When U.S. Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw met 19-year-old Spanish star Sergio Garcia for the first time at The Memorial tournament in Ohio in May, Garcia made a playful request. "He said, `Mr. Crenshaw, this is the first time I've met you,' " Crenshaw recalled today, " `and I have played well enough to be on the U.S. PGA Tour. Would you pick me on your Ryder Cup team?' "
Unfortunately for Crenshaw and the American side, that obviously is not an option. Garcia, the runner-up by a shot to Tiger Woods Sunday in a stirring back-nine duel in the PGA Championship, will be playing for Europe Sept. 24-26 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
This morning, Crenshaw announced that 1996 British Open champion Tom Lehman and 1991 Cup player Steve Pate were his two captain's choice picks to round out a powerful 12-man U.S. team headed by Woods and David Duval, the top two players in the world. Lehman's selection was never in doubt; Pate's choice over five-time Cup veteran Fred Couples was something of a surprise.
"His name was always there," Crenshaw said of Pate, who missed a year of competition after breaking his wrist in 1996 and was 16th on the final points list. "The man has a determination and a competitive attitude and he's shown it in the last two years. He's a very, very fierce competitor who would walk through a wall for you."
Of Lehman, 12th in Cup points, Crenshaw said, "I can't say enough about his diligence and determination, his strength and his character. He exudes leadership. He's a very confident, determined individual."
Crenshaw said his short list for the last spot included Couples, Lee Janzen, Bob Estes, Chris Perry and Steve Stricker. He also said he had a brief chat with 54-year-old Hale Irwin after the three-time U.S. Open champion played the first two rounds of the PGA in 5 under and was four off the 36-hole lead. When Irwin shot 78-75 on the weekend, his already remote chances ended.
Knowing he had to finish tied for fifth or better to make the team on points, Estes made a run up the board Sunday and with three holes to play was 8 under. He then bogeyed 16 and 17 and parred 18 to tie for sixth, a stroke behind Nick Price.
Crenshaw said he had hoped Janzen would contend this weekend after a mostly mediocre season, but the two-time U.S. Open champion missed the cut and was scratched from consideration. Estes, Perry and Stricker (who also missed the cut) have never played on a Ryder Cup team, and Crenshaw said that was a major factor in his decision.
Crenshaw described leaving Couples off the team as "agonizing . . . the hardest call to make. The whole world loves Fred. He has just not played enough this year. . . . Freddie can usually casually get himself through the first two rounds and put himself in shape for the weekend. But it just wasn't there that many times this weekend."
Crenshaw called both players late Sunday night to inform them they'd been chosen. Despite a locker room chat with Crenshaw earlier in the day at Medinah, Pate wasn't sure the call was coming despite tying for ninth in the tournament with a final-round 69. "I've always loved match play," said Pate, who lost in the semifinals of the World Match Play Championship at La Costa in California earlier this year. "I've always liked the fact that at the end of the day, either you've won or lost. I seem to swing a little more freely because I can make a 10 somewhere and it doesn't matter -- I just lost a hole."
Said Lehman: "I don't feel any more or less pressure [as a captain's pick]. There's pressure whether you finish first or 12th in the selection process. I'm just looking for a way to make the team better. I know we'll all be pouring our heart and soul over that golf course for three days."
Woods and Garcia were doing the same Sunday at Medinah No. 3. The tournament was the last major of the century and just as every other major this year was decided by a riveting final round. Woods, 23, almost squandered a five-shot lead on the back nine, but held himself together to take his second career major in three years by a shot, posting an 11-under 277 total. But Garcia (278) remains the talk of the golf world with his daredevil play and refreshingly boundless youthful enthusiasm.
Garcia's 6-iron shot from an almost impossible lie at the base of a tree in the rough off the 16th fairway, 189 yards from the hole, will be replayed for as long as he tees it up. His dash up the fairway to see its final outcome -- on the green 50 feet from the hole and a two-putt par -- was a joy to behold. When he took off his cap and put it over his heart, breathing a huge sigh of relief, no commentary was necessary.
"I don't think anyone's ever seen a shot like that," Crenshaw said. "He's coming down the stretch, he's trying to do whatever he can to save a stroke and now he's got the root of a tree looking at him. His caddie, Jerry Higginbotham, came in and said, `I'm dumbfounded, speechless.'
"What we thought about the game when we were 19 was all encapsulated in that scene. Your mouth's open. How tremendous that is. It said everything about what this kid is all about. It was magic."
Lehman was similarly impressed, calling Garcia "Seve with a smile," a reference to the original hero of Spanish golf, the flamboyant Seve Ballesteros. Lehman and Ballesteros went at each other in a somewhat contentious Cup match at Oak Hill in 1995, and Garcia now may get a chance against Lehman next month.
"He's a very creative, swashbuckling kind of charismatic guy, just bubbling," Lehman said of "El Nino." "He's been saying for the last three months, `I want to play you in the Ryder Cup.' I tell him, `I have a pretty tough time with the Spaniards so you better watch out, buddy.' "
RYDER CUP TEAMS
Sept. 24-26, at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
Davis Love III
Captain: Ben Crenshaw
European Team *
Darren Clarke, N. Ireland
Andrew Coltart, Scotland
Sergio Garcia, Spain
Miguel Angel Jimenez, Spain
Robert Karlsson, Sweden
Colin Montgomerie, Scotland
Bernhard Langer, Germany
Paul Lawrie, Scotland
Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain
Jarmo Sandelin, Sweden
Jean Van De Velde, France
Lee Westwood, England
* Top 12 players; team will not be finalized until Sunday.