The 2002 Ryder Cup began the way it ended--with a good grilling.
On the evening of Sept. 23, the day the U.S. team arrived at the
Belfry, Curtis Strange, wearing an apron with head chef printed
on it, stood beside a flaming grill on the club's patio flipping
steaks and chicken. Emeril Lagasse he was not. "He was burning
the steaks," says Scott Hoch, a member of the U.S. team. "He was
a better captain than a cook."
This is an article from the Nov. 25, 2002 issue
To avoid a job too well done, Strange turned over his tongs to
one of the Belfry's chefs. "I'd never cooked 30 steaks and 30
pieces of chicken at one time-I was overwhelmed," Strange said
last week at Sea Island Golf Club on St. Simons Island, Ga., site
of the UBS Warburg Cup, a Ryder Cup-like event at which a team
of U.S. Tour pros defeated a team from the rest of the world 14
Strange was nearly overwhelmed again on Sept. 29, the final day
of the Ryder Cup, after the U.S. had been soundly defeated 15
1/2-12 1/2 by Europe. Sam Torrance, the European captain, had
sent out his best players early that day, while Strange had saved
his big guns-notably Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson and Tiger
Woods-for last. In the end the Cup was lost before the American
stars could do anything about it, and the second-guessing
immediately commenced. "One captain got it wrong, and one captain
got it right," said Paul McGinley of Ireland, who holed the putt
that clinched the Cup. Strange knew what was yet to come and that
night only half-jokingly warned a group of U.S. writers, "If
y'all second-guess me, I'll come looking for you." Nevertheless,
the next day USA Today asserted that "it was the pencil of
European captain Sam Torrance" that won the Cup.
In this era of instant-replay revisionism, the wisdom of a
coach's moves are 100% dependent on the success or failure of
those moves. A sure sign that the Ryder Cup has arrived as a
major event is that the losing captain attracts criticism the way
Jennifer Lopez attracts husbands. "It's so unfair," says Raymond
Floyd, who captained the '89 U.S. team that played to a tie but
was unable to wrest the Cup from Europe. "It's the players who
play. I don't think Curtis was at fault at all."
Says Paul Azinger, who has played in four of the last seven Ryder
Cups, "The captains have been getting criticized since the
post-Tony Jacklin era. When Jacklin beat Jack Nicklaus [in
1987], did Nicklaus get lambasted? Never. But ask Jacklin's
replacement, Bernard Gallacher. He got hammered when he lost
twice [in 1991 and '93]. Lanny Wadkins [in '95] got pummeled. Tom
Kite [in '97] was unbelievably thorough, yet he was criticized,
as was Mark James ['99]. Every captain who loses now gets
The captain-bashing has become such a Ryder Cup tradition that
Azinger, the favorite to head the U.S. team after Hal Sutton
serves in that role in 2004, wonders if the job is worth it. "It
has given me pause," he says. "I told my wife, Toni, 'If you
lose, you get lambasted. Being captain is not going to make my
career or make us any money. I don't need the exposure, so do I
need the headache?'"
But, Paul, would you take the job? "I'd love to," Azinger says,
breaking into a wide smile.
Despite his comments at the Belfry, Strange didn't go looking for
his critics. In fact he barely noticed them, and he takes
justifiable satisfaction in having helped restore civility and
sportsmanship to an event that many thought had lost its way in
'99 at Brookline. Give Strange an A-plus in diplomacy. "I learned
a great deal over these three years, and part of it is, like it
or not, everybody is entitled to their opinion," he says. "That
really helped me after I came home and read some of the negative
press. Deep down in my heart I know it was the greatest week of
my life, and I'm not going to let a few armchair quarterbacks
ruin that for me." (Not that he has let everyone off the hook.
Strange has broken off relations with the Golf Channel because
its Ryder Cup coverage included criticism of his pairings. One
guest commentator even said that Strange couldn't coach a Little
League team. "They think they know it all," says Strange.)
The realization that the Americans were simply outplayed blunted
any sustained criticism of Strange. Despite the Europeans'
top-heavy singles lineup, the Americans trailed by only two
points with five matches left and had their big guns aimed
against the European leftovers. The potential for another grand
comeback, like the one at Brookline, was there. Only this time
the U.S. failed to win any of those matches--the Americans
suffered a loss and four halves. "They had nobody at the end,"
says Azinger. "Well, not nobody, but McGinley, Niclas Fasth,
Pierre Fulke, Phillip Price and Jesper Parnevik were so off form
before the Ryder Cup that they were practically run out of their
countries, yet not one of them lost. Amazing."
When Strange played in a Tour event for the first time after the
Ryder Cup, in October at the Disney Classic, he received a hearty
ovation from the fans at the 1st tee. "A lot of them said, 'Thank
you for the job you did at the Ryder Cup,'" Strange says. "I got
He says he's been getting the same treatment in airports, hotels
and restaurants and says that he hasn't received any negative
letters. (Wadkins claims he got plenty of hate mail in '95.)
Strange especially savors a note from former President Bush, who
attended the match. Says Strange, "He said he had a great time,
that I did a great job and don't worry, he's been dealing with
armchair quarterbacks for a long time."
The only correspondence that could be construed as negative,
Strange says, came from someone at USA Table Tennis demanding
that Strange reveal the winner of the Ping-Pong match he
mentioned in a press conference, the one that pitted Tiger Woods
and his girlfriend, Elin Nordegren, against Phil and Amy
Mickelson. "He said it was my obligation to tell the world who
won, that he's promoting the game and the world needs to know,"
Strange says. "He was serious."
There was one last piece of Ryder Cup business to tend to at the
Warburg Cup. Strange, who had teamed with Arnold Palmer, the U.S.
captain, in the first two days of the competition, played
Torrance in singles on Sunday just as he did last year. At the
2001 Warburg Cup, only six months after beating Torrance in a
made-for-TV match, Strange made an unlikely rally from three down
on the back nine to halve with Torrance. On Sunday, in 30-mph
winds and hand-numbing cold, Strange dusted Torrance 4 and 3. As
Strange was cleaning out his locker at Sea Island, he was asked
if he had ever lost to Torrance.
"Yeah, in September," he answered without hesitation. "The only
time it really mattered."
Read Gary Van Sickle's Underground Golfer column on
did Nicklaus get lambasted? Never."