For the sake of your teammates, your country and even your own reputation, it is hard to change your personality overnight. Much as you might want to do it, think how the gears of your psyche would resist.
Yet the 12 men on the U.S. Ryder Cup team accomplished that transformation here at The Country Club Sunday. In the span of 24 hours, they willed themselves from being a dozen dazed, disconnected individuals into becoming a leaping, fist-pumping, risk-taking team.
That's why the U.S. team, so brutally disappointed in itself over the past three Ryder Cups, finally redeemed itself Sunday by pulling off the greatest comeback in the history of team golf. Since 1927, no Cup team had ever come back from more than a two-match deficit. This U.S. team doubled that feat, climbing out of an enormous four-match hole.
"We had an emotional team meeting last night," Hal Sutton said. "Everybody poured their guts out. I think everybody cried. Everybody wanted it." And they got it. Needing to win 8 1/2 of 12 possible points, they got exactly 8 1/2. Every contribution was essential.
"These fellows faced seemingly insurmountable odds," said captain Ben Crenshaw, who may have imbued his team with some of his own extremely emotional nature. "I'm so proud of 'em. Damned if they didn't pull it off. It was unbelievable."
The stirring manner of the Americans' victory, by the smallest margin possible in this format (14 1/2-13 1/2), was utterly unexpected for those who have known many of these normally restrained men for years.
When Justin Leonard clinched the Cup with a 45-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole of his match against Jose Maria Olazabal, the usually dour, expressionless little Texan epitomized the American transformation. Leonard came completely out of personality type and made a perfect fool of himself. A perfectly wonderful fool. Leonard sprinted like a splay-footed goose and jumped like a ruptured frog. Then he tried to high-five a marshal. And missed the guy's hand entirely. You never saw a famous athlete expose his lack of athleticism so comically.
Yet that was the central point of the whole day. For the sake of team morale, a dozen men abandoned all the self-protective, routinized golf gestures that they've mastered on the PGA Tour. Instead of the perfunctory tip of the cap and the polite wave to the crowd--the comfortable habits that have helped them to a prosperous celebrity life--they opted for the risk of raw, competitive emotion.
In fact, the entire U.S. team violated every principle of proper golf decorum and decent manners by pouring onto the 17th green to celebrate with Leonard. You see, Olazabal still had a 30-foot putt of his own to halve the hole and, in theory, keep the entire Cup competition alive. Technically speaking, could you be much more unsporting? Probably not.
"Sad to see. An ugly picture," Olazabal said.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing on that 17th green. Jose still had a putt to halve," Colin Montgomerie huffed.
How true. And tisk, tisk, too.
"We do apologize sincerely," Crenshaw said.
"I'll take the blame for that," Leonard said. "If I hadn't gone nuts, it wouldn't have happened."
However, if Leonard and the rest of the Americans hadn't gone nuts all day, none of this would have happened. Besides, Europe has been doing the same over-the-top shenanigans for a long time.
"People have short memories," Davis Love III said. "They've done a lot of celebrating over the years." What about that in-your-face European team conga line at Jack Nicklaus's Muirfield Village club? Or the obnoxious fans at The Belfry? Or the loonies draped in various European flags running drunken through the dunes at Kiawah Island while Americans tried to play?
All this, of course, is what makes the Ryder Cup so compelling. It's civilized and uppercrusty, full of manners and rules and sportsmanship codes. But it's also raw and right on the edge with players pounding their heads on the ground one minute and kissing the earth in celebration the next.
This match may have been the culmination of eight Cups worth of transoceanic tension. How close was the final result? If Leonard's long, crazy putt had not gone in the hole--and the three undecided matches still on the course (including Leonard's) had concluded as they eventually did--the final score would have been 14-14. And Europe would have kept the Cup.
This entire day was one long demonstration of the power of crowd support, momentum and emotional commitment by the participants. The U.S. team even got a "Remember The Alamo" pep talk on Saturday night, complete with a real letter from an Alamo defender that began, "We were besieged by the enemy." Said Crenshaw, "That's just how we felt."
Perhaps the most amazing personality graft was done on David Duval, the No. 2-ranked player in the world who can resemble a zombie for weeks at a time and who previously called the Ryder Cup "just a glorified exhibition."
The stoic Duval, who's always used golf as a refuge from a world he found frightening, incited the New England crowds here into a kind of polite riot with his fist pumps and yells as he crushed Europe's hottest player, Jesper Parnevik, 5 and 4. Then, when the thousands were bellowing, Duval would gesture "I can't hear you" by cupping his hand to his ear. That would send the peals of noise cascading over the hills to inspire other Americans.
Tom Lehman, who has a bit of a paunch at age 42, could have thrown out a knee the way he ran around greens, high-fived fans and jabbed his finger at the sky as he whipped young lion Lee Westwood in the day's tone-setting first match.
So it went all over The Country Club as Crenshaw's strategy--send out your big guns in the early matches and make a war of it--worked to perfection. As the big lopsided wins hit the scoreboards, Europe got the message. Its fiery all-for-one style had been appropriated by the home side.
Even elegant Phil Mickelson, known for his pretty pink shirts with the collar up, was matched by accident against the only man in golf with whom he has a public feud--Jarmo Sandelin of Sweden. They went nose-to-nose and almost came to blows over Sandelin's in-your-face showboating at the Dunhill Cup last year. Mickelson ate him alive, 4 and 3.
"They came out screeching," European captain Mark James said.
"Basically, they ran over us," Parnevik said.
We should remember that success in golf--especially the precise target-style of American pro golf--has always fallen disproportionately to self-controlled, self-reliant individualists. It's a hard game, especially at the highest level, for emotional, passionate people. There are exceptions, such as Lee Trevino. By and large, however, the PGA Tour brings men to the top who are almost antiseptic to the type you might select for an emotion-charged team event.
Thanks largely to Seve Ballesteros's example and leadership, the European teams of the last eight Cups have melded into traditional athletic teams that hoist each other in the air in joy and take the whole competition as an enormously personal test of professional honor. They live for it.
Many Americans feel uncomfortable with that. Doing things their own way, they've won major titles, top rankings and tons of money. Wouldn't they be nuts to change their focused, somewhat isolated style?
Now, finally, they have. See how much fun being human can be? Maybe in 2001, on European soil, the United States might even consider doing it on Friday and Saturday as well.