On the 1st green, in his first match, in his first Ryder Cup, Peter Oosterhuis leaned forward to look at the hole. "And a butterfly flew out," he recalls.
Sprang out of the cup and fluttered off a Missouri green sparkling with dew. His foursomes partner, Peter Townsend, and their opponents, Arnold Palmer and Gardner Dickinson, paid no particular attention to this colorful omen. But they caught the next portent. Oosterhuis sank his putt—"from right across the green"—for his first Ryder Cup birdie.
In Oosterhuis's time—specifically, Ryder Cups from 1971 to '81, all won by the Americans—the hopelessly outmanned British golfers looked for inspiration wherever they could find it. As often as not, they found it in Oosterhuis, a towering Englishman who underwent a metamorphosis every two years from lackluster presence on the U.S. Tour to Ryder Cup sensation.
"We just didn't have the depth in Britain," Oosterhuis said recently, stretching his 49-year-old frame to its full 6'5" after a long session behind the mike in a cramped studio on wheels. "Our top handful of players, Brian Barnes, Bernard Gallacher, Tony Jacklin, could compete, but our last few players really couldn't be expected to beat the last few Americans."
Oosterhuis is the lead (and only) analyst for the Golf Channel's coverage of the European tour. For 2½ years he and the wry Scottish anchor, Renton Laidlaw, have conducted a civilized dialogue, in back-of-the-church voices, while watching golf balls veer and wobble on bumpy European greens. Oosterhuis's voice—precise, preternaturally calm and authoritative—is the one that after an hour or so seems to be generated from somewhere in your own head. Says Laidlaw, "It's very listenable, a voice you never get tired of."
Or so CBS, Oosterhuis's new employer, hopes. Pleased with the results of a low-key tryout that put Oosterhuis in the 14th-hole tower at this year's Masters and PGA Championship, the network would like the well-traveled Brit for a full season of hushed comment. Since Oosterhuis also plans to play the Senior tour after his 50th birthday, next May 3, it's a safe bet that America will soon be Oosterized.
What's it like, to be Oosterized? If you were a U.S. Ryder Cupper in the '70s, it was like being pinned by your wings to a piece of felt. Ask NBC's Johnny Miller, another well-known player turned TV voice. Miller won 12 tournaments and dominated American golf in 1974 and '75, and he already had 2½ points from the partners matches when he drew Oosterhuis in the singles of the '75 Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley Golf Club, in Ligonier, Pa. Miller was 2 up on the front side and about to go 3 up through the 12th hole when the Englishman made a long birdie putt and Miller missed a short one. Oosterhuis then made five straight 3s and won the match, 2 up.
Ask Ray Floyd and Lou Graham, who were 4 up on Oosterhuis and a young Nick Faldo after four holes of their 1977 foursomes match at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. (The Brits rallied, running the Union Jack up the pole on the 17th hole.) Ask Jack Nicklaus, who replaced Graham as Floyd's partner for the afternoon four ball, and lost 3 and 1 to Faldo-Oosterhuis.
Ask Gene Littler, Jerry McGee and J.C. Snead, all losers to Oosterhuis in Ryder Cup singles. Ask Arnold Palmer, who was 0 for 2 against the Big O. (Or is it Big Oo?)
And certainly ask Lee Trevino. In 1973 at Muirfield, in Scotland, Trevino was so confident the night before the singles that he told his teammates, "If I don't beat Oosterhuis, I'll kiss every ass in this room." When Trevino trudged back to the U.S. locker room the next day after halving the match, he was met by the entire U.S. side—all sitting with their pants around their ankles.