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Hot Seat Hoping to redeem his Ryder Cup disaster of '95, Curtis Strange instead ended the week as the subject of more second-guessing

Oct. 07, 2002
Oct. 07, 2002

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Oct. 7, 2002

Hot Seat Hoping to redeem his Ryder Cup disaster of '95, Curtis Strange instead ended the week as the subject of more second-guessing

Nobody in golf gets the red-ass like Curtis Strange. You should
have seen him early on Friday afternoon, when the Yanks were
trailing the Euros 3-1. Captain Strange drove his cart along the
paved Belfry pathways, all color drawn from his face, eyes fixed
ahead, pedal fully depressed, fans scurrying out of his way.

This is an article from the Oct. 7, 2002 issue

He was the same way on a late Thursday afternoon in August, at
the PGA Championship outside Minneapolis. In the field only
because he was the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, the 47-year-old
Strange shot an opening 81, did an hour or so of obligatory
schmoozing, then launched his big Cadillac courtesy car into a
traffic jam on I-35, switching lanes like he was channel surfing,
burning up his cellphone.

For three years now he's had a purpose: to captain a winning
Ryder Cup team and to redeem his failures of 1995, when, as a
captain's pick, he played in three matches and lost them all. You
could say his approach to the job was a little too labored, a
little too serious, but that is Strange's real self, the one we
haven't seen much of since the 1990 U.S. Open, when he tried to
win the national championship for a third straight year but
didn't. Then he was the most intense competitor on Tour, not the
oddly polite figure he's become doing golf commentary on ABC.

Sam Torrance, the European captain, said last week that he was
having the time of his life, and he looked it, squiring his
lovely wife, Suzanne--who is as chic as the old Scot is
rumpled--around the Belfry's sprawling grounds. Sam's have-a-beer
looseness filtered right through his team. Colin Montgomerie,
Jesper Parnevik and Lee Westwood exhibited a joy in their golf
that hadn't been seen from them all year.

For Torrance, a folk hero in Scotland, his best moment may have
come at Wednesday night's so-called Gala Dinner. Strange
introduced his players by name and accomplishment. Torrance came
next, introducing the players and their wives, rather than their
credentials. (As Sly Stone once sang, and Captain Sam knows all
the '70s tunes, "It's a family affair.") As a strategist Torrance
was razor sharp. He correctly guessed that Strange would put
Tiger Woods and a partner out first on Friday morning to win the
first point of the match. Torrance put out Irishman Darren Clarke
and Thomas Bjorn, the great Dane--players Woods likes, and players
who have defeated him head-to-head. Bjorn-Clarke defeated the
Paul Azinger-Woods team one up.

Then there was Torrance's Sunday lineup. Looking for the 6 1/2
points he needed for victory, he sent out seven heavies, one
after another: Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, Clarke, Bernhard
Langer, Padraig Harrington, Bjorn and the resurgent Westwood. "I
know exactly what he's doing," Strange said on Saturday night,
studying the Europeans' singles lineup. "He wants to get the
spectators involved early. He wants to get momentum early, and
hopefully that will feed over into the back end of his field."
Strange's lineup came right out of the Mark James playbook, the
one the European captain used at Brookline in '99, when he saved
all his cannons for the end. That approach was a spectacular
failure for James then, and it wasn't any better for Strange on
Sunday.

As the best U.S. golfers grow ever younger, the age gap between
the players and their captains becomes increasingly evident. Back
in the hotel team room Strange shot pool while the kids played
Ping-Pong. The modern PGA Tour, the one on which a player shakes
hands with his opponent's caddie after a round, is a foreign land
to Strange. He's old school.

At the American Express Championship in Ireland the week before
the Ryder Cup, Woods, playing for a $1 million first-place prize,
was a million under par when Strange asked him, "How you
playing?" It's an old-school question, asked by pre-sunblock pros
who don't think a score necessarily reveals the quality of your
strokes. Tiger doesn't truck in convention. "How do you think?"
he answered.

It couldn't have been easy for Strange, managing the most
powerful person in golf for a week. Plus, there's Tiger's
elephantine memory. Woods stores away all slights, real or not,
for future consideration. In 1996, when Woods was a rookie
without a Tour card, seven tournaments granted him sponsors'
exemptions. By the time he came to number 7, the Buick Challenge
in Pine Mountain, Ga., he didn't need the free spot or the
tournament, having already earned his card. He pulled out of the
event late and left the old guard fuming. "This tournament was
one of seven to help him out in the beginning," Strange said
then. "How quickly he forgot." Tiger didn't forget Strange's
comments, you can be certain of that. Would Strange like Woods to
play in his tournament, the Michelob Championship? Of course. Has
Woods played in it? He has not.

