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Tough Calls
Alan Shipnuck
August 27, 2001
Picking the Ryder Cup wild cards was a difficult job, but somebody, namely Curtis Strange, had to do it
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August 27, 2001

Tough Calls

Picking the Ryder Cup wild cards was a difficult job, but somebody, namely Curtis Strange, had to do it

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Moments after putting out on the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship, Brad Faxon found a note in his locker, and it felt to him like a pink slip. U.S. Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange had left his cell phone number and orders to call. "I didn't have a great feeling when I saw the note," Faxon says, and no wonder.

Every two years golf's most freighted phone calls go out on Sunday evening, after the PGA, as the U.S. Ryder Cup captain delivers the news—a little good, mostly bad—to a select group of players waiting to learn if they have been selected for the team. With a simple phone call, dreams can be realized and careers fulfilled, and the enormousness of it all leaves grown men huddling by their phones like anxious cheerleaders waiting for the star quarterback to invite them to the prom. "It's not your normal phone call," says Lee Janzen, who sweated out Sunday-night telethons in 1995 (thumbs-down) and '97 (thumbs-up).

For Faxon the already stressful circumstances were made even worse by what had been a trying week. On Aug. 14 his wife, Dory, fainted in an Atlanta nail salon. She quickly recovered, but it was a scary moment. Last Thursday, Faxon fired a 66 that left him tied for second, an excellent start toward the sixth-place finish he needed to crack the top 10 on the Ryder Cup points list and earn one of the 10 automatic berths on the 12-man team. (He had begun the week in 13th place.) On Friday, Dory was briefly hospitalized because of stomach pains. That day Brad shot a scrambling 70, falling to 17th place, and then he was up most of the night tending to his stricken bride. The next day Faxon sleepwalked to a 74, stumbling to 43rd place. His only prayer of making the Ryder Cup team, then, was to be one of the two captain's picks afforded Strange. Immediately following his final-round 73, he made the requested call to Strange.

"Curtis asked me to call back later, saying a lot of things were still up in the air," says Faxon, a member of the 1995 and '97 Ryder Cup teams. "But he also said, 'I don't want to lead you on. Your chances don't look good.' It was an uncomfortable situation to be in. I'd rather have just known the answer the first time."

In the meantime Faxon and his wife caught a flight home to Rhode Island. While they were in the air, the dreams of another Ryder Cup bubble boy were about to burst. Chris DiMarco had teed off nearly three hours after Faxon, lying 14th at the PGA and needing to move up to eighth to clinch a spot on his first Ryder Cup team. Playing aggressively out of the rough, he double-bogeyed the 1st and 14th holes but fought back to shoot a 71 and finish 16th.

After the round he, too, found a note in his locker. When DiMarco called Strange, the captain again stalled for time, so DiMarco packed up his family and headed to the airport for the flight home to Orlando. En route his cell phone rang, and Strange's number popped up on the caller ID. "It was a pretty exciting moment," says DiMarco. "It was like, Here we go. Whether I made it or I didn't make it, it was cool just to take that call, you know?"

Strange cut to the chase. "He said it was a hard call for him to make, but unfortunately, I didn't make the team," says DiMarco. "It was a little bit of a shocker. So many guys came up to me this week—guys already on the team—saying, 'I got a feeling you're in.' To the media Curtis was downplaying the experience factor and talking about wanting someone who was hot. I was totally expecting to make the team. I asked him whom he had taken, and he told me. They're both good players. I hope that they play well and we kick Europe's ass. But I think it was a mistake leaving me off the team. I've been playing well for a long time, and nobody can say that I didn't hold up under the pressure of the last month."

Not long after DiMarco hung up with Strange, the Faxons landed in Rhode Island. Brad called Strange while driving home from the airport. "Dialing the number, we were laughing that it was like being in second grade and waiting for your report card," Faxon says. "Curtis was nice about it. He said, 'You're a friend, this is tough for me, but you didn't make it.' That was pretty much it. I didn't ask who made it because I didn't think it was my place. There wasn't a lot of conversation. It's an awkward situation for both of us."

No doubt it's small consolation to Faxon and DiMarco—and the others whose dreams were dashed on Sunday night—but delivering the news is every bit as difficult as receiving it. "All the phone calls I had to make were agonizing," Strange said on Monday. "What makes up for that is the other two conversations you get to have."

Enter Paul Azinger and Scott Verplank, Strange's out-on-a-limb choices. Before leaving the grounds of the Atlanta Athletic Club on Sunday, Verplank said "a little bird" told him that he was in pretty good shape, but he didn't get the official word until he landed at the Oklahoma City airport that night. While the plane taxied on the runway, Verplank checked the voice mail on his cell phone and was greeted by Strange's basso profundo saying he had made the team. "Sitting in the airplane, I took it real quietly," Verplank says, "and then in the terminal, I went into a little bathroom and was pretty excited; kind of gave it a yelp in front of the mirror." Having saved Strange's message, Verplank has already gone back for repeated listenings. "Curtis, you may be in my voice mail bank forever," says Verplank.

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