When all is said and done, every Ryder Cup is a tapestry of tightly woven mini-dramas. Filled with heroic effort, crushing mistakes, grand gestures, perceived slights and second-guessed stratagems, the biennial matches are the greatest soap opera in golf.
There is one facet, however, that no one dares touch. It is the third rail of the Ryder Cup -- the envelope.
The envelope is innocuous enough, right up until the moment it's needed. At the same time the American and European captains turn in their singles draw (within an hour of the completion of the second day's play), they hand over an envelope containing one name. The captain must identify a player who, the competition's form reads, "is regarded as having been paired with a player who, through illness or injury, has to withdraw from the other side singles."
If the envelope is opened, one name and a thousand conspiracy theories fall out of it. And one man, through no wish of his own, is sent to the bench while his teammates play for history.
In the 12 Ryder Cups in which the envelope has been used, it has come into effect on three occasions. The other nine times, the names in the envelopes were never revealed. Kerry Haigh of the PGA of America holds the envelope for the Americans. If it's not needed he tears it up into "so many pieces it can't be reconstructed," he says. John Paramor of the European Tour performs a similar duty for the other side, and when his becomes moot, he burns it.
If the envelope isn't opened, the identity of the chosen player remains a secret. With few exceptions, past captains didn't discuss the selection with their teams or assistants. By the time it came to fill the envelope, the captain had spent weeks molding a team, shepherding them about, insulating them from nagging distractions, cajoling them when necessary and inspiring them whenever possible. He loved each no better than the other -- or so he would have them, and us, believe. And, while it's true that every player on either side is capable of what Herbert Warren Wind used to call "forceful" golf, the opening of the envelope is the only time when the captain reveals the identity of the man he believes is his weakest link, the runt of the litter. A Ryder Cup captain would rather announce his own sins in the town square than disclose which of his 12 sons he loves the least.
What are the chances Justin Leonard's name was in the envelope at The Country Club in 1999? The result would have been the same -- a half point for each side. But what a different half point it would have been. No one will ever know the name Ben Crenshaw submitted because he didn't discuss it then and he won't now. "And that's the way it should be," he says. Ask Tom Kite three questions about his envelope at Valderrama in '97 and he replies simply, "No. No. No."
Even though it happened behind closed doors, the envelope -- which is also used in the Presidents Cup, but not the Solheim Cup, where a player unable to play must forfeit her singles match -- has been the catalyst for some of the most sportsmanlike gestures made in the matches. The first came in the year it debuted, the 1979 matches at The Greenbrier. It was a watershed year in the evolution of the Ryder Cup. For the first time, biennially moribund Great Britain and Ireland would be bolstered by the inclusion of continental Europeans. Also for the first time, all 12 players would compete in the final day's singles when previously only 10 had played. But, if all were going to be asked to compete on the last day, some way had to be devised to account for an injury or a sudden illness. The answer was the envelope.
The matches at The Greenbrier were marked by the brilliant play of Larry Nelson, who went 5-0, handing a moody young Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros, four defeats. Behind the scenes, however, there were troubles on this newfangled European side. For reasons known only to them, Mark James and Ken Brown were behaving badly -- so badly, in fact, that following the matches they were fined by the European PGA.
"I don't know what it was all about but it was difficult for everybody," recalls Tony Jacklin, appearing in the last of his seven Cups as a player. "I would have sent [James] home, but that's another story."
When they arrived in America, James tore his rib cartilage hauling luggage off the conveyor belt at the airport. "It was excruciating, really," James remembers. He participated in the morning four-ball the first day but couldn't play after that and asked to be left out of the singles. "My difficulty," says the '79 European captain John Jacobs, "was Mark James was being a bit of a difficult young man anyway. He is a good friend now, solved all his problems, but I didn't know whether he was pulling my leg when he said he'd pulled a muscle or not. One had to accept it when he said he had and that he couldn't play."
The Americans were informed. Unfortunately, U.S. captain Billy Casper hadn't quite grasped the purpose of the envelope and had put Lee Trevino's name in it, thinking it meant Trevino would play no matter what. When he realized his mistake, he went to Don Padgett of the PGA of America. Padgett, in turn, went hat in hand to Lord Derby and Colin Snape of the European PGA to explain Casper's error and ask for a mulligan since the Americans also had an injured player, Gil Morgan, who, on his way to pick up some team socks, had slipped on a wet, grassy bank while wearing his street shoes and fallen on his shoulder.