Last week at the Belfry, Strange and Woods stood side by side for
minutes at a time, watching the golf, saying almost nothing to
one another. They didn't pretend to be friends. But Strange
showed his smarts. He forced nothing upon the game's best
player--not a playing partner, not a meal, not a practice time. He
was modern enough to understand the balance of power. Tiger's
practice last Thursday consisted of a quick nine holes, begun
before the course even opened. The British tabs had a field day,
but Strange defended his man. Whether he approved of Tiger's
crowd-unfriendly preparation was impossible to tell. "Tiger goes
about his business," Strange said.

Strange came into the matches like a high school football
coach--all revved up, every scenario accounted for--but he left
like a baseball manager who understands that sometimes you have
to wing it strategically. "The Americans have had a lot of
problems getting out of the gate on Friday morning," said Roger
Maltbie, the NBC reporter who played the Tour with Strange for
years. "Curtis told the team, 'Y'all ought to be embarrassed by
your play early on and getting behind. You looked to me as if you
weren't ready to play. I don't care how you do it, but get
yourself ready to go.'" Talk about your failed pep talks. His
team responded by losing the first three points on Friday
morning.

By Saturday, Strange, showing appealing flexibility, was winging
it, playing Woods, a two-time loser on Friday, with Davis Love
III in Saturday morning's alternate-shot matches. When they won
in the morning, he played them again in the afternoon better-ball
matches, and they won again. Strange regarded Hal Sutton as the
guttiest player on his team, and the most inspirational, but he
decided to bench his good bud all of Saturday, worried about the
number of birdies left in the 44-year-old Sutton. Azinger had the
day off too. Both were fine with the benchings.

"He's by far the best captain I've ever played for," said
Azinger, a likely Ryder Cup captain himself someday. He played
for Raymond Floyd in '89, Dave Stockton in '91 and Tom Watson in
'93. "He's very direct, very organized. No games. You know where
you stand. Whoever comes after him will have some awfully big
shoes to fill." That person, in all likelihood, will be Sutton.

All week long the players and their wives praised Strange. They
said there was no nightly crying in the team room as there was
three years ago under captain Ben Crenshaw, when the team was
holed up at the Four Seasons in Boston. Strange had no trouble
making decisions, filling out lineup cards. "Every team needs
somebody who is in charge, but these players don't need a whole
lot of motivation," he said. "They don't need a whole lot of
speeches. They don't need a whole lot of me."

By Saturday evening Strange expected the U.S. to have a lead, not
to be locked in an 8-8 tie. When a young English reporter asked
him if it was possible that the final two Sunday matches might
not even matter, Curtis's old 1990 red-ass came out again. He
stared the lad down, pursed his lips, waited several seconds and
said, "I'm going to ask you a question, O.K.? Do you believe that
can happen?" Uh, yeah.

On Sunday, with all his best-laid plans failing miserably,
Strange was not out on the course giving pep talks. He knew the
games were out of his hands and in the hands of his players.
"I've never felt so helpless in all my life," Strange said.

When it was all over on Sunday night, the 1990 Curtis Strange was
nowhere to be seen. He could not have accepted defeat more
gracefully. With his words and actions he improved the Ryder Cup
as a competition and himself as a public figure.

"When Sam and I started at this three years ago, we were
committed to an event that we could walk away from, shake hands,
drink a beer and say, 'Well done,'" Strange said at the closing
ceremonies. "I think we have both won in that category." Later,
Strange was sipping an imported U.S. beer--Budweiser--and saying,
"I hate that we lost, but it was a hell of an atmosphere to be
part of."

If he chooses, Strange can go out on those words, proudly. No red
anything. When last seen in public on Sunday night, he was
retreating into the cool English night, with his white hair, his
blue blazer, his brown beer bottle--his crushing 1995 defeat in
some way redeemed, even in another loss.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY BAD CALL? Strange was put on the defensive as soon as he released his back-loaded Sunday lineup.COLOR PHOTO: WIN MCNAMEE/REUTERS (2) EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE Former President Bush went along for the ride on Saturday. COLOR PHOTO: WIN MCNAMEE/REUTERS (2) DETENTE Strange's criticism of Woods in '96 was probably not forgotten at the Belfry. COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN SAD LEGACY A captain's choice in '95, Strange bogeyed the last three holes in singles when a par would've won the Cup.COLOR PHOTO: WIN MCNAMEE/REUTERS (TOP) EYE ON THE PRIZE Starting with the first match on Friday, when he neutered Woods, Torrance made all the right moves.COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES FUN BUNCH Torrance, with an assist from Garcia, kept the Europeans loose.
"They don't need a whole lot of speeches," Strange said of his
players. "They don't need a whole lot of me."
"In Ireland the week before, Strange asked Woods,"How you
playing?" Tiger replied, "How do you think?"