As a 13 year -old growing up in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, up until I was 17, I was privileged to have junior tournaments to play in almost every week, courtesy of one of the great unsung figures in golf, Frank Emmet. Mr. Emmet and his wife single handedly set up the schedule, took the applications over the phone, made the starting times, and ran the events, almost all of which started with qualifying and ended with match play determining the champion. In 1970 I won my first tournament, the Bobby Gorin Invitational, held at a club (Woodmont CC in Rockville, MD) where 35 years later I would be the Director of Instruction. Qualifying was nerve wracking. There was always the question of “I wonder what is going to make it”, and coming down the last few holes almost every player was on defense trying not to mess up and miss the cut. But once I qualified and was paired into match play I entered a world I came to love, one in which it was just me and my opponent, and let the best man win.
I won quite a few times as a 13 year- old, mostly because the age group breakdowns were 12-13, 14-15, and 16-17. I didn’t fare nearly as well as a 14-year-old, then dominated when I was 15, and it was the same thing as a 16 and 17-year-old. By the time I was winning events my senior year of high school I was late for recruiting, but after making it to the round of 32 in the U.S. Amateur I got a call from Jesse Haddock at Wake Forest and ended up there on a team with Curtis Strange, Jay Haas, and Scott Hoch. Just about all of my victories prior to college came in match play. I never really thought about it, but one of my old friends and fellow competitors described to me how I was when I got to a tournament: “you never talked to anyone. You just threw down your balls to putt and then warmed up by yourself. I think everyone pretty much became intimidated”. Now, you should know that I was all of 5’6 and 120 lbs., so the intimidation factor had nothing to do with physical prowess. I just thought I was better than everyone else and I expected to win. Even at a young age I rarely let my emotions get to me during a match, although there were a few times I threw away a tournament at the end and reacted poorly. But for the most part, I was all business and I was confident that if I stayed steady the other guy would fold. As an example, I was playing a good friend in the semi-finals of the District Junior and was locked in a tight match heading to the 12th hole, a par 3. My buddy promptly made a hole in one, and as he jumped around and looked around to see who saw it I picked up my bag (I had hit first) and walked to the next tee where I waited patiently for him to collect his ball and continue the match. I won the next 4 holes and closed him out, and after the match I could tell that he really didn’t understand what had just happened.
I go through this digression (remember the title indicated the column would be about the Ryder Cup) because while I’m sure most golf fans were captivated by the play all three days, it was the singles matches that I found truly compelling, some of the most exciting golf I have watched in years. I’m not a great fan of overt nationalism: I don’t think that rooting for the American or European Ryder Cup teams is necessarily an indication of true patriotism. That said, the way the event has emerged as a major competition in the minds of the players puts great emphasis on not just making the team, but the player’s overall record and his team’s overall record through the years. Watching all the matches, especially Reed vs. McIlroy and Sergio vs. Phil, made it crystal clear that these guys all had a burning desire to win, not for the money, but for themselves and their team. It seemed like golf on a higher level, and given my history (I also won my Middle Atlantic Section Match Play Championship 3 times against some very accomplished club professionals) I could truly feel what was going on out there at Hazeltine. I was on vacation in Park City with my website partner Rick, and we were supposed to play golf on Sunday. As it was, I got a stomach virus and was confined to the couch the entire weekend, which turned out to be entirely fortuitous. It was one of the few times that I would rather have been inside watching than outside practicing.