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Dave Stockton Looks Back on the 'War on the Shore'
The Ryder Cup is just days away, and participants on both sides - not to mention a worldwide television audience - hope for a riveting, closely-contested match. But through the nearly 40 matches over some 85 years previously, there has never been a match quite as spellbinding, or as excruciating in terms of pressure, as what transpired just over 20 years ago at the then brand-new Ocean Course on Kiawah Island in the waning days of the summer of 1991.
That fascinating Ryder Cup, known as the "War on the Shore," vaulted Kiawah Island and its instantly-iconic Ocean Course into the consciousness of the golf public at home and abroad. It came down to the last day, the last match, the last hole, the last putt and the last man standing who could either make or miss a six-foot putt to either retain or forfeit the modest gold chalice that signifies the victor of this biennial international golf match. Germany's Bernhard Langer missed. The Ryder Cup went to the American squad.
"I fully expected him to make that putt, we would end up tied, and the Europeans would keep the Cup," recalls American captain Dave Stockton. (In the event of a tie, the Cup stays with the team that already has possession, which in this case was the Europeans by virtue of their win two years prior.)
"If anyone deserved to make that putt, it was Langer. Frankly, I was pretty shocked that Bernard Gallacher, who captained the European team, put Langer out in the anchor position, putting him under that type of intense pressure, considering what he was dealing with on a personal level."
Stockton was referring to the information he had learned from the stoic German five nights earlier at an informal gathering between the teams, which preceded all the official pomp and circumstance that has since become part of the event's fabric.
"The most fun I had was the Tuesday night clambake we had with the European team," continues Stockton, a two-time winner of the PGA Championship. "There were no PGA of America officials present or any other official representation at all. It was just the players and their families. You could wear flip-flops, shorts, whatever you wanted. It was a very relaxed atmosphere. But I was distressed to learn that evening that Bernhard Langer was very concerned with his toddler-age daughter who they were afraid had a terminal illness. That really put things in perspective. Fortunately they found out several months later that she was going to be okay, and is doing well to this day."
At the outset of the competition Stockton never thought the matches would come down to the wire. He thought his team was stacked, and victory practically a foregone conclusion. But an automobile mishap on the eve of the competition scrambled his lineup and had him re-jiggering the pairings.
"The worst moment of the week was when Steve Pate got hurt in a limo wreck on the way to a PGA-sponsored dinner in Charleston," remembers Stockton, who played on two winning American teams in the 70s. "It was raining, two limos collided, and Pate got a serious bruise and abrasion from his ribs, up his side and across his torso. He really got racked up. Not only did it really screw up my pairings, as I had planned on partnering him with Corey Pavin pretty much in every match, but Pate was playing better than anyone else leading up to the matches. He didn't shoot higher than 67 in any practice round, as far as I can recall."
Pate only managed to play a single time in the five sessions, a Saturday afternoon pairing with Pavin, ultimately losing to Langer and Colin Montgomerie. He was unable to compete in the Sunday singles, so Gallacher left David Gilford out of his lineup, and both the American and European players were awarded half a point, signifying a tied match.
"Corey Pavin had a unique game that was well suited to mesh with Steve Pate," noted Stockton. "Before that freak injury I was really confident about our chances for the event, but having to rework our team at the last minute really messed things up."
Stockton, who besides playing on two teams and captaining at Kiawah, also served as vice-captain to Paul Azinger in 2008 at Valhalla in Kentucky. In all four cases he was on the victorious side. This is somewhat surprising, considering Europe has won nine times and tied once in the last 13 iterations of the Ryder Cup. That said, he is well versed in the unique pressures of the competition, which was manifested in many different ways at Kiawah.
No single player felt the final-day pressure more than Mark Calcavecchia, who ended up choking like a Chihuahua on a chicken bone. It was the last day of the match, the singles competitions, and Calcavecchia had been through the rigors before. He was competing in his third Ryder Cup, with six prior victories on the PGA Tour, including a win at the world's oldest major championship, the British Open, just two years prior. His singles opponent that fateful day was the then-callow Montgomerie, a rookie on the European squad. Calc vaulted to a 4-up lead with four holes left to play, meaning that all he needed was to tie Monty's score on any of the remaining holes in the match to secure a valuable point for the home team.
However, on the 15th he made triple-bogey, his lead diminishing to 3 up with three to play. A bogey on 16, and his lead was whittled to two. Monty, teeing first, and with all the momentum, flinched. He dunked his tee shot into the water on the diabolical par-3 17th. All Calc needed at that point was to find dry land, because Monty would do well to salvage bogey. Instead, Calcavecchia turned from putty to outright putrid, slapping his tee ball into the pond as well, butchering his way to another triple.
