As Nick Faldo staggered in exultation, Seve Ballesteros's intensity turned to tears and Curtis Strange erected the kind of stone-face only those with severe internal wounds find necessary, it was clear why we can't avert our eyes from the Ryder Cup competition. Its awe-inspiring tension wrenches open windows into the guts of golf's otherwise opaque heroes.
So after 24 players exposed their games to the crudest scrutiny at Oak Hill last week, it was easy to draw a simple conclusion: A superior U.S. team lost to an essentially ragtag European side because, when the pressure peaked, a majority of the Americans were found wanting. What else but a fundamental lack of character could explain the final-day disaster?
In the singles, which it has historically dominated, the U.S. could produce only 4� points out of a possible 12 when only another half point was needed. Of the five singles matches that went to the 18th hole, the Americans won none. Not only would a par on the last hole by either Brad Faxon or Jay Haas have allowed the U.S. to retain the Cup, but also a par on any of the last three holes by Strange would have been enough. In a sport that seems to cry out for definitive statements about its players, golf's acid test had revealed the Americans as collectively soft. It all makes for a case that the Los Angeles district attorney's office would probably envy, except for one thing: Ryder Cup play is still golf, and golf doesn't work that way.
As much as we might like them to, even the biggest moments do not fully define a player. The exasperating truth about golf is that everyone succumbs to pressure randomly and frequently. It is well known that players don't like the word choke, but not because of its rawness. They don't like it because it's the public's word, and in the minds of the players, the public simply doesn't understand. While the golf public commonly perceives a player who "choked" to have a permanent psychological flaw, the brotherhood of professional golfers sees the pitfalls of pressure as an everyday obstacle to be dealt with dispassionately. The wise pro knows that some days you handle it and some days you don't, and for all the sports psychologists studying the phenomenon, the fundamental why remains a mystery.
It's instructive that the victims of ugly collapses draw genuine empathy from fellow players even as those players may benefit from the collapses. When Bernhard Langer missed the five-footer that would have won the 1991 Ryder Cup, he was consoled by players from both sides. Strange received similar support at Oak Hill. Dealing with and regularly being defeated by pressure is what keeps golf pros humble and respectful of the game's caprice. When players say good luck to each other before rounds, it conveys a wish not for good bounces but for a day when the stress of competition is manageable. Fuzzy Zoeller's favorite invocation, "Just give me a chance to choke," reflects the view that nerves reduce the difference between good play and bad to essentially a roll of the dice.
Obviously, some golfers handle pressure better than others. Corey Pavin has become the exemplar of the clutch player, while Jeff Maggert's reputation for poor finishes at big moments grew with his 4-and-3 loss on Sunday to Mark James. Then again, Pavin recently threw away a 3-up lead on the back nine to lose to Mark McCumber in the Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf. And Faldo, who on Sunday hit his wedge stiff on the 18th to beat Strange, squirted an almost identical shot over the green in a shockingly inept display to lose a foursomes match on Friday. Nobody is, or ever has been, bulletproof.
Pressure and the erratic way that players respond to it is the reason anything is possible in golf. On Sunday it was Europe's day to handle the heat and America's day not to. If that seems like a simplistic assessment, it is also why golf is so intoxicating. If a player can absorb disappointment and remain in the arena, the game will give him endless opportunities to reinvent himself.
"I didn't come through when I should have, and I'm going to remember that for a long time," said a forthright Strange of his failure in the Cup's most vital match. "But if you can't take the bad with the good, you shouldn't be out here. I'll be back. I'd like to get back out there right now and be put in that same situation."
Such indomitability is why U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins picked Strange for his team and why he would do so again.
"I'd do everything over again," Wadkins said. "Things just didn't go right. Really, that's just golf."