Davis Love III, so the story goes, was nervous.
It was 1993. He was on foreign soil on the first tee of his first Ryder Cup match, at The Belfry in England. The game was alternate shot. And the opponents were vaunted Spaniards Seve Ballesteros and José Maria Olazábal.
Rookie Love and his partner, veteran Tom Kite, had worked it out in advance that Love would tee off on the odd holes, Kite on the evens. So it was Love’s turn.
Problem was his hands were shaking so badly he didn’t think he could get his peg in the ground, much less balance his ball on it. And the local partisans smelled blood.
“The biggest, loudest crowd I’d ever seen,” Love said later. (Yes, the charged atmosphere of the Ryder Cup actually is one of the few places in sports where “loudness” can be “seen.”) So, according to the story, he begged Kite to switch the order.
Fortunately for Love, Kite was able to talk him back off the ledge. The Americans won 2 and 1. And Love went on to add a crucial singles point Sunday in the U.S.’ tense 15-13 victory. This week, almost two decades after his shaky debut, Love will captain the Americans against Olazabál’s favored European squad at storied Medinah Country Club in the latest Ryder Cup renewal.
It will be the first edition of seed merchant Samuel Ryder’s biennial, trans-Atlantic cage match to be played in the Chicago area. But it turns out that the Ryder Cup and Medinah, which has hosted three U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships and four Western Opens, are inextricably intertwined by history, coincidence and near neuro-meltdowns.
Steely Hale Irwin won his third U.S. Open at Medinah in 1990 in a playoff with Mike Donald. But nothing that week had prepared him for the last hole of the final match of the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island.
Irwin opened the door for Europe to retain the Cup when he nervously scooped a greenside chip shot and bogeyed the 18th. Only Bernhard Langer’s missed six-footer for par reprieved Irwin and his teammates.
“You don’t realize how many people are depending on you,” said Irwin, barely able to speak moments after Langer’s miss while wild-eyed American fans chanted USA, USA, USA in the background. “It’s not just yourself.” A lot of Tiger Woods’ critics believe that is why his career Ryder Cup record (13-14-2) is not better. For Woods, they say, golf is all about himself.
Which brings us back to Medinah and the 1999 PGA Championship. Looking for his second major championship, Woods hooked up in a fierce Sunday duel with 19-year-old Spaniard Sergio Garcia.
The tense victory served as a jumping off point for Woods’ assault on major championships (he has now won 14). At the time, no one thought Garcia would stall out on the big stages and, now at 32, remain majorless.
Garcia’s recent victory at the Wyndham Championship assured him a spot on Olazabal’s team and the TV networks already are dreaming about Woods-Garcia II, a Sunday singles match at (where else?) Medinah for the deciding point.
Garcia, lost in the funk of a prolonged slump, played his way off the 2010 European squad. But before that he had been especially successful in Ryder Cup partnership with Englishman Luke Donald.
The two have won four full points in the four Ryder matches in which they have been paired. Donald played his college golf at nearby Northwestern University. And, oh by the way, he, too, has history at Medinah.
At the 2006 PGA, Donald’s sizzling Saturday 66 earned him a tie for first and a spot in the final Sunday twosome with the aforementioned Woods.
Most people were startled when Donald showed up for the final round wearing a red shirt that matched Woods’ customary Sunday wardrobe choice.
Donald said he had planned his color choices early in the week and to change in deference to Woods would be tantamount to conceding defeat before the round began.
Alas for Donald, his closing 74 at Medinah was no match for Woods’ 68. Tiger won by a comfortable five shots over runner-up Shaun Micheel.
Donald, too, will be back for the Ryder Cup this time around. At Medinah.
On the subject of shirts, who can forget the outcry from the golf fashionistas when they got a load of the design American captain Ben Crenshaw cooked up for his team on the historic Sunday at Brookline at the 1999 Ryder Cup when the Yanks stormed from behind at The Country Club for a pulsating Sunday victory?
The putt that set off the celebration on the 17th green was a bomb delivered by Justin Leonard. The player who waited his turn quietly but unhappily on the green for Leonard’s prematurely excited teammates to clear the putting surface was ... José Maria Olazábal, the 2012 European captain at Medinah. The player who encouraged Leonard to hang in against Olazabal because, he told Leonard, Olazabal had a history of driving it crooked under pressure, was Davis Love III, the 2012 American captain at Medinah. Oh, the history. Oh, the humanity.
Cary Middlecoff won the first U.S. Open played at Medinah in 1949. The underappreciated Lou Graham defeated John Mahaffey in a playoff at Medinah at the 1975 U.S. Open.
That June victory helped Graham earn his second Ryder Cup berth. And the sweet-swinging Tennessean took full advantage the following September, winning matches with three different partners over the first two days.
Irwin took a memorable high-fiving victory lap around Medinah’s 18th green Sunday in 1990 after holing a long putt that got him in the playoff. In 1999, Garcia’s footwork was equally unforgettable after a near-miraculous iron shot from up against a tree root on the 16th sent him leaping like Nureyev up the fairway, where he watched his ball settle within putting distance.
The biggest change at Medinah since the world’s best players last saw it will be the par-4 15th. It used to be a mediumlength par 4. Now, it will play almost 100 yards shorter, with an “up” tee box of 308 yards. Very often, match-play duels never reach the 18th hole where the biggest grandstands await. But they almost never end before the 15th. The idea of that juncture providing a “drivable” par 4 is brilliant. Re-positioning No.15 to the south also allowed consulting architect Rees Jones to move the 16th tee back, extending that uphill par-4 beast to almost 500 yards. “Shifting the landing area to the right there now brings the dogleg into play,” said Jones. In 2009, Jones finished a greens rebuilding project at Medinah that had begun in 2002. The club has also converted to a newer strain of bentgrass on its putting surfaces.
The well-respected Jones came under fire last year from Phil Mickelson for his work at both the Atlanta Athletic Club and Cog Hill No. 4, sites of the PGA Championship and BMW Championship, respectively.
At Cog Hill, Mickelson said he would “love” to see “guys that really know what they’re doing come in and create something special here. ... The average guy just can’t play it.”
Imagine everybody’s surprise then, last month, when Mickelson went on Golf Channel during The Barclays’ week and praised the work Jones had done at Bethpage Black.
“I love the course,” Mickelson said. “Rees Jones did a great job renovating it.”
More than one observer noted that there might have been a method to Mickelson’s seeming madness. Phil was, they posited, putting out a fire before it got re-kindled. Either way, it was a smart move on Mickelson’s part.
All these years the Ryder Cup and Medinah had been intertwined but not directly connected.
Now that their histories were about to fully converge, the last thing the Americans needed was blowback from their own fans because one of their players was at war with the course designer whose fingerprints were all over their beloved Medinah.
After all, Mickelson wouldn’t want to make Davis Love III, his captain and good friend, any more nervous than he once was that brisk Ryder Cup morning 19 years ago.
Reproduced with kind permission of Global Golf Post - Subscribe now for free
IN THE MAY 13, 2013 ISSUE