Snape and Derby took the matter to Jacobs. "I quickly got our guys together," says Jacobs, "and I told them the score. I said my own view is, we're one point behind, we're going to win tomorrow and I wouldn't want there to be any question of bad sportsmanship or anything of that nature, so my advice to them is let them change the name." So Morgan's name was substituted for Trevino's, the Americans won 8½ of the 12 points available the next day, and they ended up with a comfortable 17-11 victory. Meanwhile, James got a half-point, his first venture into the plus column. "At the time," James says, "it improved my Ryder Cup performance quite a bit."
Hale Irwin, who delivered the clinching point that year, never knew about Casper's do-over or the magnanimity of Jacobs and the Europeans. "It's the first time I've heard of it," he says. "Back in the days before it became like it is now, eh? When men were men and gentlemen were gentlemen."
From The Greenbrier on, the envelope remained sealed until the War at the Shore, Kiawah Island, 1991. On a rainy Wednesday night on the way to the gala dinner in downtown Charleston, a police car pulled out in front of a line of three limousines, causing two rear-end collisions when the first limo slammed on its brakes. In the middle limo, Steve Pate -- who, according to U.S. captain Dave Stockton hadn't scored higher than 67 in his practice rounds -- was thrown into the bar console and suffered a 13-inch long bruise across his groin and left hip, sending him to the hospital.
Stockton elected not to replace Pate with Tim Simpson, the 11th man on the points list, as would have been his right prior to the beginning of the matches, because he thought Pate might heal sufficiently to play. He didn't see any action until the second afternoon four-ball, when he was paired with his old UCLA teammate, Corey Pavin, but it was clear Pate wasn't himself, actually receiving medical attention on the fourth hole. There was no question he was unfit for play in the singles. Stockton made his decision at breakfast with Pate Sunday morning.
The previous evening, European captain Bernard Gallacher had put David Gilford's name in his envelope. "Unfortunately," says Gallacher, "Stockton pulled Pate out of the singles on the Sunday morning without informing me. Therefore, I was unable to prepare David for this situation." In fact, Gallacher dispatched his assistant, Jacklin, to do the job. He caught up with Gilford in the parking lot.
"I remember Bernard having to go off to aid the press or some dumb thing," says Jacklin, "and he said, 'Just tell David he's not playing today.' I met him as he was getting out of his vehicle with all his clothes and hangers and stuff. I mean, the guy was gutted. He was totally gutted." Pate, who would have faced Ballesteros, gained a half-point, as did Gilford. Four years later in the matches at Oak Hill CC, an inspired Gilford gained three points for the victorious European side.
The only other time the envelope has come into play was in 1993 at The Belfry. A blister underneath the nail on the little toe of Sam Torrance's left foot became infected, and a doctor removed the nail Friday night. "I played in the morning foursomes with Mark James," says Torrance, "and when I came off the course my toe was not in good shape. It just went septic, horribly wrong. That finished me for the week."
The Americans and U.S. captain Tom Watson suspected Torrance wouldn't play the singles. "I informed Watson, and he had plenty of time to discuss the name in the envelope with his team," says Gallacher. If he did, the discussion didn't last long. Lanny Wadkins, one of Watson's captain's picks, pulled Watson aside.
"We didn't have anything confirmed," says Wadkins, "but I said, 'Tom, I've played three times. I'm a captain's pick. These other guys have earned their [spot] on the team. I think you ought to put me in there.' He didn't like it at all. We walked outside away from everybody else and talked. I said, 'I'm a good cheerleader. I can be out there rooting these guys on as good as anybody. I'll be fine with it. I'll be up. You're going to need whoever's in that envelope to be pumped up. You don't need them out there with a long face and dragging people down.' He said, 'Are you sure?' I said, 'Yeah.' And that's the way it was left."
Sort of. "Lanny came to me and said, 'Put me in the envelope because I don't want somebody who qualified on merit to be picked not to play,'" says Watson. "The thing was, Lanny wasn't playing very well, so it was an easy decision. I didn't argue with him too much. It wasn't his decision, it was my decision. If he was playing well, I wouldn't have done it."
That didn't keep Watson, the wily old psych major from Stanford, from telling every American on the first tee Sunday, "Win this one for Lanny." The Americans won 15-13. In the press interviews that night, Wadkins was acknowledged by the hero of the day, Davis Love III. He received a standing ovation from his teammates and was chosen to be the U.S. captain for the matches at Oak Hill two years later.
Stockton, for one, doesn't believe there should even be an envelope. "Both teams should have an alternate player on site," says Stockton. "The PGA can afford another pair of clothes for somebody. I think the envelope is unnecessary."
Watson disagrees. "You hope you don't have to use it," he says. "So be it. It's just a part of it. It's a team effort. You take one for the team if your name goes in there. It's a hard decision to make but there are a lot of hard decisions you have to make in life."
When it comes to the envelope, silence is the easy one.