying to play
through a serious elbow injury. Though he will be a Ryder Cup
rookie, Verplank has proved to be a match-play bulldog, winning
the 1984 U.S. Amateur.

Still, should either Azinger or Verplank stumble, he--and
Strange--will be haunted by the specter of the players who were
passed over. The putting touch of Faxon will be missed, as will
the presence of another bypassed player, Tom Lehman, one of the
emotional leaders of the 1995, '97 and '99 teams. Lehman was 10th
on the points list until PGA winner David Toms bumped him off the
team. Strange didn't think that Lehman had played well enough
over the last six months to warrant a pick, but delivering the
news plumbed emotions. On July 24, Lehman's wife, Melissa,
delivered a stillborn child, a tragedy that deeply affected the
tight-knit golf community. "That was the hardest call of all to
make," Strange said on Monday.

How a captain deals with the delicate matter of the Sunday-night
phone calls is in large part reflective of his personality.
Strange can come off as gruff, but he's a softy at heart. Then
there is Wadkins, the tough-as-nails Texan who will probably go
down as the most heartless Sunday-night phoner of them all. In a
wild final round at the 1995 PGA, the U.S. squad suffered a
substantial shakeup, but except for his two choices, Strange and
Fred Couples, Wadkins, by his own account, didn't go out of his
way to keep his would-be charges in the loop. "Lanny didn't call
me, and knowing him, I wasn't really expecting him to," says Mark
Calcavecchia, who fell from ninth to 11th at Riviera. "The next
time I saw him, I did ask if I was ever considered. He said, 'I
never thought about picking you because you were always on the
team.' How's that for a lame-ass excuse?"

Janzen, another '95 bubble boy, was so unnerved by the
communication blackout that he took matters into his own hands.
"At the start of the week Lanny asked for the phone number to the
house where we were staying," Janzen says. "By a certain time on
Sunday night he hadn't called, and I simply had to know. So I
called him. He said that he had lost our phone number."

Wadkins remains unrepentant. "What am I supposed to do, call the
whole PGA Tour?" he said last week at the PGA, in which he shot
rounds of 86 and 85 to miss the cut by 30 strokes.

A captain's bedside manner is often formed by his own experience
as a player. Strange's quick dispensation of the news this time
around is no doubt due to his experience in '93, when he was
under consideration for one of Tom Watson's captain's picks. Last
week Strange relived their Sunday-night conversation:

Ring, ring.




"You're out."

"O.K. So how is everything else going?"

"I appreciated it," Strange said of Watson's minimalist approach,
"because that's what I wanted to know right when I picked up the
phone, because I knew who it was."

That's the circular nature of the Ryder Cup--to be a captain you
must first have been a player of note, which means you almost
certainly will have sweated at least one harrowing PGA
Championship Sunday night. In 1989 Watson was under consideration
to be selected for his fourth team, which was to be captained by
Ray Floyd. Making the turn during the final round at Kemper
Lakes, Watson was surprised to see Floyd waiting for him on the
10th tee. Recalls Watson, "Ray came up to me and said, 'You're

Did the fastidious Watson mind the intrusion? "Oh, no, I loved
it," he says. "Who wants to have to wait for that Sunday-night
phone call?"

COLOR PHOTO: JEFF HAYNES/AFP Strange (background) put his faith in the 22nd-ranked Azinger.COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY No experience needed Verplank became the first rookie to make the team as a wild-card pick.COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Bad news Getting the word from Strange, said Flaxon, was akin to "being in the second grade and waiting for your report card."COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Double downer Lehman fell out of both the top 10 and Strange's favor.FIVE COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK (WOODS, MICKELSON, DUVAL, TOMS, LOVE)COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND (CALCAVECCHIA)COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH (HOCH) TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DARREN CARROLL (FURYK, SUTTON) COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND (CINK) TWO COLOR PHOTOS: SIMON BRUTY (VERPLANK, AZINGER) COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN (STRANGE)

Hare Triggers

Think the crowd at Brookline was tough? Consider what Mark
O'Meara and Lanny Wadkins endured at the first Ryder Cup at the
Belfry, in 1985. "We were playing Seve [Ballesteros] and [Manuel]
Pinero," says Wadkins. "It was Mark's first Ryder Cup. When we
were introduced on the 1st tee, the crowd booed us. The whole
grandstand booed us. Mark turned white as a sheet. I said to him,
'Don't you love it? Let's kick their ass.'" (They did, winning
the four-ball match 3 and 2.) The U.S. team can expect the same
rough treatment at this year's event. To win the cup, the
Americans will have to find motivation in the taunts from the
Belfry crowd just as Wadkins and, ultimately, O'Meara did. Here,
in order of qualification, are the team members we think will
thrive on the abuse (fewest rabbit ears) and those likeliest to
let fan comments get under their skin (most ears).


[1 rabbit ears]=Huh?
[2 rabbit ears]=I heard that
[3 rabbit ears]=Same to you, pal!
[4 rabbit ears]=Step outside
[5 rabbit ears]=#!@%?%&!

[2 rabbit ears]
Tiger Woods
Hears everything, yet is seldom fazed

[3 rabbit ears]
Phil Mickelson
Smiley outside, steely inside

[1 1/2 rabbit ears]
David Duval
No one gets past the wraparounds

[5 rabbit ears]
Mark Calcavecchia
Gave life for country in War by the Shore

[2 rabbit ears]
David Toms
Belfry crowd friendly compared to Atlanta's

[3 rabbit ears]
Davis Love III
Has heard it all, but still takes the bait

[5 rabbit ears]
Scott Hoch
Normally, he does all the talking

[1 1/2 rabbit ears]
Jim Furyk
With that swing, he's used to catcalls

[1 rabbit ears]
Hal Sutton
Go ahead, make my day

[4 rabbit ears]
Stewart Cink
What he won't hear: "That's good."

[2 rabbit ears]
Scott Verplank
Unknown soldier will go unnoticed

[5 rabbit ears]
Paul Azinger
Responds to what he hears--and reads

[5 rabbit ears]
Curtis Strange
Question is not will he blow. It's when

"I think it was a mistake leaving me off the team," says
DiMarco. "Nobody can say I didn't hold up under the pressure the
last month."