You had only to examine Mark Calcavecchia's face on Sunday afternoon to appreciate the cauldron of pressure the Ryder Cup has become. His eyes were red and swollen, his checks drained of color, his gaze vacant. Calcavecchia had contributed 2½ points to the U.S. team's winning effort, but he had buckled when it counted most, and he knew it.
The face of Germany's Bernhard Langer was no less revealing. A six-time Ryder Cupper and the winner of 24 European tour events and the 1985 Masters, Langer fought back tears as he left the 18th green of the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, S.C., wending his way through a jubilant crowd that was chanting, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" Langer had just missed a six-foot putt for par that would have beaten Hale Irwin and allowed the Europeans to retain the Cup with a 14-14 tie. Blameless, he took the blame.
It's true there were more happy faces than sad ones as the sun poked out of the clouds over Kiawah, turning the marsh grasses gold and warming the brows of basking alligators. The Ryder Cup was back in American hands for the first time since 1985, when the Europeans wrested it away at the Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England. There was much hugging, whooping and flag-waving, and the U.S. players carried team captain Dave Stockton over the dunes and tossed him into the Atlantic surf.
However, the enormous prestige of the biennial Ryder Cup competition is taking a toll on players from both sides of the Atlantic. They still mouth platitudes about solidarity and team play, but what Ryder Cup pressure most brutally exposes is individual vulnerability. Here are a few of the notable Kiawah crack-ups.
•Irwin, a three-time U.S. Open champion, practically handed the Cup back to Europe by losing a one-up lead over Langer with two holes to play in Sunday's final and decisive singles match. Irwin three-putted the 17th green and then fluffed a greenside pitch on No. 18 for another bogey. "I couldn't breathe, I couldn't swallow," he said. "The sphincter factor was high."
•Reigning U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart drove into the water on No. 17 and swept a fairway iron onto the dunes on No. 18 as he and Calcavecchia fought to protect a 2-up lead in their Saturday foursomes (alternate-shot) match with Mark James and Steven Richardson, both of England. Richardson, a Ryder Cup rookie, then gagged on a four-footer that would have salvaged a half point for the Europeans. "It was a gift," said Stewart, "but we'll take it."
•Current Masters champion Ian Woosnam of Wales, the top-ranked player in the world, missed so many short putts that he was alternately kicking his putter and threatening to bite it. Meanwhile, his English teammate Nick Faldo, a two-time British Open and Masters winner, lost three matches and sat out another, saying his lack of touch on the Bermuda-grass greens left him "petrified."
•Chip Beck and Paul Azinger of the U.S., one down to the Spanish twosome of Seve Ballesteros and José-María Olazábal in a Friday four-ball (better-ball) match, put consecutive tee shots into the drink on No. 17 to lose.
None of these collapses, however, rivaled that of Calcavecchia, the 1989 British Open champ, on Sunday. Playing in the third singles match, Calcavecchia was 5 up on Scotland's Colin Montgomerie at the turn, and 4 up with four to play. After losing the 15th hole with a triple bogey and the 16th with a bogey, Calcavecchia appeared to get a reprieve when Montgomerie found the water on the diabolical 17th. But Calcavecchia—one of the water babies who cost the U.S. the Cup in '89 by splashing on the 18th at the Belfry—buckled, skulling a tee shot that hit the water halfway to the green.
That was bad enough, but Calcavecchia then blew a two-foot putt to give Montgomerie the hole with a five. Only one up going into the final hole, Calcavecchia bogeyed, Montgomerie parred, and the Europeans got a half. Devastated, Calcavecchia fled the course, returning only at the insistence of his wife, Sheryl. "The same thing happened in '89," he said. "I was upset. I needed to regroup a little."