The Other Captains


2001 Warburg CupThis week Arnold Palmer and Gary Player captain their respective teams at the inaugural UBS Warburg Cup. Palmer has significant experience leading American teams in international competition. In 1963 he earned four points as the last playing captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup Team. Player is a rookie. During his playing prime there was no opportunity for players outside of Great Britain and Ireland to compete in a Ryder Cup-style event. He's been selected to lead the international team for the 2003 Presidents Cup and his time at Kiawah Island this week will certainly prove to give him some valuable experience.
There are two other captains on hand this week as well, and the draw on the first day has given fans the opportunity to see the 2002 Ryder Cup captains square off in the foursomes format. One can only hope that this match-up lasts throughout the week. Curtis Strange and Sam Torrance will lead their teams next fall in perhaps the most important Ryder Cup in history. The post-Brookline, post-September 11th matches will be the most scrutinized in history, and the men filling out the line-up cards have a huge responsibility.
The teams are set, clothing picked, itinerary determined, what remains is ten months of diplomacy and relationship building. There is a chance to heal some of the wounds opened in 1999 when the magnificent American comeback was tainted by an inappropriate, if somewhat understandable, celebration on the 17th green at the tail end of Justin Leonard's unimaginable comeback.
The men entrusted with this responsibility may seem ill-suited to the task. Both are extremely competitive with quick tempers and not much of a governor between the brains and the mouths. That makes for good sound bites on Golf Central but can also inflame sensitive feelings.
In the roughly two years since they were named captains, however, both have been models of civility and I think that's borne out of the old-school approach each has towards the game. Curtis Strange became the first man since Ben Hogan to successfully defend a U.S. Open title in 1989. His professional career has had terrific highs and horrendous lows; failures at the Ryder Cup and Augusta National soothed a bit by the USGA heroics. He assumed his place in history in dramatic fashion; with a playoff victory against Nick Faldo in 1988 and a one-stroke win in his defense the following year. The decade since his second win has mellowed Strange to some degree, but on his best day he isn't nearly as easygoing as his counterpart.
For all of his fiery competitiveness, Sam Torrance is as much fun outside of the ropes as any golfer you will ever meet. When I went to Loch Lomond to help tournament organizers with their television coverage in the late '90s I asked my father about the European players and tour officials. He had worked with the BBC for a few years and had gotten to know most of the players and their games. At the end of our discussion he told me to find Sam Torrance and introduce myself. Torrance is a legend on the European Tour. He's played more events than anyone in history, played on eight Ryder Cup teams and set the career record for most rounds bought in the pubs and taverns of the European circuit. On Wednesday Sam was overdue for his practice round. He was delayed at the airport due to lost luggage; I was more than a little worried about his mood upon arrival.
At the first tee I walked up and Torrance was changing his shoes. I said 'Hi Sam I'm David Marr' before I could explain the family connection he looked up and said, 'you're not related to Dave Marr are you?' From there he insisted I stay inside the ropes and walk with him for a few holes. He regaled the gallery and me with jokes and stories, all the while playing with borrowed clubs and shoes. Since then he has had the same demeanor each time we meet, and my surname doesn't seem to matter at all. I've watched him interact with fans and galleries in many different settings and he always tries to find a common thread with a person and have fun with it. He pays attention when strangers talk to him and signs anything he's asked.
It's fitting that one of the greatest moments in Ryder Cup history highlighted Sam Torrance. He stood arms aloft and tears streaming down his face in 1985 after making a birdie putt on 18 to win 1-up. In doing so he secured a European Ryder Cup victory for the first time in 28 years. It was fitting that a man who toiled his entire career on the European Tour ushered in a new competitive era of Ryder Cup Matches. Perhaps he will also help return the Matches to an era of civility and sportsmanship.