His battling qualities are legendary, but the US Ryder Cup captain also has a reputation as a hothead and being thin-skinned. Simon Lewis wonders wether will he keep the latter emotions in check this weekend?
THEY used to call Corey Pavin “the Bulldog” when he was at the peak of his profession, winning a US Open and transforming himself into an emotional freight train at Ryder Cup time. Now aged 50, Pavin has distanced himself somewhat from the fiery character he was both on and off the golf course, but as United States Ryder Cup captain the bulldog could well be about to resurface at Celtic Manor.
This is a man who vividly recalls his Walker Cup debut in 1981 and the goosebumps it summoned on his skin at the sight of a Stars and Stripes flag. And Pavin is also the golfer who helped turn his 1991 Ryder Cup debut at Kiawah Island into the “War on the Shore” by donning a camoflauge hat during the competition in the aftermath of the first Gulf War.
Yet for someone who remembers 1981 at Cypress Point so vividly, Pavin is surprisingly vague about his Ryder Cup bow 10 years later.
“The first match I played in ‘91, I was paired with Mark Calcavecchia, and to be honest with you, I don’t remember the first shot,” Pavin said.
“So I either topped it or something. I must have hit a bad shot and I put it out of my mind. You know, I just remember being pretty excited about playing, and I had been playing pretty good that year. We lost that match pretty badly, actually. I think we were playing Steven Richardson and Mark James, I believe. We got pummelled pretty good. So that was my introduction to The Ryder Cup.
“I remember ‘93 a lot better, because Lanny Watkins was my partner and we were playing foursomes and we were the first match out and I hit the first shot of The Ryder Cup that year.
“We had about a two-hour fog delay, and I remember just standing around waiting and waiting and waiting, and then we got to the tee and it dawned on me that I had the odd holes. So I was hitting the first shot of The Ryder Cup that year as the away team, we had the honour. And I just remember being extremely nervous, putting the peg in the ground and trying to put the ball on the tee. I was having a difficult time of it because my hand was shaking so much, but I managed to get the ball on the tee and I hit a good drive and we went on to win that match.
“So I remember that. And in ‘95, we were actually the first match out again and Tom Lehman was my partner and he was a rookie on that team, and he hit the first shot off the first hole and just piped it right down the middle.
“So for some reason, ‘91 is not sticking out in my mind, so there wasn’t anything too memorable about it, but I am sure I was as nervous as can be.”
There have already been signs that Pavin is back on the edge of his nerves, specifically his deportment at the US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in August when the captain got involved in an ill-advised spat with Golf Channel television reporter Jim Gray, whose reporting of an unrecorded conversation between the two over the likelihood of Tiger Woods’ selection for the US team prompted the golfer to brand the journalist a liar.
When Gray confronted Pavin in the Whistling Straits media centre immediately after a pre-tournament press conference, the US skipper got drawn into a heated and nasty slanging match that also involved wife Lisa Pavin.
Four weeks on Pavin recalled the stresses that Ryder Cup players have to face on the course and he shed some light on the advice he will give to his five rookies on the USA team: Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Jeff Overton and Bubba Watson.
“You’re playing in front of a lot of people that are emotionally charged when you’re on the golf course, so you combine all those things, and I’ve always said that I’ve been so much more nervous playing in Ryder Cups than any other time; hitting the last shot at the US Open in ‘95 (the year he won, at Shinnecock Hills), seemed like a walk in the park compared to playing in The Ryder Cup.
“So, the first thing is – breathe would be a good thing. When you’re nervous like that, you tend to do things a little bit quicker, so I’ll just ask him to slow down a little bit and take some breaths, and just try to relax, and just try to make a good rhythmic swing. Things happen so fast when you’re nervous.
“I think those guys will have three practice rounds under their belts, and they will have a pretty good taste of what the crowds are going to be like and the feeling; and I’ll just ask them to try to integrate all that that’s happening Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and just try to relax as much as they can.
“But I certainly want them to be nervous. I want them to be feeling that way because that means it means a lot to them and they will just have to deal with their emotions and their feelings the best way that they can.
“My job is just to make sure that they know that those emotions and feelings are going to be coming and to be prepared for it.”
Knowing what is coming is only half the battle, and Pavin’s thin-skinned behaviour during the Jim Gray controversy does not augur well for captain or team in the European cauldron that Celtic Manor promises to be.
“I think the most important thing is just to understand where we are and what kind of reaction that the players on the team are going to see from the fans out there. Obviously there’s going to be 80%, 85% of the fans are going to be pro-European, which is great. I think that’s good fun.
“They are going to be cheering and going crazy for the European team, and I’m sure they will be very respectful for our guys. But it’s different when you’re out there and you’re playing and maybe you miss a putt somewhere and Europe wins the hole; there might be a pause and then applause, which you’re not used to hearing. But I think the players have to be aware of that, the young guys that haven’t been in that situation need to understand that there might be some clapping for bad shots, possibly, and to kind of be able to integrate that into their thinking before you go out there. That’s just preparation for them.
“And just a general preparation for them to be in a stage that they have never been on before. You can’t really explain it to them completely so that they can handle the situation and be 100% sure. They are going to have to get out there, feel what’s going on and understand their feelings and deal with them. But I can just tell them as much as I can say. These guys are professionals and they know what they are doing out there and they have been in a lot of different situations, and some of the players have played Walker Cup, some of the rookies, and they have played it overseas and they have seen that type of situation before.”
YET Pavin knows what it takes to win away from home, having played on the last American team to have brought the Ryder Cup back to the States, from the Belfry in 1993.
“I always loved playing in it, but I played once overseas and that was a blast for me, because I loved going into that type of atmosphere and trying to quiet the crowd down with making birdies or whatever I did. That was fun for me. And it was fun for a lot of the players on the team, and I think the group of guys that we have on the team this year are going to enjoy playing over there.
“They are going to embrace it, and that’s the type of team that I would like to see the USA take over there, guys that are up for the challenge and want to be in that situation.”
Pavin has also had an insight into both the demands and the helplessness of the captaincy having been an assistant to his friend Lehman at the K Club in 2006, an arrangement that will be reversed this weekend in Wales.
“Obviously I was in Team USA’s team room, where we eat and hang around, and I saw 12 guys that had a great time and bonded beautifully. When it’s all said and done you have to go out and play well and the team just didn’t play that well that week. It wasn’t because of lack of bonding or anything like that. That’s a misnomer that’s been out there.
“Every team I’ve been on has been fantastic. All of the guys have been great together. It’s just a matter of how you play when you get on the golf course, and Europe for the last decade has played some pretty good golf. We have had a couple wins in there, as well ... .”
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