Team USA gets inspiration from true patriot

Stewart Cink, Jeff Overton, Rickie Fowler, captain Corey Pavin, Zach Johnson and Hunter Mahan pose with the American flag at the Ryder Cup.

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NEWPORT, Wales – Safe to say, Major Dan Rooney will have a more leisurely view of the 38th Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor than he had the last time the biennial event was staged. Two years ago as the U.S. faced off against Europe in Kentucky, Rooney, an F-16 fighter pilot with the Oklahoma Air National Guard, was in Baghdad, watching the event on the Armed Forces Network while taking a break from his tour of duty.

This time around, he has traveled to Wales to watch in person as an invited guest of U.S. captain Corey Pavin. The captain even asked Rooney – an inspirational patriot whose dedication to his military brethren led to the creation of The Folds of Honor Foundation – to talk to his team Tuesday night after dinner.

And that, here at the 38th Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, is where the fun – or better yet, the utter ridiculousness some turned his speech into – begins.

Rooney spoke to the 12-man team for 30 minutes on the merits of “teamwork and accountability.” Golf is an individual game, and rare is the concept of team once these guys leave college. Judging from reaction from many of the British tabloids – affectionately known on this side of the pond as “the Rottweilers” – you’d have thought Pavin brought in General George Patton.

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The mission of Dan Rooney and the Folds of Honor Foundation is to help the families of those killed or disabled in action, including Jacob Green, son of late Army Cpl. Brock Bucklin.

The matches are two days away, and as rain fell upon the Twenty Ten Course, it was a pretty slow news day for a pack of writers with cabin fever. As soon as Pavin came to the media center and mentioned he’d asked Rooney to address his team, a few decided to start connecting dots between the U.S. Ryder Cup team and its apparent infatuation with war.

You all recall the heated, over-the-top War by the Shore at Kiawah, don’t you, when some U.S. players wore camouflage? I mean, that was only, what, almost 20 years ago?

To some, seems like yesterday, evidently.

Ease up, folks. This is a three-day golf match, an exhibition, and hardly a war. Twenty-four millionaires with golf clubs competing on lush green grass hardly parallels some young soldier standing in a foxhole somewhere in a remote outpost of the world, putting his or her life on the line to fight for a country’s freedoms. The Ryder Cup isn’t war, and Dan Rooney and Corey Pavin know that as well as anyone.

It’s not as if teams trying to spark inspiration inside a Ryder Cup team room is exactly a freshly-hatched concept. At Brookline in 1999, captain Ben Crenshaw brought in his governor from Texas to talk about patriotism. He told the story of The Alamo. You may have heard of him – man named George W. Bush. European captain Colin Montgomerie turned to two giants of European sport himself on Tuesday night, summoning former Welsh rugby great Gareth Edwards and organizing an emotional, 10-minute phone conversation with the man who single-handedly put Europe on the Ryder Cup map, Seve Ballesteros, who is gravely ill in Spain.

“Seve is our Ryder Cup, and always will be,” Montgomerie said.

Two years ago while he was in Iraq, Rooney, who is also a PGA professional, taped a 3-minute message to the U.S. team that captain Paul Azinger shared with his players. When Pavin asked Rooney a few weeks ago if he’d talk to the team in person, he jumped at the chance.

“It was an epic night,” he told Golfweek Wednesday as he and his wife, Jacqy, did some sightseeing along the southern coast of Wales. Rooney was sensitive to keeping much of Tuesday’s happenings inside the U.S. team room. “An awesome deal. Really, really cool.

“When Corey asked me to come speak, I thought he was crazy. I mean, I was a has-been (college golfer) at Kansas, and here I am, talking to some of the greatest players in the world. I asked him what he thought I should say. And he told me, ‘Just speak from the heart.’ ”

That’s what Rooney does, and what he did. So what would a Ryder Cup golfer have in common with a man who spends part of his life piloting fighter jets? A lot, actually. When Rooney climbs into the cockpit of  a single-seat, single-engine F-16, he said there is not a more individualistic endeavor in the world. But in truth, every time he flies, he is a significant cog in a powerful team, with many others on the ground and in the air depending on him.

“You become one,” he says of his inherent mission. “When I’m up there in the black skies of Iraq delivering weapons to kids, they’re trusting their lives to me. A lot of accountability exists there.”

Pavin first broached the idea of having Rooney speak when the two spoke at last month’s PGA Championship. As captain of a team, Pavin wants his players to be accountable to one another, “to have each other’s backs.”

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Dan Rooney

“I just asked him to stress some points that I’ve been stressing,” Pavin said, “and just relate it in a different manner. It was a very fun evening, actually. It was quite good.”

In his Folds of Honor Foundation, which has provided more than 1,100 scholarships to the children of soldiers killed or wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, Rooney often refers to his supporters as his “wingmen.” It was in that spirit on Tuesday night that Rooney personally gave each player, or wingman, as well as Pavin and assistants, a sturdy leather flight jacket, featuring an American flag and the Ryder Cup logo. Each man’s name was stitched into the leather.

The symbol of the bomber flight jacket? It wasn’t that this is war. The jackets symbolize that in an ever-changing world, some things actually can stand the test of time. The jackets pilots wear today are no different than the type of jacket Chuck Yeager donned when he first broke the sound barrier in 1947. Same construction, same letters, same stitching. Ryder Cup assistant captain Tom Lehman told Rooney he’s been to a lot of Ryder Cups and received lots of very nice gifts, but none as meaningful.

Rooney told the story that inspired The Folds of Honor, seeing the family of Cpl. Brock Bucklin on a tarmac in Michigan watching the fallen soldier’s remains come home on a United flight one last time. As he has done before, he shared a letter sent by a special-ops commander to the widow of fighter pilot Troy Gilbert, who sacrificed his life to save others. He told the players that when he watched them win the Ryder Cup from Iraq two years ago, they were doing something “much bigger than just playing golf. For those folks fighting for our freedoms, it means a lot.”

The man who has opened a course in Oklahoma called “The Patriot” spoke about patriotism (imagine that) and of the great American spirit. Not about war.

Phil Mickelson called the evening “fascinating.” Count former captain Azinger, who is in Wales this week, among those shaking his head that some blood-thirsty British tabs managed to turn this story into something that it isn’t.

“Dan Rooney is about patriotism, not war,” he said. “It’s a complete opposite of what the tabloids are spinning it into.”

In Great Britain, these things can happen on a slow news day.

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