The old man, white-haired and skinny as a flagstick, materialized suddenly from the crowd, catching Lanny Wadkins by surprise. Wadkins, captain of this year's U.S. Ryder Cup team, was hurrying to tee off in a practice round before last week's Ideon Classic at Pleasant Valley Country Club near Worcester, Mass. At first he figured the elderly gent was just another avid fan wanting to quiz him about the Sept. 22-24 matches between the U.S. and Europe. Then Wadkins noticed that the old man was clutching an ancient portfolio filled with grainy photos and faded autographs.
"He told me the first Ryder Cup matches were held at the Worcester Country Club in 1927," Wadkins recalled a couple of days later. "I didn't know that until then. And then he told me he had been Walter Hagen's caddie during those matches. I said, 'Wow.' He showed me a picture, pointing out Hagen and himself."
After a few moments, before Wadkins could get a name and address, the old man and his scrapbook vanished. But while this ghost of Ryder Cups past never did reappear, the specter of this year's Ryder Cup never left Pleasant Valley. The name of the game at the Ideon Classic was Ryder Cup points, not that the event needed another name. Since its debut as the Carling Open in 1965, the tournament, which you may know as the New England Classic, has gone through more name changes than Roseanne, the Ideon being number 11. (In case you were wondering, Ideon is a Florida-based credit card service company.) Last week's renewal was won by Fred Funk, whose 16-under-par 268 included a 63 in the second round. It was his second Tour victory.
Of course, Funk was also an apt way to describe the posttournament mood of the seven leading Ryder Cup candidates who came to Pleasant Valley hoping to finish somewhere in the top 10 and thereby earn what could be crucial points in the Cup standings. Under a system that no doubt was dreamed up by the same people who help the IRS with their tax forms, the Ryder Cup team consists of 12 players—the 10 who have amassed the most points in the standings and two more who are picked by the captain (Wadkins, in this year's case). The battle for points began with last year's Mercedes Championships, the first event of 1994, and will end with next week's PGA Championship at Riviera in Los Angeles. The way the point system works, a player can earn as few as 10 points for finishing 10th in a regular Tour event and as many as 300 for winning a major.
As last week's field teed off, only Corey Pavin, who has a Cleveland Indians-type lead in the standings, had officially made the team, although Wadkins figured the next five—Tom Lehman, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Jay Haas and Loren Roberts—were locks. From there, however, it got dicey. The way Wadkins saw it, seventh-place Ben Crenshaw, who along with all of the above skipped the Ideon, was "probably safe," and eighth-place Peter Jacobsen was "O.K., but he's still on the borderline." To safeguard his place in the standings, or even improve it, Jacobsen was a late entry in the tournament, which is a valley (albeit a Pleasant one) more than a peak in the PGA Tour mountain range. The big social event of the week is an old-fashioned New England clambake for the players and their families. The unofficial tournament pet is Mulligan, a toy poodle that belongs to the event's head honcho, Ted Mingolla.
"We're never going to be glamorous or glitzy; we're down-home," said Mingolla, who inherited the course—and the tournament—when his father, "Cuz" Mingolla, died in 1979. "We like to think they come here because they enjoy it, but, no question, it helps us in Ryder Cup years to be one of the last tournaments where the players can earn points."
Of the 17 players immediately below Jacobsen in the standings, Mark Calcavecchia (ninth), Kenny Perry (10th), Jeff Maggert (12th), Brad Faxon (tied with Lee Janzen for 14th), Bill Glasson (17th) and Bob Estes (24th) all came to Pleasant Valley hoping to improve their positions. Paul Azinger showed up to help convince Wadkins that he would make an excellent choice as a captain's pick. The stay-at-homes taking the greatest risk of losing ground were Jim Gallagher Jr. (11th), Scott Hoch (13th), Janzen and John Daly (16th). Said Calcavecchia, who has played on three Ryder Cup teams, "Janzen and Gallagher took off, and I'm taking off next week [from the Buick Open]. The Ryder Cup is pretty much the ultimate, and I'd like to make the team again, but we all need a break when we get tired of golf. The way you have to look at it is, 'If I make it, I make it, and if I don't, I don't.' It would be a mistake to get your brains beat out just so you can make the Ryder Cup team."
But each Ryder Cup aspirant's brains took a battering at what turned out to be Unpleasant Valley. Who knows why? Maybe it was a combination of the pressure, the heat and the tricky par-71 course, which is tree-intensive and roller-coaster hilly. Faxon, a local by virtue of his residency in nearby Barrington, shot 74-69 and missed the cut, which was two under. Perry, Maggert, Glasson and Estes made it by a single shot but were never threats for the top 10. Only Jacobsen, who finished tied for 22nd, and Calcavecchia, who came in tied for 27th, even remotely resembled Ryder Cup players. Said Faxon before making his early exit, "I've got to win one of the next two tournaments. I need some serious points."
While all this high drama was happening out there in the country, the Worcester Country Club, where there's a Ryder Cup room in the clubhouse, was putting on its member-guest. Nobody is exactly sure why the Worcester Country Club became the site of the first Ryder Cup, but it had something to do with two things: The course had proved its mettle when it hosted the 1925 U.S. Open (won by Willie MacFarlane over Bobby Jones in a playoff), and it was just 40 miles from Boston Harbor, enabling the British team, captained by Ted Ray, to hold down travel expenses. Indeed, the venture, which stemmed from an informal match between U.S. and British pros in 1926 at Wentworth, almost died at birth because of the high cost of crossing the Atlantic. But because of funds raised by Golf Illustrated, a weekly magazine, and contributed by Samuel Ryder, a seed magnate from St. Albans, England, who also donated the trophy, the nine-man British team was able to make the six-day crossing on the Aquitania.
Alas for the British, they were so seasick upon their arrival in Worcester that the Americans gallantly offered to postpone the competition for a week. The British declined the offer, which, in retrospect, wasn't such a jolly good idea. The Americans, led by the dashing Hagen, won easily, 9½ to 2½. In a cable to the Daily Express of London, Ray wrote, "I consider that we can never hope to beat the Americans unless we learn to putt. This lesson should be taken to heart by British golfers." Even in victory Hagen was indignant because some of his decisions had been second-guessed. "Never again," quoth the Haig haughtily when asked about serving as captain in the future. That turned out to be something less than a Shermanesque declaration, considering that Hagen agreed to be captain of the next five U.S. teams.