Minnesotan Tom Lehman won the 1996 British Open and is the only man since the great Bobby Jones to play in Sunday’s final U.S. Open group four consecutive years.
None of it left him as breathless as his first Ryder Cup in 1995, during Friday morning’s opening session at Oak Hill Country Club in upstate New York. Late in an alternate-shot match against Europe’s formidable Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, Lehman turned to partner Corey Pavin and said this: “I can’t breathe.”
A three-time Ryder Cup player and U.S. Open champion crowned three months earlier, Pavin simply told Lehman to get “committed” and swing away.
“It’s pretty simple stuff,” Lehman said. “He gave me some great advice, which to this day I carry with me.”
Lehman and Pavin won that match, but the U.S. lost on home soil that weekend. The next summer, Lehman won his first and only major championship, which wasn’t coincidence.
“Without question, it became very obvious if you can deal with the pressure of a Ryder Cup you can deal with the pressure of a major,” said Lehman, a U.S. vice captain this week at Hazeltine National Golf Club.
Now in 2016, U.S. team members Jordan Spieth, Zach Johnson and Jimmy Walker all, too, credit the Ryder Cup crucible — where multimillionaires play not for money but for a cause bigger than themselves — for tempering them into major-championship winners.
It’s a three-day, match-play team competition unique in its format and theater. It’s where the number of holes won matters rather than individual strokes. It’s where the best from the United States and Europe play for partner, captain, team, family, country.
“The Ryder Cup, it hits you deep,” four-time player and 1999 captain Ben Crenshaw said.
Event shapes attitudes
Spieth played his first Ryder Cup two years ago in Scotland. Last year at age 21, he won the Masters and U.S. Open back-to-back and contended seriously at the British Open and PGA Championship.
“The Ryder Cup in 2014 prepared me for what happened in 2015,” Spieth said. “I felt like each hole I played there was the back nine of a major championship. It’s played with that much passion, that much intensity. There’s nothing like the Ryder Cup.”
There’s nothing, either, like the Ryder Cup’s first tee Friday morning. At Hazeltine, more than 15,000 fans will line the first hole from tee box to green at dawn. American and European fans alike biennially make the setting a patriotic pageant, swirls of sight and sound unlike any other in a sport known for its hushed decorum.
“You’re influenced so much by the energy of the crowd,” said Europe’s Justin Rose, a U.S. Open and Olympic champion playing his third Ryder Cup. “It’s so pressure-packed, it forces you to go inward and find all your skills, every ounce of ability you have, just to survive the week. It makes you bring out your best stuff.
“The level of play brought out in a Ryder Cup often astounds me.”
European team captain Darren Clarke remembers esteemed veteran Sam Torrance telling him before his 1997 debut that the Ryder Cup’s first tee is like your first child.
“You have no idea what it’s about until you go through it, and he was right,” Clarke said. “No matter what anybody tells you, it’s the most intimidating place I’ve ever been as a golfer and ever will be. First tee at the Ryder Cup is the most electrifying atmosphere in our sport.”
In 2014, even legendary British Open starter Ivor Robson was affected. He announced 2012 U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson as Bubba Watson first thing Friday morning, and Simpson proceeded to pop up his drive just 190 yards down the fairway.
“It was the first shot of the Ryder Cup,” Watson said that day before referring to Robson. “He was nervous, too.”
U.S. captain Davis Love III describes the Ryder Cup in its entirety “like your last putt at the U.S. Open to win it, but it’s like that for three days.”
Nine-time Ryder Cup player Jim Furyk said players too often worry about letting teammates down.
“Or you can say, ‘I’ve got all this support, we’re going to carry each other,’ ” said Furyk, a U.S. vice captain this time. “Some guys look at it the wrong way.”
Change has come
The Ryder Cup wasn’t always so.
If golf icon Jack Nicklaus had it his way, it’d still be like it was when he played six of them from 1969 to ’81 and captained the Americans twice. That was back when Nicklaus said the game’s four major championships were the thing, and still are.
“The Ryder Cup is going to be a great event, it’s going to be great competition,” Nicklaus said. “That’s for bragging rights. It’s an event for fun. As a captain, I never put pressure on the guys. I wanted them to be there because they wanted to be there. Whether they won or not, to me, I didn’t think it was very important. Sure, we wanted to win. What was important was what you were doing for the game of golf.”
Of course, the U.S. team won every time Nicklaus played except for once, and they tied Europe the other time. All that changed in the 1980s, after players from across Europe were added to a team that had been exclusively Great Britain and Ireland.
Europe won four of seven Ryder Cups held from 1985 to 1997 and tied another. When the U.S. won “The War By the Shore” at Kiawah Island in South Carolina to start the 1990s and pulled off a stunning Sunday comeback at the Country Club near Boston to end them, the Ryder Cup pulsated with competition and patriotism. Suddenly it had been elevated to what two-time Ryder Cupper Kenny Perry now calls “one of the great sporting events of all.”
The Americans won 21 of the first 25 Ryder Cups outright, dating to 1927. Since 1985, Europe has won 10 of 15 outright, even though the U.S. roster often was lopsided with higher world-ranked golfers.
“When it comes to the Ryder Cup, every man has to stand up on that first tee and records don’t really count for an awful lot,” Clarke said. “You’ve got to stand there and perform.”
Their generation’s two greatest golfers — Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson — both have losing Ryder Cup records while Europeans who never won a major have excelled with their precision and their putters when the heat was turned up high.
That list includes Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia.
“I don’t know, you’re either made for that or you’re not,” said Montgomerie, a past European captain with a 20-9-7 playing record. “There are a few players who back away from the Ryder Cup pressure. I wanted it. I loved it. I enjoyed it. Poulter enjoys it, Garcia enjoys it, Westwood enjoys it and I think a few on your team as well: [Paul] Azinger loved it, Corey Pavin loved it.”
European captain’s pick Martin Kaymer called his first Ryder Cup in 2010 “very intimidating” and “too much.” Two years later, he learned to use the energy to raise his game, enough that he made the winning putt in 2012’s Sunday singles comeback at Medinah near Chicago.
Rory McIlroy said he was “really uncomfortable” his first time in 2010, “just uncomfortable” in 2012 and “somewhat comfortable” in 2014.
“You get feelings you’ve never had before,” McIlroy said.
Especially if you’re on the winning side.
“Celebrating as a team, there’s no more fun than that,” Rose said. “The night we pulled off that huge comeback at Medinah was one of the most fun nights of my life. You felt you were part of something incredible. You did it as a team. That’s the moment you share stories, share feelings with one another that you normally wouldn’t.
“That’s what makes it incredible, I think.”