2006: Cup pressure floweth over

By Rex Hoggard

Medinah, Ill.

With HDTV clarity, Ryder Cup candidates typically can remember the anxiety-filled moment when the pressure of actually making the American team descended on them like an Acme Anvil, buckling some of the game’s squarest shoulders.

The stress, particularly for those who have never played for cup and country, can be as thick as the Medinah rough and as real as a forced carry over Lake Kadijah.

Among those who arrived at the PGA Championship still hoping to make Tom Lehman’s squad were Vaughn Taylor, J.J. Henry, Zach Johnson and Brett Wetterich – all inside the top 10 when “Glory’s Last Shot” got under way.

On the outside, about 25 players had something just short of a “Hail Mary” chance at punching their ticket next month to the K Club – including John Rollins, Stewart Cink, Jerry Kelly, Lucas Glover and Davis Love III.

Other than Love and Cink, most of the cup hopefuls were would-be rookies, blissfully ignorant of the nerve-crushing drama that awaits in Ireland.

Yet all were increasingly familiar with the media frenzy that pushes often stoic golf professionals to shift their focus from the process (steady play) to the result (making the team).

“You can’t avoid the Ryder Cup in your head but you have to focus on the present,” said Johnson, who began the week ninth in the standings and held his ground despite missing the cut.

Henry, eighth in the standings when he teed off at Medinah, showed similar reason in his cup quest.

“The way I’ve looked at it, if I go out and play golf all that other stuff will take care of itself,” said Henry, who also remained inside the top 10 in the points race. “You can sit here and watch the points system and kind of beat it to death, but at the same time you have to go out and play golf.”

Johnson and Henry’s approach is Psych 101.

A classic bait and switch in an attempt to avoid making the carrot more important than the stick, and – at least for most of those clinging to cup life – a futile effort to ignore the red, white and blue elephant in the room.

“Every week these guys walk the fine line of wanting it too much,” said Gio Valiante, a sports psychologist who works with U.S. Ryder Cup player Chad Campbell. “The Ryder Cup puts that issue on steroids.”

While players search for comfort behind a blanket of self-help clichés, those closest to them are often flummoxed by the actual impact the Ryder race has on ordinarily strong-willed people.

When asked recently how his boss was playing, one caddie of a player who unexpectedly found himself in the hunt for a Ryder Cup spot angrily replied: “Like every swing is going to make the difference between making the Ryder Cup team or not.”

Avoiding reality may be a recipe for disaster in marriages and parenting, but when locked in a desperate struggle to fulfill a lifelong Ryder Cup dream, it’s the only option.

“They can say, ‘I’m not thinking about it,’ but you have the media always talking about it so it’s always in the back of your mind,” said one agent of a bubble player. “They may not acknowledge it, but it’s always there.”

That is, of course, unless you’re Arron Oberholser, who lives his life like he’s on a sodium pentothal drip. Honesty spills from the Californian, who vaulted into Ryder Cup contention with his victory earlier this year at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

“The Ryder Cup is just another golf tournament and anybody who looks at it any other way is an idiot,” Oberholser said. “If you look at it any other way, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I pressed to make the team and that’s why I said that, because I’m being an idiot. I’m making a bigger deal out of it than it is.”

Oberholser’s Ryder obsession reached its peak at the British Open, when he sat down for a lunch with Lehman and was informed he was seventh on the captain’s points list, which, unlike the official PGA of America list, awarded points to the top 10 Americans each week, not just those Americans who finished inside the top 10.

Since his lunch at Liverpool, Oberholser has tried, unsuccessfully he admits, to keep the Ryder Cup demons at bay. He’s removed the points list from his personal Web site and, until the PGA, avoided talking about the biennial matches as much as possible.

“Ignorance is the best tool in your bag,” said Oberholser, who missed the cut at the PGA and finished 22nd on the official points list. “If you don’t know it’s there, like trouble, you don’t hit into it.”

Tommy Tolles tried to bury his head in a similar sand trap during the 1997 U.S. points race, but quickly acknowledges there’s little chance of avoiding the Ryder Cup rip tide.

Tolles had inched his way to sixth place and began the PGA Championship seemingly safe in ninth, but a combination of Love’s emotional victory at Winged Foot and Jeff Maggert’s third-place showing ended his Ryder Cup dreams.

“I could hardly focus on anything other than picking up the paper in the morning and checking the points. I was waiting for them to change daily,” Tolles said. “The guys this year are trying to be cool and nonchalant about it, but there’s no way. You can’t put that out of your mind. It’s there, you can’t shut yourself off from the media.”

For Glover, the pressure first showed itself earlier this year at the Bay Hill Invitational, when he ballooned to a final-round 77 and dropped from second place into a tie for 17th. “Well, that cost me a few Ryder Cup points,” he said as he left the course.

At Medinah, Glover tried to play the ultimate mind game. When asked if he was feeling the Ryder Cup heat, he deadpanned: “Is that being played this year?” And when he opened with a 6-under 66 for a share of the lead, it seemed as if he’d started to believe his own mental mumbo jumbo.

“I decided to just play well and let it take care of itself. If not . . . I tried, I guess,” said Glover, who began the week 14th but failed to earn any coveted points. “I hate to say it like I’m giving up, but it had not worked pressing the last three months.”

Love had been on every Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup team since 1993, the longest active streak among Americans until learning from Lehman on Aug. 21 that he was being skipped over as a captain’s pick in favor of Cink and Scott Verplank. Thus his inability to overcome the mental hurdles inherent to a close Ryder Cup race was even more perplexing. Making the Ryder Cup team had almost become a biennial rite of fall for Love, but the harder he tried to convince himself not to fixate on points, the more his points jones grew.

“This year I started playing for points and it’s really been a distraction,” said Love, who faded on the weekend with rounds of 73-76 and finished 15th on the points list. “I’ve been trying too hard to make the team and it’s been a distraction.”

For many of the Ryder Cup hopefuls, the stress seems to manifest itself on Sundays. Glover, for example, has similar scoring averages to last year for Rounds 1, 2 and 3, but when it comes time to mount a top-10 charge, his final-round average is 71.54, nearly 11⁄2 strokes higher than in 2005.

Some of those feeling the strain could even point to particular rounds when the weight could be felt with each swing.

For Glover, that moment came during the second round this year at Colonial, when he played his final five holes in 7 over and tumbled from a spot inside the top 10 to the other side of the cut line. Love counts his uncharacteristically poor finish this year at the Wachovia Championship – a bogey-double bogey-bogey stretch that dropped him into 14th place – as an example of how the pressure can impact one’s game.

Those who found themselves in points purgatory as the final putts dropped Sunday at Medinah were reluctant to acknowledge the relief they found as the Ryder Cup race wound down, just as they were unwilling to acknowledge feeling the pressure of making the team. In many ways, a Ryder Cup spot is coveted and cursed. A half-dozen hopefuls sulked out of the Chicago suburbs with their patriotic dreams dashed but likely thankful to be rid of the ever-present Ryder Cup monkey.

“Since I won in Hartford all I thought about was getting points,” Henry said before making the team. “Now I can go out and just swing the club and not look over my shoulder.”

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