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A Good Walk Spoiled
By John Feinstein

Chapter One: Don't Throw Up

That thought had occurred to Davis Love III on more than one occasion during his golf career. Only this time it was different. To Love, "throw up" was not a literal term, it was part of the golf vernacular as in "I was one shot off the lead with four holes left and then I threw up all over myself."

Nerves take over. The pressure caves in on you. In other sports you choke. In golf, you throw up. Leave yourself a four-foot putt on 18 and you are in the dreaded throw-up zone. Every golfer has thrown up on himself.

Only at this instant, a cool, cloudy, English autumn Sunday afternoon in September of 1993, Love wasn't thinking about throwing up in a golf sense. That would come later. Right now, standing in the middle of the 18th fairway at the Belfry, a golf course that looked and felt like a Florida resort but happened to be located in the English Midlands, Love was thinking about literally throwing up in front of several million people.

He wanted to bend over, put his hands on his knees, and take several deep breaths to calm himself, but he knew he couldn't do that. He couldn't let his teammates, standing a few yards behind him on the left side of the fairway, see that. He certainly couldn't let anyone on the European team see even a trace of nerves. Not now. Not with his opponent, Costantino Rocca, facing an almost impossible shot out of the right rough.

No way could he let anyone know the thoughts churning through his brain. He looked at his golf ball, sitting safely in the fairway, exactly 148 yards from the pin, and then he looked back at Rocca, who was trying to figure out some way to carry his second shot over the water that protected the green both in front and to the left.

I can't lose, he thought. Then he mentally slapped himself across the face for letting that notion slip into his head for even a split second. If there was any one lesson he had learned during the last three days it was how quickly things could change during a Ryder Cup match.

The last thirty minutes had been proof - again - of that. Walking down the 16th fairway, trying not to feel frustrated, Love had looked up and seen a welcoming committee of sorts waiting for him at the green. Tom Watson, the American captain, was there. So were a number of his teammates, their matches already over. Most of the American caddies and just about all the wives were there too. Love had been checking the scoreboards around the golf course all day, trying to figure how his team was doing. It was confusing, though, and changed so quickly from hole to hole that he couldn't calculate exactly what was going on. He knew a red number was good - that meant the American player was leading - and blue was bad - that meant the European player was in front. And he also knew that any roar that sounded like a tidal wave was very bad. It meant that a European had done something spectacular. Early in the afternoon, there had been a comforting calmness and quiet. Listen for the quiet, Watson had told his team, that means we're getting the job done.

But as the afternoon stretched on, the quiet had disappeared. In the last hour there had been too many roars. Playing the seventh of eleven matches, Love knew there weren't many points left to be decided. He had led through most of the front nine, but never by more than one hole. Then Rocca, a chunky Italian with a solid record in Europe but a complete unknown in the U.S., had won back-to-back holes at 13 and 14 and, suddenly, Love was one down.

And so, as he walked onto the 16th green and saw the American contingent, Love knew exactly where the competition stood. This match decides the whole thing, he thought. His stomach, which had seemed to be in a permanent knot since Friday morning, did the impossible. It twisted a little tighter.

He and Rocca both two-putted for par at 16, so Love was still one down with two holes to play. Watson was waiting for him on the 17th tee, hands jammed into the pockets of his windbreaker. "We really need this match," he said, his voice as quiet as Love had ever heard it. Love didn't answer right away because the first thought that came into his head wouldn't have sounded very good: "No shit, Tom."

Instead, he took a deep breath and said, "All I know is, I'm due to make a putt and he's due to miss one."

The 17th at the Belfry is a long par-five, the kind of hole that should give a big hitter like Love an advantage over most players. Sure enough, he was within wedge distance of the green after two shots and Rocca was way back in the fairway, hitting a five-iron. But Rocca hit the shot brilliantly, leaving himself a 25-foot birdie putt. When Love's wedge spun to a stop 18 disappointing feet below the hole, it looked like another halve was likely. And that wasn't good enough.

Rocca lined up his putt carefully, then trickled it down the hill toward the cup. For one terrifying second, Love thought it was going in the hole. But it slid by, inches above the cup, and rolled farther than Rocca had thought it would, leaving him a little more than three feet coming back. Love noticed that Rocca had started walking as the ball got close to the hole, thinking he had a tap-in for par. Then, when it kept on going, he stopped dead in his tracks. "He was surprised it went so far," Love said. "He thought he was going to have an easy tap-in. For the first time all day, he looked just a tiny bit scared."

Love couldn't think about that though. He had to try to make his putt so Rocca's wouldn't matter. He hit a solid-looking putt, but inches short of the hole it died right. Rocca conceded the par and Love picked the ball up, angry for a moment, but then hopeful again. Rocca took forever looking over his putt.

