Because what used to be called the Great Britain- Ireland team was supposedly strengthened by the addition of two strong Spanish players and the Americans were supposedly weakened by having too many rookies, last week's Ryder Cup matches were expected to be very close. It was thought they might even come down to a last pressure putt, on which would hang the honor of flag and country. And for two days and much of a third the series was indeed more suspenseful than usual. But then the visitors ran into some kids who felt they were back playing college matches, and in a matter of an hour or so the whole affair turned into another rout for the good old U.S. of A.
Our leading patriots in the singles competition, in which the issue was ultimately decided, were Larry Nelson, Tom Kite, Mark Hayes, Andy Bean and finally John Mahaffey—all of them considerable names on the pro tour but rookies in international team competition. They had been sent out early against some of the best players Great Britain and Europe could muster. And because they were the ones who were the most excited about playing for the U.S. in the first place, it was more than fitting that they did the job.
After two days of best ball and foursomes play at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., the U.S. had taken an 8�-7� lead, mostly because of the partnership of Larry Nelson and Lanny Wadkins, who were undefeated in four matches, three of them blistering triumphs over the Spanish twosome of Severiano Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido. The home folks needed something like that. The U.S. was playing without Jack Nicklaus, who failed to qualify for the Ryder Cup team for the first time since he became eligible; Tom Watson, who departed just before play began to attend the birth of his first child, a daughter; and Ben Crenshaw, another non-qualifier. So it was a pleasant surprise that this somewhat unlikely combination of Wadkins, a Ryder Cup veteran who is reckoned temperamental, and Nelson, who has a reputation for unflappability, produced four of the U.S. points going into the showdown.
In Sunday's decisive head-to-head matches, Nelson kept it up. The luck of the blind draw put him against Ballesteros, and all the straight-hitting Nelson did was bury Seve, the visitors' biggest gun, with three birdies on the three opening holes, plus three others further along. He ended up whipping the British Open champion 3 and 2.
It was the start of the American drive to victory. Earlier, Wadkins, who had never lost in Ryder Cup play, had run into a very tough Scot named Bernard Gallacher, and Gallacher had given the Europeans hope by stunning Wadkins, 3 and 2, evening the team score.
Now it was time for Kite to give it the rookie try, and some try it would have to be, because he was three down to Britain's Tony Jacklin with only eight holes to play. Kite promptly ripped off birdies at the 11th, 12th and 13th holes, and suddenly he had drawn even. Then an eight-iron shot to within kick-away distance of the cup on the 16th got him his fifth birdie in a stretch of eight holes and all but sewed up the win over Jacklin that started the landslide.
The day before, Kite had hit a beautiful iron into the pin on the 17th, and his partner, Hale Irwin, had allowed him to try an eight-foot birdie putt before he struggled for his own par. The putt fell in, which said everything one needed to know about the attitude of the young U.S. team. Fired up.
"What was the strategy in letting Tom putt first?" Irwin was asked.
"I let him putt," Irwin replied, "because his eyes were this big!"
On his way back to the course on Sunday to see what his teammates were up to, Kite ran into Mark Hayes, who had just holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the last green to nail Garrido and give the U.S. a 12-9 lead.