Lee Elder teamed with Andy Bean for an impressive debut, and the makeshift pair of Lanny Wadkins and Larry Nelson blended for two convincing victories today as United States professional golfers took a commanding lead over their counterparts from the British Isles and Europe in the 23rd Ryder Cup competition.
The biennial contest pits a dozen home-bred stars of the U.S. PGA Tour against 12 leading pros from across the Atlantic -- Europeans as well as Britons and Irishmen were eligible this year for the first time -- in a marvelous mishmash of match play, spread over three days.
The competition, which the Americans have won all but four times since it was inaugurated in 1927, began today in what could uncharitably but accurately be described as "British weather." It was gloomy, as was the visitors' performance.
Intermittent drizzle and downpours turned the 6,721-yard Greenbrier course squishy. A morning squall halted play for 40 minutes, seemingly dousing the visitors' brief early fire. Gray mist clung to the scenic, heavily wooded Allegheny foothills much of the day. And one notably disappointing British player, Ken Brown, played as if he didn't care if it rained on his parade.
The elements may have reminded the visitors of home, but the perennially favored Americans wasted little time in demonstrating their superior depth and adaptability. They took a 5 1/2-2 1/2 point lead after eight team matches -- four morning "four-ball" affairs, in which each man plays his own ball and the best ball wins, and four afternoon "Scotch foursomes," in which teammates play one ball and alternate shots.
On Saturday, the program will be the same, but with the order reversed: the exotic "Scotch foursomes" in the morning, four-ball matches in the afternoon. Twelve singles matches will bring the series to a close on Sunday.
Wadkins and Nelson, thrown together by nonplaying captain Billy Casper after Tom Watson withdrew on Thursday and flew home to be with his wife as she gave birth to their first child, performed like long-time partners in downing Spaniards Severiano Ballesteros and Antonio Gerrido, the 1977 World Cup champions, 2 and 1. And in the foursomes the Wadkins team routed Brian Barnes and Bernard Gallacher, 4 and 3.
Elder and Bean also meshed their talents successfully -- the strapping Bean letting Elder hit first off every tee, and then cutting loose with mammoth, aggressive drives on the occasions when Elder was safely in the fairway -- to beat formidable Englishmen Peter Oosterhuis and Nick Faldo, 2 and 1.
Elder, a rookie to this prestigious competition at age 45, was pleased with his game and his rapport with Bean.
"I think there's a little more pressure in this type of match. You play a little bit different than you would if you were playing individual medal play. In match play, you have a tendency to be a little more aggressive. You hit a driver from some tees where you would hit an iron in medal play," said the Washingtonian.
"I had a good horse, and I rode him to death. He made a lot of birdies for me, and I sneaked in with a few every now and then. It was certainly a new experience for me, and we teamed real well together."
After Oosterhuis sank a 40-foot putt on the second hole to put the British ahead, 1-up, the British made three more birdies in a row. But the Americans matched them, and on the sixth Elder sank a 12-foot birdie putt that got them even.
The match turned on the eighth hole, when the morning downpour started right after Bean had driven. Nearly an hour later, Oosterhuit was faced with a 30-foot putt, and the water on the green slowed his ball and left him 15 feet short. Learning from tha, Bean rolled a similar putt to within two feet of the hole and made the birdie that gave him and Elder a lead they never relinquished.
"Lee would make a birdie, and that would get me pumped up to make the next one. In match play there are always a few key holes, and we took turns playing real well," said Bean.
Lee Trevino and Fuzzy Zoeller, a duo that does not lack for mirth or the gift of gab, produced little extraordinary shotmaking but also complemented each other nicely and chatted their way past Brown and injured Mark James (inflamed left shoulder), 3 and 2.
"They drove the ball poorly. I think that was the only department in which we were stronger," said Trevino. "You could see the pain in James' face when he was hitting the ball. He was either blocking it or hitting far left. Very few times were the two of them in on the same hole, and it's very difficult to paly best ball two against one.
Scotsmen Barnes and Gallacher salvaged the only point for Europe in the four-ball portion, making a splendid comeback from 3-down after six holes to frustrate John Mahaffey and U.S. Open champ Hale Irwin, 2 and 1. Barnes was the hero, making birdies on three of the Greenbrier's five par 3s.
Irwin went right back out after a hurried 15-minute light lunch and teamed with Texan Tom Kite to humiliate the indifferent Brown and Irishman Des Smyth, 7 and 6 -- the worst beating ever inflicted in a Ryder Cup foursome.
The unfortuante Smyth was a last-minute substitute for James, who had a cortisone shot to relieve the pain of a strained cartilage in his shoulder but decided after three practice holes that he was unable to play the afternoon round.
Smyth did his part to uphold the honor of the Isles, but Brown played with such a disgraceful lack of apparent effort and concern that more than one visiting Briton suggested he be summarily dropped from the team and sent home on the first available flight.
Brown and Smyth lost six holes with bogeys, littering the picturesque course with shots that made Europe's supporters wince. If Irwin and Kite had not taken a double-bogey 6 on the sixth hole, allowing Brown and Smyth to win it with an unsightly bogey, the Great British Disaster would have been even more disastrous.
"Tom and I played, with the exception of the sixth hole, reasonably solid golf," said the scholarly and the realistic Irwin. "The fact of the matter is that they seemed to give us the match early on. The heart did not seem to be in the body. We were grateful recipients of their bad play . . .
"Ken hit some just terrible shots. Des hit some good ones, but when he did Ken promptly put him over in jail someplace," Irwin continued. "The foursome is an unusual sort of game that we hardly ever play. You have to be able to communicate with your partner. . . I felt it was obvious there was no rapport between them (Brown and Smyth). There was not even the slightest bit of idle conversation."