Standing next to his caddy, Frank Williams, Love broke the first rule of Ryder Cup that his teammates had drilled into him all week: he made a prediction. "He may miss this," he whispered.

With the huge crowd so quiet you could have heard a ball marker drop, Rocca finally stroked the putt that would clinch at least a tie - a one-hole lead with one to play. Only he pushed it. The putt spun right as Rocca stared in disbelief and the crowd gasped in horror. They were even.

So were their teams. At that moment, the Americans had 12 1/2 points and were leading in one match. The Europeans had 12 1/2 and were leading in one. This match would almost certainly decide the outcome.

Love's first instinct was to run to the 18th tee, take out his driver, and hit the ball nine miles. But he could hear his friend, mentor, and partner Tom Kite's voice in his head. "Take your time. Don't rush. Let them think about what you're doing behind them."

And so, as the marshals cleared the way for Rocca to walk the 50 yards up the hill to the 18th, Love remained behind. The next match was a full hole behind, so there was no need to clear the green immediately. He dropped a ball on the green and said to Williams, "I just want to hit a few putts uphill."

He hit several putts, then walked slowly through the crowd to the tee where Rocca was waiting. Everyone was shouting at the two players, but for some reason, Love heard only Bruce Edwards, Watson's regular caddy, who had been working for Lanny Wadkins during the week, since Watson wasn't playing. "You're going to win, Davis," Edwards kept saying. "You're going to win."

Watson was waiting on the tee again. Bernard Gallacher, the European captain, stood with Rocca. Love wondered for a split second if Gallacher was telling Rocca that his team really needed this match.

The 18th at the Belfry is a great finishing hole on what is a rather ordinary golf course. It is a slight dogleg left, with water all the way down the left side that widens out in front of the green. The fairway is narrow for about 250 yards, then widens. There are bunkers on the right side from which the green is virtually unreachable.

If you play boldly down the left side and try to carry too much water, you will end up wet, as several Americans had on the final day of the biennial matches in 1989. If you play too timidly, aiming away from the water, you will probably catch the bunkers or the rough, bringing the water into play on your second shot. Into the wind, a driver aimed right is the correct play. Downwind, a driver can be too much club unless you are willing to play way left, because the ball will run through the fairway into trouble.

The Americans had spent hours practicing this shot during the week. They had calculated yardage to different spots and had noted exactly how far the ball would carry based on the wind. Watson had stood in the middle of the fairway marking landing areas and targets while his players hit shot after shot in his direction.

Love and Watson walked to the front of the tee. The hole was playing downwind. "What have guys been hitting here?" Love asked Watson.

"I'm not certain," Watson said. "I've been all over the course all day. But it isn't a driver for you today."

Love knew that. The question in his mind was whether to hit a three-wood or a one-iron.

Watson read his mind. "It could be a one-iron," he said.

Love could get a one-iron safely to the fairway, he knew that. But he wanted to put as much pressure on Rocca as he possibly could. A well-struck three-wood down the left side would roll way down the fairway, leaving Love in perfect position. That would make Rocca's tee shot that much more difficult.

Love knew that if he put his shot in the water he would be remembered as the goat of the 1993 Ryder Cup. But he couldn't think that way. He had to think he could pull off a tough shot when it mattered most. Otherwise, why play?

He took out the three-wood and glanced at Watson. Arms folded, Watson nodded, almost imperceptibly. He wasn't about to tell Love what to do in this situation but clearly he approved of the choice. A man who loves challenges, he appreciated Love's not backing away from this one.

Love took his practice swing, set up to the ball, and took the club back in the long, sweeping arc that was the envy of most players on tour. As soon as he followed through, he knew he had hit a perfect shot. The ball flew down the left side, climbed over the corner of the water where Love had aimed, and bounced safely onto the wide part of the fairway, well past the bunkers.

The Americans were screaming, and Love could hear an appreciative roar coming from where the ball had landed. There were a few groans mixed in and then it was very quiet. The European fans, who had rooted ardently for their team all weekend without any of the ugliness displayed by the American fans in 1991, knew Love had hit a superb shot. They were disappointed but impressed.

Rocca's turn. All day he had struck the ball well. The silence now was even more deafening than it had been on the 17th green. Rocca stepped up to the ball and took a deep breath. Suddenly, a huge roar, the loudest of the weekend, erupted from several holes back. It had to be Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo, the last match of the day. The last time Love had looked, the two anchors had been even. This roar made it clear that Faldo had done something remarkable. Rocca settled back over the ball, but the roar erupted again. What the he had Faldo done? Only later would the players learn that Faldo had aced the 14th hole.

"It may have been the only time in Ryder Cup history that a hole in one actually hurt the team that made it," Love said later, remembering how Rocca had to step back twice.

