NORTON, Massachusetts – Corey Pavin never saw Jim Furyk sneaking up behind him, nor did he flinch when Furyk slammed the back end of a golf club into the vinyl cushion on the locker room bench where Pavin sat.
Pavin slowly turned to see Furyk smiling at him.
“Wait until Friday of the Ryder Cup,” Furyk said to his American captain. “You’ll be jumpy.”
“I think I’ll be all right,” Pavin said with a grin, but barely a pulse.
Pavin is not one to get flustered easily, whether he’s hitting a 4-wood from the 18th fairway at Shinnecock Hills with the U.S. Open on the line, staring down a TV reporter in an awkward argument, or standing over a tough chip on the final hole of a Ryder Cup match.
He’s been that way his whole career.
“The oxymoron is he’s kind of quiet,” said Paul Goydos, one of Pavin’s assistant captains at the Ryder Cup. “Here’s this unbelievably aggressive, self-confident guy – and he’s quiet. He scraps and battles, but he never yells. He plays as this tough-as-nails linebacker in the mud. His game is like a bulldog. And his demeanor is quiet.”
That’s what Pavin brings as U.S. captain to the Ryder Cup, which starts Friday at the Celtic Manor Resort in Wales. Few others have played with so much determination and self-belief when it was all they had.
The Americans are underdogs at this Ryder Cup, which is only appropriate considering whom they have as a captain, the ultimate underdog. In a game that can resemble a battle of bazookas, Pavin carried a pop gun. His ammunition was confidence, and he never ran out.
To look only at his abilities led to questions of how he could survive on tour.
“I’ve got a limited amount of talent,” Pavin said. “But I use everything I have to play the game. There’s certainly guys who are more physically gifted than me. What I like about me when I play golf is I never give up. I’m always looking for a positive thing to happen.”
Despite being one of the shortest hitters, he managed to win 15 times on the PGA Tour including the 1995 U.S. Open. He made the first of his three Ryder Cup teams in 1991, the year he led the PGA Tour money list.
Without prompting, Tiger Woods referred to him as “one of the greatest players ever, considering what he had to work with.”
Goydos has heard that line before. He recalls comments earlier this year by John Mallinger and John Merrick, who were paired with Pavin in tournaments about a month apart. Both went to their swing coach and said, “He’s the best player I’ve ever seen play golf.”
“Where he shoots 67 and 68 from compared with where I’m shooting 70 from is unfathomable,” Goydos said. “At Hartford this year, Bubba (Watson) hit it 100 yards past him in the playoff, and Corey still didn’t think that he couldn’t win. He’s got that mentality of ‘I’m going to win with what I’ve got. You try to beat me.’
“What others see as a shortcoming, he sees as the ultimate challenge.”
Pavin has heard that about as long as he has been playing. Not long enough off the tee. Not good enough for the PGA Tour.
Only once did he think about quitting, as a teenager when he wasn’t shooting the kind of scores he expected. His father encouraged him to not be so hard on himself and to stick with it. The next year, Pavin won enough to get the attention of UCLA.
“I think I learned a good lesson back then,” he said. “I just have to believe in myself. That’s a huge thing for me.”
Even when he failed to get his card right away and had to play overseas, he found confidence not in where he played but whom he beat. The first victory was the South African PGA, where he held off a rising star named Nick Price. That got him onto the European Tour, where he closed out his summer by winning the German Open over Seve Ballesteros.
“We all have a certain amount of ability, and you can only maximize what you have,” Pavin said. “If you take me on paper and put me on tour, you’d think I would be off tour in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t last out here. But we don’t play on paper. We play with our hearts and our minds. I’ve just worked hard and played hard. And my career has been OK.”
Pavin played in only three Ryder Cups, but he took to the matches immediately. He made his debut at Kiawah Island, beating Steven Richardson in singles on a day every point mattered.
He won three of his four team matches in 1993, none of the matches reaching the 17th hole. His Ryder Cup moment came at Oak Hill in 1995, when he and Loren Roberts were all square against Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer. Pavin chipped in for the birdie that won the match.
“My favorite memory of him in the Ryder Cup is Oak Hill – and watching him running up the dunes to see where he was aiming at Kiawah,” Davis Love III said. “He was always having to chip over hills and bunkers, but he just kept fighting away.”
Pavin gets dwarfed at the Ryder Cup by his European counterpart, Colin Montgomerie, whose personality is everything Pavin’s is not. Montgomerie has a quick wit. Pavin has dry humor. Montgomerie can switch from self-deprecation to disgust within minutes. Pavin never loses his cool.
He came close at the PGA Championship, then TV reporter Jim Gray stormed into the media center to challenge him. Gray had reported that Pavin told him he was taking Woods as a captain’s pick. Pavin countered that he never said such a thing. As Gray poked his finger at Pavin’s chest, Pavin never took his eyes off his opponent. He never so much as blinked.
Still to be determined is whether Pavin can use the feel and instincts he relied so much upon as a player in his role as captain. He has five rookies, including two players who have never won on the PGA Tour. He has Woods, who hasn’t won this year while trying to return from the chaos in his personal life.
Typically in a Ryder Cup, players get the credit when they win, captains get the blame when they lose. Pavin expects that, and will treat it as he has in his nearly three decades on tour.
“If I play my best and someone beats me, that’s OK,” he said. “If I’ve done everything I can do, then I’m satisfied.”