Seve Ballesteros might have been a magician with a sand wedge, but he was truly hell on wheels.
As Europe’s captain at the 1997 Ryder Cup in his native Spain, Ballesteros led his team with a heavy foot, racing across the emerald landscape in a souped-up Club Car festooned with blue flags.
“All week long it seemed like there were four Seves or five Seves,” recalls Lee Janzen, who went 2-1-0 for the United States. “He was everywhere. I’d turn around and look up and he’d be following our group, and then he was gone, and then he was back with our group again. I found out years later that there were tunnels at the golf course. I asked [‘97 U.S. captain] Tom Kite and he said he knew about the tunnels, too, but it didn’t seem like he knew about ALL the tunnels.”
The most infamous golf cart in the history of the Ryder Cup is, mercifully, far from Paris, but somehow the skid marks from Valderrama remain.
Europe’s 14 ½-to-13 ½ win over the United States 21 years ago began a streak that has lasted over two decades, a stretch of European dominance and long American flights home.
While the United States has made large strides in teamwork and bonding, the work of its 2014 task force must be judged as incomplete until the Americans find a way in Europe.
It hasn’t happened since Bryson DeChambeau was 10 days old.
“I’m getting tired of saying I was on the last team to win on the road,” says Jim Gallagher Jr., who defeated Ballesteros in singles as a Ryder Cup rookie in 1993. “That was the horse-and-buggy era.”
The American road futility has not gone unnoticed. It has transcended the golf world to the point that figures throughout the sports world have watched as five straight American teams have returned from Europe empty-handed - from Valderrama, the Belfry, the K Club, Celtic Manor and Gleneagles.
One year, Seve shrinks the course, tightening the doglegs and taking driver out of the hands of Tiger and Phil (1997). Or Paul McGinley makes the big putt (2002). Or Darren Clarke proves an inspiration (2006). Or there’s rainsuitgate, golf's version of a wardrobe malfunction (2010). Or Jamie Donaldson starts knocking down flagsticks (2014).
It’s always been something - the vagaries of travel, body clocks out of rhythm, fewer friendly faces in the crowd and missed putts.
So how do you win on the road?
“Whatever you’ve done to be successful in a Ryder Cup at home you try to do the same thing on the road, as far as preparation, meals, meetings, practice, timing, as much as you can make it a home situation,” says Dan Reeves, who participated in nine combined Super Bowls as an NFL running back and coach. “Stay in as nice a place as you can. Do you have a pre-game meal? One thing you’ll talk about with your team is that they’ll be in Paris for several days.”
Reeves was the Atlanta Falcons' head coach for Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami when one of his top defensive players was arrested for soliciting an undercover policewoman the night before the game.
The Falcons went on to lose to Reeves’ former team - the Denver Broncos - 34-19 in what has become one of the most well-known cautionary tales in sports.
“There are a lot of distractions on the road,” Reeves says. “Stay focused on what the job is, have things arranged to where they can do things as a group instead of going out and getting into any kind of trouble.”
R.C. Slocum, the former head coach of Texas A&M, also took his road preparation seriously, once going as far as calling Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for advice on a road game against the high-powered University of Hawaii.
“I called the military and said, ‘Tell me about moving troops from one time zone to another,’” Slocum says. “They gave me a study. The typical response for a long airplane ride is for adults to drink alcohol and coffee and for [college] kids to have carbonated drinks. If you have a few alcoholic beverages at 40,000 feet, you are going to have sleep issues and hydration issues. We put a quart bottle of water in every kid’s seat. ‘Drink this whole bottle before we get there.’”
Slocum says the study also told him to get his players on the time zone of the arrival city as soon as possible.
“The best thing to do when you land,” Slocum says, “is to go get some exercise.”
The coach put together a robust itinerary for his team that varied from a Polynesian dinner show to a solemn trip to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
After calling several coaches of teams who’d lost road games in Hawaii, Slocum packed extra sunscreen after being told of visiting athletes striking out to Hawaii’s beaches and ending up too sunburnt to comfortably wear shoulder pads.
“Those are things you can control,” Slocum says.
His Aggies won, 28-13.
What advice would he give to U.S. captain Jim Furyk and his 12 players as they try to unlock their own road riddle?
“This is a business trip at the highest level,” Slocum says. “They are so privileged to be on the team and represent the United States. They owe it to each other to be at their best. Anything a guy does against that is cheating his teammates and his country and all the people back home rooting for him. To play on the biggest stage is an opportunity that only rolls around a few times.”
That stage has only grown bigger through the years, as evidenced by the 50,000 fans that attended Hazeltine each day.
Some organizers have predicted 60,000 to 65,000 daily at Le Golf National.
And most won’t be donning red, white and blue.
“It’s a bit like in football in that you want to keep them quiet, but the louder they scream and the better you play, that’s what’s really energizing,” says Joe Theismann, who won Super Bowl XVII as the Washington Redskins' quarterback. “When you reach an elite status as an athlete, the ability to focus and block things out is paramount. I played in front of 100,000 people and I could still hear a pin drop.”
Theismann still remembers leading Washington to a 1983 road win against the Detroit Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome.
“Loudest stadium I’ve ever played in,” he says. “It was built down into the ground so the sound would circle around you and sit on top of you. Coming out of that game, you felt like you accomplished something.”
At Ryder Cups in Europe, that sound has been chants of “Ole, ole, ole, ole,” a soundtrack on an endless loop.
“You want to thrive in that chaos,” says former Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk. “That’s the true test of mental strength.”
Hawk imagined himself standing in the middle of the United States team room on the eve of the Ryder Cup.
“That’s a hell of a group to be addressing, a lot of major championships,” Hawk says. “I’d say ‘Look at your left and right. This is us against them, and we are in hostile territory. You’ve got each other, your wives, your family, and there is nobody else. Let’s go out here and lean on your brother. You go into Paris and beat up on Europe, you all will be talking about it for the next 20, 30, 40 years.”
Much better than talking about Seve’s old golf cart.