Finally, there was quiet again. Rocca went through his preshot routine a third time and swung. Love knew two things right away: the shot was safely right of the water, but it was not where Rocca wanted to be. It was right, a pop-up type of drive that landed between the bunkers, more than 200 yards from the green.

The Americans were almost delirious. Walking across the footbridge that led from the tee to the fairway, Love wondered if anyone could hear his heart pounding. "Hit one good shot and the Ryder Cup's coming home," he told himself. "Just one more good shot."

As he walked to his ball, Love could see the packed grandstands behind the green and to the right. Flags were waving all over the place. The players and caddies all walked to the left side of the fairway for a better view. The wives were on the right side, over by the ropes. Love didn't look there. He was afraid if he saw his mother, who was walking with his wife, he might start thinking about his dad and this was absolutely not the time for that.

Even so, as he stood in the fairway with Williams, waiting for Rocca to play his shot, his stomach felt as if it was upside down on a roller coaster.

Please hang on, he thought, hoping his stomach would hear him. Don't throw up. Not now. Hang on for ten more minutes.

He took a deep breath and folded his arms, hoping to look calm. It seemed to him that it had been about ten years since he had last felt calm. It had actually been sixty hours.

The first person to warn Love about Ryder Cup nerves was Tom Kite. Before their first match as partners on Friday, Kite had pulled him aside. "Remember one thing," he had said. "If they've got a sixty-foot putt, expect them to make it. If they're in an unplayable spot, figure they'll find a play. If you're sure we've won a hole, flush the thought. Things are going to happen you've never seen happen before in your entire life."

Love had tremendous respect for Kite. He knew he had been through five Ryder Cups and spoke from experience. But all week long, as the American and European teams prepared for what had become golf's most emotional event, Love had thought everyone was making just a little bit too big a deal of the whole thing.

"I know you boys have played a lot of golf in a lot of places around the world," Watson had said to Love and the three other first-time Ryder Cuppers on the team. "You've played majors, been in position to win majors, but you've never experienced anything like this. This is the only event in the world that will make your legs shake."

By Thursday night, the eve of the matches, Love thought he had heard enough. He had read all about the European juggernaut that was bound and determined to take the cup back after barely losing it on American soil in 1991. He had heard all about what Ryder Cup did to Seve Ballesteros, the spiritual and emotional leader of the Europeans, who never seemed to lose a cup match. He had read reams of copy about the indomitable Nick Faldo and unshakable Bernhard Langer. He had walked the 18th hole with his teammates and heard all the stories about the disasters that had befallen the American team there in 1989.

Ryder Cup pressure. European supermen. Impossible shots becoming possible. Love enjoyed hearing it all. He didn't doubt this was a monumental happening, the most important thing he had ever been a part of in golf.

But he still didn't quite buy all the hype. When Watson gathered his twelve players and their wives for dinner,on Thursday night, Love listened some more to the veterans as they talked about what had to be done and what had to be avoided, in order to win. The theme seemed to be this: keep the match close during the first two days of team play, when 16 points were at stake, then take advantage of the superior depth on the American side during the twelve singles matches on Sunday. The goal was 14 1/2 points; somehow, someway. The secondary goal was 14 - a tie - because as the holders the Americans would retain the cup if the twenty-eight matches did not produce a winner.

That was what had happened the last time the matches had been staged at the Belfry, four years earlier: a 14-14 tie. Only then, Europe had held the cup and the American team flew home feeling like losers. After all, the cup was still in Europe.

As he listened and looked around the dining room, Love was a bit awed by the talent he saw. Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, perhaps the most naturally talented player in the game; Paul Azinger, the toughest competitor Love had ever met, who was coming off his first victory in a major - the PGA - a month earlier; Corey Pavin, who could hit every shot in the bag; Lanny Wadkins and Raymond Floyd, the old men who had seen and done it all in Ryder Cup and in golf; Chip Beck, the man who never seemed to have a negative thought on the golf course or in life; Payne Stewart, who had won a U.S. Open and a PGA and, of course, his buddy Kite, who was only the leading money winner of all time in the sport.

Then there were the four so-called rookies: Lee Janzen - all he had done this year was win the U.S. Open; Jim Gallagher Jr., one of the best-kept secrets in the game, a guy who could hit the ball as long as just about anyone not named John Daly; and John Cook, who had almost won two majors the year before and had won more than $1 million. Love was no slouch either. He had won seven tournaments before the age of thirty and had finished second to Couples on the U.S. money list in 1992.

How could this team possibly lose? Hell, they were so deep that Watson wasn't even playing Janzen, the reigning U.S. Open champion, in the first four matches the next morning.

"You know what I think," Love finally said during a lull in the conversation. "I think all this talk of staying close and getting to fourteen and a half is kind of silly. Why don't we just go out there with the idea that we're going to win every single match? Why don't we make it our goal for Saturday, not to be close, but to have the cup clinched before we go to bed? There's sixteen matches the first two days. Why can't we think about winning all of them?"

