In Search of Passion


ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – During the dark days of the American Ryder Cup experience, back when Mark O’Meara was openly wondering where all that cup cash was going and David Duval started referring to the event as an exhibition, it became good sport in media circles to question how badly the U.S. side really wanted to win Samuel Ryder’s golden keepsake.

It was clean and easy and utterly incorrect, but then how else could one explain a nine-point loss to a marked paper underdog in 750 words or less?

For some reason it made more sense to dismiss the matches as an overblown spectacle than cop to the reality that their 12 were that much better than our dozen. Call it rationalization on a national scale.

So it seems perfectly apropos that Hunter Mahan, the man who just four years ago eluded to the idea that if the Americans were to be paid for their biennial services they would somehow take the event more seriously, put an emotional end to the “they just don’t care as much” complex.

“(Graeme McDowell) played – he just beat me today,” Mahan stammered in broken words and with heartbroken clarity.

Mahan, an original Tour robot tucked neatly inside a pair of wraparound sunglasses and a steady diet of clichés, was gutted and speechless by his loss to McDowell in Monday’s final singles match.

All those who made it through those dark Ryder Cup nights secure in the notion that if only the Americans cared enough they would be unstoppable suddenly had nowhere to hide.

The unfiltered emotional truth of an American twenty-something can set you free.

“I've never cried after losing other than at the Ryder Cup,” Jim Fuyrk said. “We know what it means to us. Whatever you all thought in the past, whatever you've all written in the past, it's your observations, the way you feel. But that judgment really, I mean, we know what it means. I'm glad maybe finally you've all figured it out. And I'm sorry it's in this way.”

The myth of American indifference began manifesting itself in 1985 when the Europeans won for the first time since 1957. Since that five-point beat-down at the Belfry the Europeans have won nine of the next 13 meetings.

There were exceptions to the rule, like in 1991 when the U.S. survived a one-point slugfest at Kiawah Island, 1999 at Brookline and again in 2008 when Paul Azinger seemed to singlehandedly lift the Americans. Most everything in between, however, went the European’s way.

They want it more. They jell better as a team. They feed off the emotion of the event. Bull.

“It’s crazy,” three-time Ryder Cup player David Toms said on Tuesday at Sea Island Resort. “There’s a feeling that the European team, which is made up of people from an entire continent, has more pride than someone from the United States. That’s insane.”

In retrospect maybe the Americans wanted it too much.

Boo Weekley, a rookie on the 2008 team, has never had much use for a sports psychologist, but he remembers Azinger sitting him down at Valhalla and talking to him about deep breathing and extra practice swings.

The two-time Tour winner had to be convinced that nothing good comes from death-gripping an 8-iron.

For the modern American Tour pro the emotion of a Ryder Cup is counterintuitive to the way he’s been taught to play the game. At a major stoicism is a defense mechanism. At a Ryder Cup it’s a liability, at least in the media’s eye.

“I didn’t want to let down my team, my family. I sure as hell didn’t want to let down the USA,” Weekley said. “Here we were in the heart of the country. Kentucky, my kind of country with rednecks, and I really didn’t want to let anyone down.”

During those dark days it was the American stars, specifically Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who took most of the heat for what was perceived as U.S. indifference.

Turns out nothing could have been further from the truth.

“There’s definitely passion,” said Ben Curtis, a member of the 2008 team. “I remember Furyk and Phil saying we need to win this. We have to win this. They’d been on so many losing teams and wanted it so bad.”

In many ways what goes on behind the closed doors of the U.S. team room belies the passion the Americans have for the event, and last week captain Corey Pavin went to great lengths to assure that what happens in the U.S. locker room stays in the U.S. locker room.

The need for an inner sanctum is certainly understandable, but to be a fly on the team room wall is to understand how passionate the Americans are about the matches.

“Maybe they should let some of you guys (into the team room) to see the emotion,” Toms said.

But then it’s hard to imagine a more poignant, and painful, myth buster than the one Mahan struggled to deliver on Monday at Celtic Manor. Majors have been won and lost with a fraction of the emotion Mahan showed with one simple sentence.

“I almost broke down and started crying for Hunter myself,” Weekley said. “I would have done the same thing. I probably would have cried because I let my team down. The press should look at that and see that’s what the Ryder Cup means right there.”

The reality is the Europeans simply outplayed the U.S. team last week. But they didn’t want it more. Just ask Hunter Mahan.