"When I hit my ball on 18, I could see my teammates running along the fringe to see how close it was," said Couples, who has played on three Ryder Cups. "At the Buick Open nobody ran up to my ball to see how close it was. For me this is the most fun I've had in golf."
Even on the losing side, the thrill of the team competition was something special. Graham said, "David Frost came up to me and said, 'I've never, ever been this nervous on a golf course.' And that's why people want to play."
Hale Irwin made the point a different way while basking with his team in victory: "I told them, 'This feeling you have is why you want to play in these things. Don't forget this feeling. This is special.' "
Members of the American team felt they had something to prove. After foreign players made an unprecedented sweep of all four majors this year—with Price taking the British Open and the PGA, and José María Olazábal winning the Masters—the U.S. was a decided underdog. But with the International team missing Norman and Els, along with Jumbo Ozaki, who skipped the Presidents Cup to play in Japan, the U.S. had to win or be prepared to take more hits for being surpassed by the rest of the world.
"We had to show people again," said Love, who led the U.S. squad, with four victories. "It bothered me that people were giving us no shot. Everyone says the foreign golfers are beating us, but if it were just flag on flag, our country against any other country, nobody could beat us."
More than at any other hole, the Americans proved their point at the 18th, a narrow 429-yard par-4 with a wavy, plateaued green. Of the 11 matches that went to the final hole, the U.S. lost only one, and that loss came after the team's victory was assured on Sunday. In fact, the Americans never lost the 18th hole, and on five occasions birdied it to win or halve a match. "They owned the last hole," said Price, who three times was trumped by a U.S. birdie on 18.
Although both teams exhibited toughness on the course, this was a far more collegial event than the Ryder Cup. The players and their families stayed at the same hotel in McLean, Va. On Tuesday both teams were entertained by President and Mrs. Clinton at a White House dinner. On Friday the squads mingled at a barbecue. And when Price saw his singles opponent, Couples, on the 1st tee on Sunday, he started to shake hands, only to grab Couples in a mock choke hold.
The sweet atmosphere even made Irwin, known as one of the grittiest and least amiable of competitors, turn all mushy. "I know I'm usually perceived the other way," he said, "but I just told the guys to have fun."
No one had more fun than Irwin's co-captain, Paul Azinger, who to a large extent took over the team once the competition started. "I could not have been a playing captain without Paul," said Irwin, whose record was a commendable two wins, one loss and one half. Had he not been off the Tour this year to undergo treatment for lymphoma, the gutsy Azinger, who has an admirable Ryder Cup record of his own, would almost certainly have made the team, which was selected on the basis of Tour performance. Azinger immersed himself in his co-captaincy, helping to make each day's pairings, taking care of logistical details and zipping around the course in a cart, lending support and advice. "My role wasn't a token, let's-win-one-for-the-Gipper thing at all," said Azinger. "Hale needed the help, but the whole thing, just being so involved, was a blast."
In fact, the closest thing to a downer for the U.S. team was the news on Wednesday that Norman had to drop out. He was replaced at the 11th hour by fellow Australian Bradley Hughes, the 117th ranked player in the world.