|Head: In Match Play, Clutch > Scratch|
By Steven PeaseFor me, winning match play golf is all about attitude. My wife will attest to me being a largely non-competitive person. I don't, as Tiger once put it, "smell the blood" and pounce on a competitor. My dad was a fairly good wrestler in his day, and I tried to follow suit. In middle school and as a freshman I wrestled as a lightweight, but I never had the kill switch to stick an opponent in seconds. I was always reacting rather than taking the fight to them. That is until I started playing match play golf.
I know that statement may sound a bit weird to some. But I'm an unconventional type of man. I get a fire in my belly when someone tells me I won't win, or I can't win. If I'm down 7 holes with 7 to play and I see my opponent begin to lighten up and celebrate, you'd better believe I'm taking him to the 18th hole. I'm a back nine player, a closer. And I become a better fighter when you think the fight is over.
That's the absolute best thing about match play: When my opponent has knocked it stone dead to three feet and I'm in jail - deep in the hay behind a bunker to a tight pin - that's when match play begins. That's when I can pull off a miraculous shot, which rattles and crushes his spirit. That may sound harsh, but the best thing about match play is the violent swings of momentum.
Ryder Cup: The Only Match Play Competition That Seemingly Still Matters
That's why the Ryder Cup's Sunday Singles are perhaps the last set of matches where match play still matters. Sure, you've got the Andersen/Accenture/Dell Match Play (is it still called that?), a 64-player NCAA-style round-robin tournament featuring the top players in the world. Inevitably, a number drop out. But at the Ryder, no healthy player (who isn't expecting a child) would miss it for the world.
And at Hazeltine, the winning singles formula will come down to the one player who can crush the most soul, not necessarily shoot the lowest score. Though that doesn't hurt.
Yes, match play is more about being clutch than being a scratch. And the fact remains that since 1999 (save for '08 at Valhalla), the Europeans have just simply been more clutch. Look at Rory. In 2012 at Medinah, he claimed to have miscalculated Central Standard Time and nearly missed his tee time. The young Ulsterman showed up to the course with less than 10 minutes remaining before he'd forfeit the match. After the police escort, he only had time to hit a few putts, say a quick Mae Culpa to Coach José Maria Olazábal, and then hit the first tee. Amazingly, he never trailed in the match - beating uber-American Keegan Bradley 2&1 and setting the tone for the greatest comeback since the U.S. at The Country Club in '99. Now that's a fine example of clutch. In 2012, under the management of Coach Davis Love III, Americans came to the 17th hole three times with a chance to win their Sunday singles match. Not once did they come away with a victory. That's decidedly unclutch.
P.S. Do you know who was responsible for sorting out Rory's time zone mishap in 2012? His current fiancée, and PGA of America employee, Erica Stoll was the first to alert PGA officials that Rory was not on the grounds and in danger of missing his tee time. This marks the first time I've ever heard of a woman reminding a man to hurry up and make his tee time. (Sorry!) She's not his wife yet, so maybe it was just her special way of courting him. Hahahaa. Haha. Ha. Ugh. Why, Erica!? I digress.
In the 40 times America has taken on Europe/British Isles, the world's elite tournament players have gone head to head in hundreds of Sunday singles matches. When determining who the best were, you could narrow it down to wins - but those with the most caps also have the most wins: Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Sam Snead and Lee Trevino each have 6 solo wins, as do Sir Nick Faldo, Peter Oosterhuis and Colin Montgomerie. Phil has 5. Just sayin'.
Ireland's Christy O'Connor stands alone in the record books as the top Singles player with 13 points. On the flip side, Billy Casper, Gene Littler, Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino have all racked up 10 points in Sunday singles matches. It's notable that Olazábal's (18-8-3) overall record means he has scored at least a point in 67% of his matches. No esta mal.
The Ryder is, after all, mostly a team match play competition. Expect to see "Team Speed" - Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed paired again at every opportunity after claiming 2 1/2 out of a possible 3 points in 2014. That included a day one 5&4 waxing of Stephen Gallagher and the most clutch player in Ryder Cup history - Ian Poulter. Poulter will bring his popped collar and bulging eyes to the 41st playing of this transatlantic tussle not as a player, but as an injury-riddled vice captain. He will likely be cheering on Justin Rose, Rors and this year's King of Clutch, Henrik Stenson.
Speaking of clutch, Arnold Palmer consecutively registered at least a point in every match he played for the better part of a decade (from 1965 final day morning singles to 1971's final day morning singles). Not bad, Arnie. Not bad. Arnie was also the last American playing captain in 1963 at the age of 34. Something tells me Captain Love, at 52, could easily play (and produce) at the 2016 Cup. Though he's too magnanimous (and smart) to attempt to juggle playing-captain duties, or spend one of his four picks on himself. He'll no doubt be focused on keeping Phil and the pods happy, healthy and victorious.
I've Got A Beef With Europe
Which brings me to my next Ryder-related point: I'm already ruing the fact that - if he's picked - I'll have to root for England's biggest golf hunk: Andrew "Beef" Johnston. Currently, Beef is a long shot to make an appearance inside the ropes at Hazeltine, especially considering Rosie is outside the Ryder's qualifying Top 9, (even if he's currently ranked 25th in European Ryder Cup points - ahead of him). If I were to see Beef's wide gate making his way up the fairway, I'd probably feel a lot like when a purple-clad Favre ran out of the tunnel at Lambeau in 2009, where I forced myself to clap once and boo once. He's just too cool not to like. And Beef is the modern hero (gyro?) golf really needs.
He's currently rocking the Amish beard and sports a larger-than-life personality; the "Beef Head" should tattoo; the Brit-toothed perma-grin. This is a European that I, and every other American, can root for. And that makes him an English ace in the hole. If it came down to Beef vs. Patrick Reed, my passport requires that I side with Reed, by my heart would be with Beef, for the win. Well, maybe just a half point.
Beef is golf's equivalent of Zac Brown, a folksy, pub-dwelling rock star. He's John Daly without the Marb Reds. He's the sportsman every Bernie-backing millennial golf fan has likely been waiting for: Unpolished. Authentic. Affable. And, quite literally, very, very hungry. Most importantly the man from Middlesex can play. A top 10 at Troon, and a solid first round at Baltusrol (even after the media circus, and increased requests after signing an endorsement deal with Arby's) has me thinking this guy could have a future. The big man is eating up every moment on the big stage.
Odds At The End
* I'm proud of my calluses this season. I casually brag about them to my wife. I've hit the range a fair amount (a half-dozen range seshs, not counting the odd pre-first-tee warm up). As the calluses on my left hand begin to harden and peel, I've felt glimpses and glimmers of some actual game. I now have a sense of what it takes to practice like a player. To make birdies. Maybe even to break 80.
I'm pushing 20 rounds already this summer, and the occasional 83 gives me hope. That's usually closely followed by a double-double start a few days later. Still, just as this season's Nike campaigns tell me, it's about the chase. Right? Right.
* My favorite golf quotes include:
"A bad attitude is worse than a bad golf swing." Payne Stewart
"Man never stands so tall as when he stoops down to help a child." - Bobby Jones
"18" - Ben Hogan, when asked what the perfect score on a golf course is.
"I have a tip that can take five strokes off anyone's game: It's called an eraser." - Arnold Palmer
"Did you ever try to hit a golf ball without any oxygen in your system?" - Billy Casper, on playing in the Ryder Cup.
* Go U.S.A. and BEEF
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