Ryder Cup brings pressure like no other in professional golf

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Even the best players in golf, those who have prospered under the pressure of major championships and other tournaments, find the Ryder Cup stress test to be immense, sometimes intolerable.

The three-day, match-play competition between the United States and Europe has a way of making stars stammer, the world's elite wilt.

That is why European captain Nick Faldo had his 12-man team congregate around the first tee at Valhalla Golf Club earlier this week, with the veterans pointing out to the newcomers that although the first tee shot Friday morning may very well be stomach-churning, well … it's just another tee shot.

Yeah, right.

"It was very much do as I say, not as I do," admitted England's Lee Westwood, the senior member of the European team who will be competing in his sixth Ryder Cup. "I could not get the ball on the tee in Valderrama in '97. It's quite funny watching it now. I look quite calm and collected and almost look like I know what I'm doing.

"But my hands were shaking and my eyes glazed over a little bit, and it was obviously a completely different experience to the one I had been used to."

Players can talk all they want about how this is just another golf tournament and Valhalla is just another golf course.

But reality suggests it doesn't quite work that way, especially since the Ryder Cup has become such a hotly contested event over the past 25 years. Starting with the 1983 event, the U.S. has four victories, seven losses and a tie, including three straight defeats (remember, the Ryder Cup takes place every two years). And the matches are scrutinized like never before.

European players, having long lived with an inferiority complex, have elevated the status of the event to the level of a major championship. The Americans, who used to win routinely, have been on the other end, and the pressure has escalated as the competition became more keen.

"I've seen men lying on the floor of the locker room either laughing or crying," said Faldo, whose tally of 11 Ryder Cup appearances and 25 points won is more than any player. "It's quite amazing what we will put ourselves through for one point."

There may be no better example than what occurred to Mark Calcavecchia in the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah. Calcavecchia was just two years removed from winning the British Open. He had played on the first U.S. team to lose at home in 1987, then on the team that tied Europe in 1989.

The so-called War by the Shore was the epitome of intensity, and Calcavecchia felt it as he teed off in his Sunday singles match with a relative unknown at the time, Colin Montgomerie.

Calcavecchia took a 5-up lead through nine holes and was still 4-up with four to play. A tie on any of the remaining holes would have meant victory. But he couldn't do it. Calcavecchia lost all four holes -- including hitting into the water on the par-3 17th after Monty had done so -- to get a half instead of a full point.

"I just freaked out for no reason," Calcavecchia said. "I just took it way too personal. I felt like the weight of the world was on me when, in fact, it's just a game. One guy does not win or lose a Ryder Cup, but I just felt my finish had cost us the Ryder Cup, and that's when I had a hard time."

Calcavecchia had to be consoled on the beach afterward, and U.S. captain Dave Stockton has long maintained that Calc's start helped inspire a U.S. team that was struggling. And, ultimately, the half point he earned was the difference in a 14½ to 13½ win.


We're talking about a guy who went toe-to-toe with Greg Norman in a British Open playoff, hit shots with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake. Yet at the Ryder Cup, where no cash is on the line, Calc folded.

The examples are numerous. At the 1995 Ryder Cup, playing the final hole on the final day, Jay Haas hit a popup that went barely 100 yards and went on to lose the hole. When Chris DiMarco played in his first Ryder Cup in 2004, he was to go first in alternate shot. But DiMarco was so nervous, he couldn't do it and asked his partner, Haas, to tee off instead.

"I would say that the pressure teeing off the first day is probably as nervous as I've ever been," said American Justin Leonard, who played his first Ryder Cup in 1997 just two months after winning the British Open. "Coming down the stretch at the Open, I'd been playing all week and playing well and had a good feel for my game and those kind of things, and really wasn't too concerned about the outcome. I was just trying to hit the right shots and make a few putts, which I was able to do.

"The first tee at my first Ryder Cup was new territory for me. It didn't take me long to settle down, but that first tee shot is pretty exciting."

"I know the first shot I hit in the Ryder Cup," said Ireland's Padraig Harrington. "I couldn't see the golf ball. I was just so nervous, I couldn't even see it."

Making the issue more unsettling is the fact that 10 participants in the Ryder Cup are rookies -- six Americans, four Europeans. And there is no guarantee that any or all of them will be among the players who tee off Friday morning. Only eight can play on each side, which can make the wait excruciating for the first-timers.

Stewart Cink said it was tough for him when he had to sit out the morning session of his first Ryder Cup in 2002. England's Paul Casey recalls that scenario playing out at Oakland Hills in 2004. But captain Bernhard Langer had those not playing walk down the first fairway to watch the opening tee shots and get a feel for the magnitude of the moment. Casey didn't play in the afternoon, either, but he did win his first match on Saturday.

"Getting through those first few holes without throwing up all over the golf course is the key to success for those young guys," said NBC analyst Johnny Miller, who played in two Ryder Cups. "That can be the most nerve-racking thing these guys will ever experience in their golf life."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.