Standing close to the big oak tree and watching The Masters get underway is something special. So, too, is being at an Open Championship venue as the opening blow is struck in the game’s oldest major. There’s nothing that comes close to the first tee in a Ryder Cup, though, for making those hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Just ask Sam Torrance. As a player, captain and vice-captain, he’s now been involved in the biennial event a dozen times and it still gets his juices flowing like nothing else the Largs man has experienced in nearly 50 years in the game.
“Is it addictive? Totally. Absolutely,” he said, his eyes visibly lighting up during a chin wag with the handful of Scottish scribes covering the 41st staging at the back of the practice area at Hazeltine. “This is my 12th involvement and it’s in your blood. It’s the best, no question. I never won a major, I never had that privilege, and I didn’t think it compares. You ask players who have won majors and they say, no, this is the business.”
Torrance made his debut at Walton Heath in 1981. “I remember putting the bicycle clips on before going to the first tee,” he said of being in a team that also included Bernard Gallacher and Sandy Lyle. “I remember a lot of it, just about everything, not all the shots but I can remember most of them. It didn’t seem smaller then. It felt just as big then as it does now. There’s much more ground and it’s physically bigger but the matches are the same and the pressures are the same.”
He certainly coped with that pressure at The Belfry in 1995, becoming forever linked with the event as he created one of its iconic images, the one of him standing on the 18th green with his arms raised bolt upright after holing the winning putt. He was also part of the first GB&I/European team to win on US soil at Muirfield Village two years later, played on two more successful sides after that before leaving a lasting impression on the players he captained to victory back at The Belfry in 2002.
“That means a lot,” he admitted on being reminded that Colin Montgomerie has often spoken about his fellow Scot being the best captain he played under in his eight appearances. “Darren [Clarke] said that, too and, that’s fantastic. The fact that I’m back here again [as one of Clarke’s five vice-captains after filling the same role for Paul McGinley at Gleneagles two years ago] is brilliant. I must have been good (laughing). I’m a good people person, maybe that’s it. I actually thought I’d already been involved for the last time. It wasn’t a complete surprise when Paul asked because he always said he would, Darren was the same. They’ve both been fantastic for me.”
Torrance’s captaincy was “challenging” due to a couple of reasons. It was the first match after Brookline, where the United States players charged onto the 17th green after Justin Leonard had holed a putt despite Jose Maria Olazabal still having a putt for a half. It was also delayed by a year due to the 9/11 tragedy.
“We used that year off really well,” recalled Torrance of how he used visits to the Sutton Coldfield venue to prepare the likes of McGinley and his fellow rookies, Swedish duo Pierre Fulke and Niclas Fasth and Welshman Philip Price. “We had dinners, bonded more. We used that year well because we had to.”
With the scores tied at 8-8 heading into the final day that year, Torrance and his counterpart, Curtis Strange, adopted different strategies for the singles. The Scot top-loaded his line-up, sending out Montgomerie first, followed by Sergio Garcia, Clarke, Bernhard Langer and Padraig Harrington. In contrast, Strange placed Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods as his two anchor men.
“Totally dictated by the score,” said Torrance of his thinking then. “It was suggested to me couple of years before prior to my captaincy that you can do no worse with the best out first and the worst out last. I couldn’t describe the No 12 as your worst, you simply can’t do that, so I don’t know how I got that over.
“To be honest, there wasn’t a scenario where I didn’t see that as being correct; if you’re behind you want to catch up if you’re ahead get further ahead. And I wanted the strength at the top because for me anyone can fold in a Ryder Cup and anyone can stand tall. None of my four rookies lost. They were out 7 to 11 or 8 to 12 and none of them lost. That to me was very special, it showed what rookies could do. They’re only rookies by name, they’re not really rookies.”
As this event heads into the final day, rival captains Clarke and Love will be hoping to get a good night’s kip. Did Torrance manage that 14 years ago with the contest so tight? “I slept like a baby, I wet the bed every night,” he said, chuckling. “I was more relaxed when I was captain than any golf tournament I’d ever played in. I’d be more nervous playing in the Scottish Championship. The fact that I didn’t have to play had a lot to do with it, pressure was off and it was wonderful to be part of these magnificent 12 players. I didn’t feel pressure.”
It’s been a rare occurrence over the past 30-odd years, but Torrance admits that sitting with his feet up at home and watching the 1997 event in Spain in front of the TV had been a nice change. “Not being involved was the bollocks. It was brilliant,” he said. “First time that I wasn’t involved for 20 years was Valderrama and I just sat on the couch and never moved. Had a couple of showers, couple of toilet visits and I was there for three days, never moved. I’d never watched the Ryder Cup, never in all that time since I was a kid. Sixteen years with not watching a shot, and all of a sudden it was like a feast. It was magnificent.”