The last hole was a foregone conclusion. Another bogey led to another hole won by Montgomerie, the match ending in a tie, worth a half-point each. Calc, it was reported, went to bawl on the beach. He didn't appear in another Ryder Cup for almost a decade, and when he did, managed only a single point. Monty went onto become the "Man of the Match," playing on seven more Ryder Cup teams in succession, and never losing a singles match. In fact, his record in Ryder Cup singles has turned into the finest in the event's history. How different it might've turned out for the both of them if Calcavecchia had actually managed to hit the ball with the clubface on the decisive 17th.
"I give lots of credit for our winning the Ryder Cup to Mark Calcavecchia," states Stockton, "despite the way his singles match finished."
Stockton wasn't only referring to the fact that Calc won two of three times in the partner's format on the preceding two days. He explains that his strategy in singles was to front-load and back-load his team with the strongest players - for an initial push - and then a forceful finish. "I would have had Lanny Wadkins out first, but he was dog-tired from having played in each of the four previous partner sessions on Friday and Saturday, and asked me if he could play later on Sunday, so I decided to give him some extra rest, and send him out towards the back of the rotation."
Instead he sent out captain's pick Ray Floyd - he of the famous, intimidating "stare" - out first, and Payne Stewart, already a winner of the PGA Championship and less than a year away from his first U.S. Open victory, out second. Both lost, to Nick Faldo and David Feherty, respectively.
"Raymond and Payne were both down in their matches, but Calc, who was out third, was 4 up through nine holes, and got it to 5 up through 10 holes. In my opinion every player that was coming up behind Calc managed to ignore the fact that our two big guns in Raymond and Payne were getting beaten handily, and instead were buoyed by Calc's big lead," states Stockton.
"Despite how he finished the match, many of our middle guys rallied hard seeing him up so big, gaining confidence in their own games, and we won five of the seven matches that followed Calc onto the golf course. I was hearing things like, 'You see what Calc is doing? I'm going to do the same thing in my match.' By the time Calc's wheels started coming off down the stretch, when he lost those four holes consecutively, the momentum had already swung in our favor. We've talked about that many times over the years."
Stockton had a front-row seat at what is probably Calc's lowest moment as a professional golfer - the terrible tee shot into the water, the wounded duck of a 2-iron he hit on the pivotal 17th. "A couple of groups later, I'm still on the 17th hole, Corey Pavin comes up to the tee and grabs his 2-iron. I say, 'You're not hitting that, take more club.' He grabbed his 4-wood, I said, 'How about the 3-wood?' He said, 'That'll be too long,' to which I replied, 'wonderful.' He hit it in the back bunker, got it up-and-down for par, and won his match right there. Had I been able to get there in time I would've said the same thing to Calc earlier, to take more club than he thought he would need, because long is better than short. But when you're the captain, you need to be in many places at once, and I just wasn't able to be there at that time."
Stockton, who went on to win a pair of Senior Players Championships and the U.S. Senior Open, was proud that he helped to turn the tide somewhat in terms of European dominance, and was part of a pivotal point in Ryder Cup history. "That 'War on the Shore' concept was a bit overblown, we were friendly rivals with the European team, though we really did want to win the Cup back, we hadn't won it outright in eight years, since 1983. And we were shocked to actually lose the Cup on American soil for the first time in 1987 with Jack Nicklaus as the captain, and on Jack's home course of Muirfield Village in Ohio. That was a real wakeup call.
"I had given up doing corporate outings starting a year before the Cup, and was doing quite a bit of speaking about how the Ryder Cup should be a really big deal on the American sports scene, particularly when it was in the USA. The PGA of America reported a substantial profit on that Ryder Cup for the first time ever, and it's been on the upswing in terms of notoriety and attention ever since."
"They don't do this anymore, but back then there was a Sunday night, post-Cup dinner for the two teams," concludes Stockton, who won a total of 25 times combined on the PGA Tour and Champions Tour. "We went down to go to the dinner, and there were two buses waiting. One bus is practically filled, with both teams onboard, and there's just a few people left to fit. Ian Woosnam of the European team picks up Corey Pavin and carries him on the bus, saying "We're so small we can share a seat!'
"The Europeans were so classy at the dinner that night, and I remember saying to my wife that if Langer had made the final putt instead of missing it, and we had lost the Cup instead of winning it, would we have conducted ourselves in the same delightful way that that our opponents did when all was said and done. I certainly hope so, but fortunately, we didn't need to find that out. Being captain of that victorious team was without a doubt one of the proudest accomplishments of my life."
Joel Zuckerman, called "One of the Southeast's most respected and sought-after golf writers" by Golfer's Guide Magazine, is an award-winning travel writer based in Savannah, Georgia. His six books to date include "Pete Dye - Golf Courses," which was honored as "Book of the Year" by the International Network of Golf. His latest is titled, "KIAWAH GOLF - The Game's Elegant Island," released in July 2012. Joel's course reviews, player profiles, essays and features have appeared in 110 publications, including Sports Illustrated, Golf, Continental Magazine and Delta's Sky Magazine. He has played nearly 800 courses in 40-plus states and a dozen countries. For more about Joel, visit visit www.vagabondgolfer.com.