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Ryder Cup

September 23, 1993|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Fore!

Until 1975, when work began to construct a golf course in England that would prepare European players for the U.S. tour, the undeveloped land about a 20-minute drive outside industrial Birmingham was a potato patch.

Now, it is The Belfry, a long course with a lot of water and sand. The Europeans might have more of an advantage on one of their traditional links courses, where the gales and gorse often frustrate Americans. But after a victory in 1985 and a tie in '89 at The Belfry, the Europeans decided to return once more before moving to Spain in 1997.

Now There's a Water Hazard with Teeth

There are not bats at The Belfry, but the course's management wondered if it could make the Americans feel more at home by importing alligators for the lake in front of the 18th green. The management couldn't help but notice that alligators were among those with fairway homes at Kiawah Island, S.C., the site of the '91 Ryder Cup. Local zoologists, however, advised that the gators wouldn't last 12 hours because the water would be too cold.

Lake Parbegone

Even without the alligators, the par-five, 474-yard 18th gives the Americans weak knees. The Europeans tied in 1985 at The Belfry, retaining the Cup, when three Americans on the final day sent their tee-shots on 18 into the lake.

You might think that non-playing captain Ray Floyd would have schooled them about avoiding the water, but what could he say? Four years earlier, when the Americans lost for the first time in 28 years, Floyd dropped his match on the final day because his tee-shot at 18 met the lake.

Elementary, Tom

If the captain is non-playing, what does he do? Seeking an answer to that question is the current man in that role for the United States, Tom Watson. One person he asked was former captain Jack Nicklaus.

"He said you've got to have a cart full of Band-Aids, fruit, Rolaids, water, extra shirts, underwear and all sorts of things that players might need at a moment's notice."

But Don't Call Him "My Dear Watson."

Watson has been more diplomatic than Warren Christopher, predicting a close match. "It's a pick-em," he says. "No question about it."

But Europe's non-playing captain, 44-year-old Scotsman Bernard Gallacher, isn't fooled by his counterpart's graciousness. "Underneath all the Mr. Nice Guy image, there is a very tough American who will be desperate to win," he says.

He discovered that in the 1983 Ryder Cup at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Matched against each other in the decisive final pairing on the last day, Watson won, 2 and 1, to give the United States a one-point victory.

How does Gallacher see this one?

"We should have nothing to fear," he says.

Seed Money

U.S. and British golfers met in team competition as early as 1921, but the first official Ryder Cup was in 1927 at Worcester, Mass. It was named for Samuel Ryder, an Englishmen who earned his fortune selling penny packets of seeds to gardeners. A golf enthusiast since learning to play at age 50, he donated the small gold cup, which was worth about $375 at the time.

Thanks, Jack. Have Any Ideas for Saddam?

The two sides split the first four competitions, but British golf was devastated by World War II. Even after the Republic of Ireland joined the cause in 1973, the Americans continued to dominate.

But, in 1977, Nicklaus insisted in a letter to the British PGA that it was "vital to widen the selection procedures if the Ryder Cup is to continue to enjoy its past prestige."

As a result, players from other Western European countries joined the Brits and the Irish in 1979. In 1985, the Americans were beaten for the first time since 1957. Two years later, they were beaten for the first time on home soil. That was at Muirfield Village in Ohio, Nicklaus' home course. Guess who was the United States' non-playing captain.

At Least His Teammates Didn't Feed Him to the Gators.

In order to take the Cup back home with them in 1991, the Europeans needed a victory in the final singles match on the last day by Bernhard Langer over Hale Irwin. After finishing the first 17 holes even, Langer was in position to give it to them when he stood over a 6-foot putt for par on the 18th green.

Considered one of the most pressure-filled strokes in golf's history, Langer's putt was true. But the path lied. The ball wiggled over a spike mark and stopped just left of the hole.

"I was very upset about that putt for a few days," Langer says. "But it hasn't haunted me. You live in the future, not in the past.

"I wouldn't mind having that chance again. It might be difficult to block out the putt I missed in '91. I am sure I would still be nervous. But I would relish it."

So That's Why They Call Him Chip

While Langer is seeking redemption at The Belfry, the player with the most to prove for the United States might be Chip Beck. His play during the final round of this year's Masters has become the latest symbol for the satisfaction U.S. tour players seem to find in finishing second.

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