Talented young English golfer Nick Faldo stood on the 16th green of the picturesque Greenbrier course this afternoon, addressing the 12-foot putt he would make moments later to close out Lee Elder, 3 and 2, for his sixth victory in seven career Ryder Cup matches.
Faldo, 22, playing on his second Ryder Cup team, thought he and his teammates from the British Isles and Europe were still alive in this prestigious biennial content against a dozen leading American pros. But just a moment before putting, he overheard an ABC-TV commentator inform a national television audience that Hubert Green had holed a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 17, assuring at least a halve of his match against Englishman Peter Oosterhuis and a team triumph for the U.S.
"I wasn't sure of the score. I hadn't been able to figure out the scoreboards on the course. But when I stood to putt on 16, I heard Jim McKay say, 'The American team . . . ' I didn't hear the rest, but I figured that was it," said Faldo, who had come back from 3-down after four holes to beat the increasingly erratic Elder.
"I had thought it was closer. It was disappointing to win my match and find out we had already lost . . . . We got knocked down like tin soldiers today, almost."
On the final afternoon of this colorful, spirited, three-day festival of match play in which no prize money but immense international pride is at stake, the superior depth of U.S. professional golf prevailed.
The Europeans had fought back to within one point (8 1/2 - 7 1/2) after 16 team matches on Friday and Saturday. But today the Americans won eight of 11 singles matches -- man-against-man, head-to-head, as all Ryder Cup matches are played -- to defend the handsome gold cup, 17 points to 11.
The victory was the Americans' 19th in 23 contests since 1927. The visitors, who last won in 1957 and tied for the only time in 1969, opened their side to continentals as well as Britons and Irishmen this year for the first time, taking on Spaniards Severiano Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido, but still could not win on American soil for the first time.
Only 11 singles matches were played today instead of the scheduled 12 as U.S. non-playing captain Billy Casper withdrew injured Gil Morgan, who sprained his right clavicle in a fall Friday night. European Captain John Jacobs then withdrew Mark James, who was nursing a sore left shoulder. According to the complicated Ryder Cup rules, their non-match was considered halved, and the final day pairings adjusted.
Most of the matches were close, the Europeans demonstrating again the combative spirit that had enabled them to fight back to within one point after a disastrous opening day, but in the end they got knocked down.
Like tin soldiers, almost.
Bernard Gallacher, a gritty 30-year-old Scot playing in his sixth Ryder Cup, briefly pulled the visitors even by beating Lanny Wadkins, 3 and 2, in the first match.
Wadkins -- who had teamed with Larry Nelson for four impressive team victories the first two days, three of them over 1977 World Cup champions Ballesteros and Barrido -- had been undefeated in seven matches in two Ryder Cup efforts. His driving went awry today and he made four bogeys, including the decisive one at the 16th, where he drove into a lake.
However, Nelson -- who was properly singled out by Casper as "the hero" of the American effort -- put the U.S. right back ahead. He was paired against Ballesteros, the dashing 22-year-old British Open champion, in the second match, and continued his brillant play to win, 3 and 2. He was four under par for 16 holes.
Nelson birdied the first three holes to go 3-up swiftly, then chipped in from 70 feet off the left apron for a birdie 2 on the ninth. That nullified a 40-foot downhill putt off the fringe for a birdie 3 that Ballesteros had made on the sixth hole, and enabled Nelson to keep his three-hole advantage at the turn.
Ballesteros, who had the misfortune to run into Nelson and Wadkins at their most sizzling form, kept battling, sinking a 30-foot putt for a birdie at the 16th. But Nelson matched it with an eight-footer for a halve that clinched the match, and put the Americans ahead to stay.
The next three matches all went to the U.S. by the narrowest possible margin: 1 up.
Tom Kite -- who had made a crucial 12-foot birdie putt to assure a four-ball victory with Hale Irwin Saturday afternoon, giving the U.S. its one-point margin going into the final day -- birdied four of the last eight holes to wipe out a three-hole deficit and beat former British and U.S. Open champion Tony Jacklin.
Mark Hayes -- a last-minute substitute for U.S. No. 1 man Tom Watson, who withdrew Thursday to be with his wife as their first child was born -- made a 12-foot putt on the 18th to sneak past Garrido.
John Mahaffey, watching a 3-up advantage shrink to 1-up between the 14th and 16th holes, held on for two pars to edge Brian Barnes, the strapping 33-year-old Scot who earlier had teamed with Gallacher for three points. (Barnes -- a 6-foot-5-inch vision in his white visor, puffing a pipe as he plays -- had demonstrated his skill in match play by beating Jack Nicklaus twice in one day in the 1977 Ryder Cup.)
And then Green, who had been left out of Saturday afternoon's four-ball matches because he had been playing poorly, clinched the series by beating Oosterhuis, who had never lost a singles match in four previous Ryder Cups and had the best cup record of any British player in history.
Green had taken a double-bogey six at the 14th, losing the hole to Oosterhuis' bogey to square the match, but atoned by rolling in a tricky 10-footer for his birdie at the 1-7th. That assured him at least a tie and the decisive half-point, but Green also birdied the 18th to win the match outright.
That rendered the outcome of the final four matches irrelevant, but the Americans won three of them: Andy Bean beating Michael King, 4 and 3, U.S. Open champion Irwin stopping Irishman Des Smyth, 5 and 3; and five-time Ryder Cup veteran Lee Trevino stopping Sandy Lyle, a promising 21-year-old Englishman who won the European Open by seven shots last week, 2 and 1.
Faldo's victory over Elder -- the Washington D.C., resident who finished 1-3 in his Ryder Cup debut at age 45 -- and Ken Brown's 1-up victory over Master's champion Fuzzy Zoeller accounted for the final margin.
Nelson, a quiet 32-year-old Georgian who did not take up golf seriously until he was 21, was indeed the hero of the weekend, going 5-0 in his first Ryder Cup appearance even though he had experienced the unique pressure of match play only once before -- losing his club championship in Kenesaw, Ga. seven years ago.
"Today I probably hit the ball as well as I have all year . . . I learned a lot, too. I think this day will help me for years to come. . . . I think I'm finally to the point where I can control my nerves, my emotions, and preserve a lead," he said.
If one is as gifted and confident as Nelson, it is like knocking down tin soldiers, almost.