They had all stared at him in disbelief for a split second as if someone had spiked his drink. Then they started to laugh. Love didn't get it. "Just wait till tomorrow," they all said. "Then you'll understand." Then they laughed some more.

Love shrugged. He wasn't trying to put down the Europeans or downplay the magnitude of the event. But for goodness sake, he'd been playing golf since he was old enough to walk and he'd been in every major tournament there was, both as an amateur and a professional. He thought about what Watson had said about Ryder Cup making your legs shake.

I'll be nervous, I know that, he thought. But shaking? Come on, Tom, be serious. I've played golf my whole life. He was used to the knot in his stomach in big moments, had come to expect it. But never ever had he felt wobbly-legged on a golf course.

And then came Friday morning. The weather was awful, foggy and drizzly and cold. There was no way to play golf at the scheduled 8 A.M. starting time. Since the players on both teams were staying on-site at the Belfry Hotel, they were all downstairs, trying to kill time, first on the putting green, then on the driving range, then back inside to get out of the cold and wet. Love and Kite were playing the third match against Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, the so-called Spanish Armada. Of the four American rookies, Love was the only one playing in the four morning matches. There would be four more matches that afternoon.

When he walked outside to look around, Love was amazed. Even in the awful weather, the grounds were packed by 8 o'clock. Everywhere he looked, he saw people, bundled against the cold, hands wrapped around coffee and tea containers. No one knew how long the wait would be, but they were all there, ready, excited, hoping to will the European victory they wanted so much.

Love hung around with his teammates, chipping and putting and hitting a few balls. Finally, shortly before 10, the fog began to lift. Word came down from the two captains: if the weather didn't worsen again, play would begin at 10:30.

And that's when Davis Love first felt his legs shake. "All of a sudden it hit me just how big a deal this really was," he said. "It wasn't as if I hadn't known it before. But watching on television, just rooting for the U.S., is an entirely different thing. I mean, there were thousands of people there and, unlike at a tournament, they were going to be watching just four matches - and I was playing in one of them."

No money - not a nickel - was at stake. The Ryder Cup is about national pride and coming through for your teammates. Love now knew that kind of pressure was a lot more intense than playing to collect a check.

The morning format was alternate shot - two-man teams playing with one ball, alternating shots until the ball was in the cup. Kite, having studied the golf course, had suggested that Love hit the tee shot on the odd-numbered holes since the two par-fives on the back nine were the 15th and the 17th, holes where Love's length would come into play off the tee.

Love hadn't given it much thought, but it seemed to make sense, so he had told Kite that was fine with him. Now, Love was having second thoughts. As Corey Pavin and Lanny Wadkins left the putting green and headed for the first tee for the opening match, it occurred to Love that one was an odd number. That meant he would hit the first shot of the match.

"Hey, Tom," he said, trying to sound nonchalant, "are you sure you want me to take the odd holes?"

Kite, understanding, smiled. "I'm sure, Davis," he said. "You'll be just fine."

Fifteen minutes later, match number 3 was called to the first tee. Love was shivering. Must be the cold, he told himself. Probably isn't, he thought a few seconds later. They were walking now, escorted by several security guards, through a phalanx of people to the tee. Ballesteros and Olazabal were a few yards in front of them in matching red sweaters. The crowd grew louder with each step they took.

"Look, Tom, I really think you should take the odd holes," Love said. His tone was almost pleading. "I just think ..."

"I know exactly what you're thinking," Kite said, a hand on his shoulder. "Trust me, you're going to be just fine."

Love looked at his caddy, who always seemed to know the right thing to say when the pressure on his player was greatest. Williams was white as a sheet. "He looked worse than I felt," Love said. "And I didn't feel very good at all."

Watson and Gallacher waited on the tee to greet the four players. Pictures were taken. The players were introduced. And then Love heard the dreaded words, "On the tee, representing the United States of America, Davis Love the Third!"

Love didn't hear the polite applause. Somehow, he managed to get his ball on the tee. He took a deep breath and went through his preshot routine. Down the fairway he could see people standing eight and ten deep, straining to see where his shot would land. The first hole at the Belfry is short and rather narrow. Love had his three-metal out rather than his driver.

Everyone grew quiet. Love forced his mind to go blank. He checked his target and let twenty-five years of instinct take over. The ball flew in a high arc down the right side of the fairway. Perfect. Shakily, Love picked up his tee and smiled in response to the applause. He didn't even hear the huge cheer that greeted the introduction of Olazabal.

Six months later, paired with Watson during the first round of the Players Championship, Love would hit a similar tee shot on the opening hole. "Just like the Ryder Cup," Watson said as the ball landed.

Love shook his head. "Wrong, Tom," he said. "My legs aren't shaking."

© 1995 By John Feinstein

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