Jesse is Mark James, the deadpan European captain whose bone-dry humor set the tone for his team. He took issue with the notion that the Ryder Cup was akin to World War III. "At the end of the week I'll be able to shake Ben warmly by the throat and sit down and have a beer with him," he said. Informed that Sweden's Jarmo Sandolin seemed a bit eccentric, James replied, "I wouldn't say Jarmo is a bit eccentric. I think he's very eccentric. But we have a lot of eccentric people in Europe. Jarmo fits in great." Asked what made a good captain, James succinctly answered, "A good team." He believed he had one.
The Americans, meanwhile, were being, well, so American: boastful, humorless, utterly uncharming. They repeatedly violated the first rule of team sports: Respect your opponent. Payne Stewart was quoted as saying, "On paper, they should be caddying for us." Huh? Two-time Masters champ Olaz�bal should be caddying for Jeff Maggert, he of two career PGA Tour wins? Maggert may have thought so. Borrowing a line from Ben Hogan, he called the American team "the best 12 players in the world," a claim that may have been true, if rude, when Hogan made it. From Maggert it was just dumb.
There was even an arrogance to the way the Americans practiced. The so-called Gang of Four, who had brought the money issue to the fore—Duval, Woods, Phil Mickelson and Mark O'Meara—got so fed up playing behind the methodical Europeans during the first official practice round on Sept. 21 that they skipped around the course, virtually ignoring the 30,000 spectators and taking little time to try to learn the subtleties of the Country Club's greens. The Europeans, by contrast, spent at least five minutes on every green chipping, putting and hitting sand shots and afterward tossed signed balls to the appreciative crowd.
Was it all an act? I asked a friend who was volunteering in the locker room if the Europeans were as charming and gregarious behind closed doors, when thousands of eyes weren't on them. "Famously so," he replied. The Americans? " Tom Lehman and Mark O'Meara have been very gracious. The rest of them...." He made a gesture with his hand to show that their eyes were always focused straight ahead.
Last Thursday, the final practice day, all 12 European team members played the full 18 holes. Another friend who was a standard-bearer for the foursome of Clarke, Westwood, Olaz�bal and fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, said that they played for $50 a hole, razzing each other mercilessly. Assistant coach Sam Torrance, following the match in his cart, blew the horn in the middle of a key putt by Clarke. This was a real team. They liked each other and enjoyed spending time on the course. The Americans, meanwhile, went off as twosomes, and both Mickelson and Woods walked in after a quick nine holes, leaving their next day's alternate-shot partners, Duval and Lehman, respectively, to play in by themselves.
A Boston friend was so impressed with the difference in the atmosphere surrounding the two teams that he went out that night and placed a $100 wager on the Europeans, getting 5-to-2 odds. I didn't need a monetary interest. While watching their improbable comeback, I found myself unable to cheer for a group of men who couldn't get over themselves, even if they were from the U!S!A! U!S!A!