Of course it was not all butterflies and rainbows for Oosterhuis. He was a loser in his first three Ryder Cup matches, twice paired with Townsend and once with Gallacher. The third loss, which like the first two came against Palmer and Dickinson, was notable for an incident that foreshadowed the more intense Ryder Cup competition of the '90s. On the par-3 7th hole at Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis, Palmer had just hit his tee ball when Gallacher's caddie—a local looper and a Palmer fan—said, "What did you hit, Arnold?"
Palmer, without thinking, said, "Four-iron."
"The way I remember it," Oosterhuis says, "an official determined that the caddie was 'seeking advice' and the penalty was loss of the hole—even though it was just a fan talking to his hero. So that made things a bit tense."
Also a bit daunting for Oosterhuis, who was soon 0-3 as a Ryder Cupper. Fortunately the 0-for-O ended in the second afternoon's four balls, as he and Gallacher edged Trevino and Billy Casper one up. That was apparently all the confidence-boosting that Oosterhuis needed. The next morning he won a surprise point with a 4 and 3 victory over the veteran Littler—"a player I greatly admired"—and then got the thrill of his young life when he learned in the team room that his afternoon opponent was Palmer. ("I was 23 years old, a wide-eyed kid, and I wanted to play Palmer.") By the 13th tee Oosterhuis was 5 up on Palmer. It was raining and the Americans had already won when Palmer jokingly asked, "You just want to go in?"
Oosterhuis said, "Are you conceding?"
Palmer, of course, was not. The four-time Masters champion made it to the 16th hole before falling 3 and 2.
Oosterhuis's Ryder Cup record (14-11-3) doesn't reflect how well he played at his peak. He lost five of seven points in '79 and '81, when his game was leaving him, but he was undefeated in singles (6-0-1) in his first four Cups. "I'm proud of what I achieved," he says, "but everything has to be tempered by the fact"—and here he shrugs helplessly—"that we lost every match."
There is, of course, this question: How did one of Britain's greatest Ryder Cuppers wind up so...so...obscure?
Oosterhuis has already provided one answer. His team went 0-6 in his six matches, losing as badly as 21-11 and never finishing within five points.
Another reason: He was less effective in stroke play. "He was a great up-and-down guy," says Laidlaw, "second only to Michael Bonallack. Peter could save par from anywhere." The young Oosterhuis's swing was not particularly reliable, but he won 19 tournaments and led the European tour money list four straight years, from 1971 to '74. When he jumped to the U.S. Tour in 1975 Oosterhuis found that his style didn't unnerve those American stars who didn't have to actually watch him scramble. Or as Laidlaw, who loves to needle Oosterhuis, puts it: "Most of the American players could hit the green."