You never leave the baby with the gardener. You never leave the good china with the piano mover. And you never leave the biggest putt of the Ryder Cup with a chunky former plastics worker from Italy.
But on Sunday at a shivering Belfry, in central England, the European team did exactly that. When the Eurostars—the millionaires and the guys with their own sweater lines—had pretty much spat out their chances, their dreams were left in the grip of a 36-year-old Ryder Cup rookie named Costantino Rocca, a man who looks less like a golfer than like the guy who carves the pork at the Rome Hilton buffet. "The tension," Rocca said later in uncomfortable English. "Very big."
Yeah, well, welcome to the Ryder Cup, during which salivary glands fail and lungs don't inflate. "I think everybody was stretched to where he had never been before," said Nick Faldo.
For Rocca, this was a place he had never even thought of before. He had led America's Davis Love, then trailed, then gone one up at 17, with the Ryder Cup almost certainly turning on the outcome of his match.
So here was Rocca—a man who has never played in the U.S., a man who was still making boxes in a plastics factory at age 25—suddenly with all of Europe at his feet, which he could barely sec anyway. If you could have seen behind Rocca at that moment, you would have seen how Euro was suddenly getting trashed. After having moved ahead 12½ to 10½ midway through Sunday's pairings, the Europeans were in trouble. America's Jim Gallagher Jr., a Ryder rookie, was stunning the dashing Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros, 3 up with two to play. Raymond Floyd, who is 51 and playing like 21, was on his way to upsetting Dashing Spaniard, the Sequel (Jose Maria Olazabal) 2 and 0. Tom Kite, who may never lose a Ryder Cup singles match (he's now 5-0-2), was driving par 4s and slaying the great Teuton, Bernhard Langer, 5 and 3. Even the brave Faldo, who had made a hole in one with a six-iron on the 189-yard 14th, was getting nowhere with Paul Azinger.
If you could have seen ahead of Rocca (rhymes with polka) at that moment, you would have seen that Fred Couples of the U.S. had finally gotten the bats out of his Belfry and had fought the unbeaten Welshman, Ian Woosnam, to a tie. The middle-rung Europeans were also finding that the Americans had sewn holes shut. Barry Lane was 3 up with five to play against America's Chip Beck—the man supposedly born with no guts—when Lane was sucked Beckwards and lost. It wasn't really Lane's fault. On the par-5 15th he made birdie and lost the hole. Beck made eagle. Six-time European Ryder Cupper Mark James was getting his knickers handed to him by Payne Stewart 3 and 2. Didn't matter how you looked at it, the match would pretty much come down to this three-footer, which must have looked like 33 to Mr. Rocca.
Welcome to the best week in golf. If every week were Ryder Cup week, golf would not trail Veg-o-Juicer infomercials in the Nielsens. Unfailingly, Ryder Cup offers the most thrilling, ulcerogenic, nonstop story line in the sport. This time, however, it was not like that. It was better.
The gamesmanship started at the pre-tournament banquet when U.S. captain Tom Watson refused to let Europe's Sam Torrance get his menu autographed by the U.S. players during dinner, thereby getting himself in the soup. Torrance fumed and all England simmered. FORK OFF! one tabloid headline read.
The pressure, however, seemed to make the play only more focused. Good players got great. The abbreviated American, Corey Pavin, won three of his four team matches. No problem for the Euros, who countered with their own sawed-off shotgun, Woosnam, a man no taller than a carry bag, and 93% of that is heart. Woosie simply won his first four matches.
Great players got godly. Europe's Godzilla, Faldo, took on America's King Kong, Azinger, and the result was one of the best ties in Ryder Cup history. Nearly every time Azinger made a birdie in that Friday four-ball match, Faldo would top him. Their partners—Colin Montgomerie for Faldo and Couples for Azinger—might as well have been roaming the ear-splitting crowds selling pork pies. Faldo and Azinger made 13 birdies between them, seven for Faldo, six for Azinger.