The problems for American golf on the international stage started long ago, as Jack Nicklaus well remembers, because the pivotal moment happened on his own Muirfield Village course in the '87 Ryder Cup when he was the U.S. captain. That's when the elite players of the United States first learned that, like everybody else, they could choke. And keep on choking.
"I had a good team that year but they never won the 18th hole all week. Lost it every time," Nicklaus said after his team had won the Presidents Cup, 181/2-151/2, because all three American players whose matches came to the 18th hole -- Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco -- made crucial, clutch birdies on the final hole.
"That 18th hole [in '87] cost them the matches," Nicklaus said. "The 18th hole this week won us the matches. You've got to be able to play the last hole and finish. Believe in yourself. Believe that you can do it again. That's why I'm so happy. This [victory] elevated every one of these guys so the next time out they will believe in what they can do."
The "next time out," of course, would refer to next year in the cursed, jinxed, humiliating Ryder Cup that the European team has held in its pub-crawling, cigar-smoking, back-slapping clutches after eight of the last 10 infuriating meetings over the last 20 years. Oh, yes, this Presidents Cup was all about the next Ryder Cup. The U.S. team can't wait to get back at the blood-brother Europeans who usually get to fall down laughing on the final green, chuckling their brains out at the way the stiff-necked millionaire Americans have gagged under pressure -- especially on the final holes of close matches -- once again.
After yesterday's victory at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, one American after another heaped testimonials on Nicklaus.
"Everybody thinks the Americans don't care. . . . We care a lot, and this is big. We wanted this bad," said DiMarco, whose final 15-foot birdie on the 18th hole closed out Stuart Appleby 1-up and clinched the Cup. "We wanted this for Mr. Nicklaus."
Jack, luckily, still does not buy the hearts-and-flowers theory of sport. He knows the truth. His team was using the "win-one-for-Jack" crutch to help get over all its nagging psychological and team-chemistry problems in recent years.
"I don't know why in the world they care about winning one for an old man. They need to win one for themselves," said Nicklaus, aware that nine of his 12 players were on the '04 Ryder Cup Titanic. "American golf has not won in international competition for a few years."
In a year or two, perhaps we'll know whether this week at RTJ, with the touch of Jack and Barbara Nicklaus setting the tone, will actually transform the Americans into a true team. One player brought a sports page to read to the final interviews because he doubted he'd be asked questions and did a squeaky imitation of Nicklaus's voice. These guys aren't out of "Hoosiers" yet.
But this event might be a turning point. This time, it was the U.S. team at a victory podium doing its impromptu teasing skits as Nicklaus played father-figure moderator.
If one central U.S. player has to be melded with the rest of the team by a strong, even sarcastic captain's hand, it's Mickelson. And maybe only Nicklaus has the stature to do it.
Mickelson was asked about the indelible moment when, after making a five-foot birdie putt on the 18th to square his match with Angel Cabrera, he celebrated as though he thought he'd just won the Presidents Cup -- because he thought he had.
"I thought that that was it. I thought that we had won because I am an idiot and didn't read the rules of the game," Mickelson said. At that, the whole team melted in laughter.
"Better yet," Mickelson said, fingering himself further, "Captain Nicklaus told me on the 15th hole that there were no ties. Didn't quite get it. Still didn't get it."
"I thought you understood," Nicklaus said.
"You would think I would," Mickelson said.
"I told you there were no ties and you had to play to a conclusion," Nicklaus said, mischievously.
"Yeah, I thought you meant, 'Don't go for the tie. Go for the win.' "
More gales of delighted team laughter.
"Okay," Mickelson said sheepishly, "I got it, I got it."
Sitting next to Mickelson (by choice) was Eldrick Woods, the only Tiger with a leopard hairdo.
The U.S. team has a long way to go yet to match the Europeans for tall tales, hi-jinks and humor. Actually, they'd probably all have to be arrested and ride to jail in the same paddy wagon at 4 a.m. to match Darren Clarke's boys. But this week has showed progress. "We're showing more emotion on the course as we get older," said Davis Love III of a team with an average age of 38 and five players over 40. "We have the most fun sitting in that team bus or joking around on the White House tour."
"We laugh at everything people say about us. It's so far from the truth," Couples said. "But when you lose, you've got to come up with something to explain it."
And, once that pattern of uptight failure is established, you've got to come up with something to reverse the trend.
Perhaps Mickelson has to mock himself or Woods has to look like the victim of a fraternity prank every time he takes off his hat. Maybe the players need to tell the captain who should be paired, as Mickelson asked for DiMarco and Woods requested Jim Furyk -- with spectacular results (5-0-2). "They kept telling me what they wanted to do," Nicklaus said. "I said, 'Okay.' "
In particular, Couples, 45 and past his prime, practically begged Nicklaus to let him play Vijay Singh, the No. 2 player in the world and the Internationals' star.
"Jack asked if anyone wanted to play anyone," Couples said. "I was the only one who said I'd like to play Vijay. I just felt like if I was going to beat anyone it was going to be probably their best player. So I selected Vijay."
"Thanks," Woods said.
"I thought if I could handle him . . . that several guys would be excited about that," understated Couples.
So, we'll see. Sea changes don't happen quickly. All of us who were there that day at Muirfield in '87 could feel the shift as the Europeans formed a conga line and high-kicked on Jack's own greens. The Euros leaned on each other unsteadily, already drunk on victory, though -- with the champagne bottles already in their hands -- surely headed toward more traditional methods.
This Presidents Cup was not nearly such heady stuff, although Peter Lonard described the U.S. team's 58 birdies and two eagles yesterday as "a birdie barrage." The U.S. team may never wear lampshades on their heads or tell randy jokes to the nearest lamppost at 3 a.m. like some of their more colorful 'round-the-world foes.
But they're finally enjoying each other, laughing at themselves and, most important, making birdie putts on the 18th hole.
It's a start.