Insider: Ryder Cup memories come flooding back

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Winning at The Country Club in 1999 was especially an sweet Ryder Cup moment for Tom Lehman.
September 28, 2010
Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent

The Ryder Cup is about many things. It's about nationalism of the most intense kind in the sports world. It's about emotions. And it's about memories.

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Trust this from somebody who, as a golf journalist, has experienced the passion emanating from inside the ropes at the Ryder Cup. It is one of only two events I've ever covered where the moment inevitably softens, at some point or another, even the most jaded observers.

The other event is the Olympic Games and, of course, what they have in common is a patriotic fervor not normally associated with sports.

It's palpable and it's riveting. And while there is occasionally a reluctance to accept it, it's always there.

"You play it down to the press but for the players it's definitely huge," said Mark James, seven-time member of the Great Britain/Ireland and Europe sides and the captain in 1999.

"When I was playing on the main tour in Europe, players were looking at the list constantly hoping to make it."

When the Ryder Cup reconvenes this week in Wales, James is among the Champions Tour players at the Ensure Classic at Rock Barn who will recall his many experiences in the biennial competition.

The Champions Tour is a treasure trove of Ryder Cup memories. Those will come flooding back to the players at the Ensure Classic, where so many former Ryder Cup captains and players will be competing.

Tom Lehman, winner of the Senior PGA Championship this year, is an assistant captain to Corey Pavin this week. Lehman represented the United States in 1995, 1997 and 1999. He was the U.S. captain in 2006 at the K-Club.

"Making the team is the really exciting time in your life," Lehman said. "The first time I had a chance to make it, I was a guy who was close and on the bubble for a lot of the time in the summer."

Lehman didn't make it the first time he had a chance. "The disappointment was pretty real," he said. But soon he would become a mainstay for the United States.

"When you get to the point that you know you are going to be on the team it's a very, very, very satisfying and gratifying and exciting moment," he said.

Everybody has favorite Ryder Cup moments. The Hale Irwin-Bernhard Langer final match at Kiawah Island in 1991 ranks as among the most memorable. So does the Jack Nicklaus-Tony Jacklin singles encounter in 1969 at Royal Birkdale.

For me, the U.S. comeback in 1999 at The Country Club in suburban Boston bordered on surreal. The defeat at Oakland Hills in my hometown of Detroit was one of those "pretty real" disappointments that Lehman talks about.

Whether you were there in person or viewed it on television, it's difficult to forget the laser-like iron shot Christy O'Connor Jr. hit in a 1-up victory at The Belfry in his match against Fred Couples in 1989.

There are so many and some of the best may well be obscure but no less compelling. One of my favorite Ryder Cup moments -- live or on television -- falls into that category.

It was the critical juncture of an American victory abroad and the two men who authored the moment are Champions Tour regulars 17 years later.

John Cook was a rookie on the 1993 Ryder Cup team. It would be his only appearance and he made the most of it.

Cook and Chip Beck were sent out by Captain Tom Watson against the most formidable of European partnerships, Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie.

"I do remember that Tom made it a real team thing," Cook said. "(Watson) made it that way and promoted it that way. He didn't have a lot of assistant captains to do this and that and really left things up to the players to get themselves ready. His thinking was that we didn't need much if any motivation. We just needed to get out and play and get the job done. I remember that part of it that it was really up to us to get ready to play."

When the time came, Cook and Beck were ready. They didn't get into the fray until Saturday afternoon and had become afterthoughts in the competition. David vs. Goliath all over again.

"They sent us out as sacrificial lambs," said Beck, who played on the team three times in 1989, 1991 and 1993. "They didn't think we could play anymore. I was so disappointed and I told John, 'Six, eight months ago you were one of the top players in the world. Now they're saying we can't play. These guys are crazy.'

"They sent us out to play against their No. 1 of Faldo and Montgomerie. I said to John, 'We're going to birdie this first hole and we're not going to look back. There's no way'. We birdied that first hole and never looked back."

Watson's message to his pair: Be ready when it's your turn.

"Chip and I were fired up," Cook said. "I remember Chip, old Mr. Positive Chip, was just that the whole day, which really helped."

Cook and Beck won, 2-up. Europe's indomitable partnership was broken. The U.S. went on to win, 15-13.

"I remember the atmosphere there at The Belfry was very pro-European, but Tom said if we start winning we'll hear silence and on Sunday there wasn't a lot going on," Cook said. "It was pretty silent and I said to myself, 'Well, we must be winning'. There were a lot of good memories from that experience for me."

And this week is when those memories come flooding back for all of us.

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