Blood Of The Stone
Corey Pavin has devoted a good part of his morning at a Champions Tour event fielding questions about his Ryder Cup captaincy, and after 90 minutes the questions are becoming perfunctory. Pavin suggests it's a good time for him to head to the range and practice. He points out that the Ryder Cup, after all, is still months away. He drums his hands on the table, scoots his chair backward and agrees to take one last question. He's asked what he recalls, if anything, about his first international competition, the 1981 Walker Cup at Cypress Point. Pavin, a year away from turning pro, was part of that winning U.S. team. The drumming stops abruptly. He scoots his chair back to the table.
"Have you been to Cypress Point?" he asks. "The opening ceremonies were to the right of the first tee, and as we waited for things to begin, we heard bagpipes off in the distance. They grew louder, and then the bagpipers suddenly appeared out of the mist. That moment was one of the coolest, most powerful, wonderful feelings I've ever had. I couldn't take my eyes off our flag, and the emotion was almost too much. I didn't cry, but I got goose bumps. I get them again now, just thinking about it."
There have to be moments in international competition more electric than that for Pavin, who as a three-time Ryder Cup player from 1991-'95 provided several of the more indelible moments in its history. But if you're looking for a parable that encapsulates his approach to captaining, it's all in that passionate aside on the Walker Cup and the goose bumps he's absently trying to brush off his arms. The Ryder Cup arouses in Pavin the elements that have always motivated him most: patriotism, competition, golf and teamwork--the joint pursuit of a common purpose. This is the fellow who wore a camouflage hat during the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, the man who chased his ball to the hole after a brilliant bunker shot that won his singles match against Steven Richardson that year, the player who chipped in for a match-winning birdie on the 18th hole at Oak Hill in a key Saturday four-ball match in 1995 but remained stone-faced when it dropped.
"The thing about American players the last several Ryder Cups is, they have it in their heads they want to win," says Paul Azinger, who captained the victorious Americans in 2008. "The Europeans, it's in their blood. With Corey, it's in his blood, too, and the question is, can he make it part of his team's blood?"
Pavin, 50, once was known as "the Bulldog." There still is some bulldog in him, especially on the golf course. But off it he is friendlier, more relaxed and far more approachable than the fiery but often distant person we saw until seven years ago. In 2003, Pavin remarried and embarked on a personal transformation of sorts, trying harder to embrace friends and family and improve his relationships. He's more at ease socially now and lubricates conversations with a disarming, self-effacing wit only a person comfortable in his skin can pull off. His surprising decision to choose four assistant captains--Paul Goydos, Tom Lehman, Jeff Sluman and Davis Love III--was based largely on his strong friendships with those men. The roles of his assistants were small heading into summer, but Pavin says they'll become increasingly important when the team arrives in Wales. To this point, Pavin has visited Wales and Celtic Manor twice, in June 2009 and again in October.
Pavin's game is still good, and he can play brilliantly if the course is on the short side and accommodating. In late June, he shot-shaped, bounced and gutted his way into a three-way playoff at the Travelers Championship, which, had he not lost to Bubba Watson, would have made him the sixth-oldest player ever to win on the PGA Tour. His shotmaking there refreshed memories of the game that won the 1995 U.S. Open and 15 PGA Tour events. Always an overachiever who got more out of his light-hitting game than he probably should have, Pavin is intent on playing a full schedule of 23 tournaments between the two tours, but it increasingly seems like a ruse as he ambles in his slightly splayfooted way about practice ranges and putting greens, surreptitiously scouting players and consulting with veteran Ryder Cuppers and potential captain's picks, of which Pavin has four for his team of 12.
There's always a close connection between that playing ability and its influence on a captain's leadership, and in Pavin's case it's not so much how much he won but how he played. "I've always felt you want in a captain a guy you'd envision playing for you if he were at his best," says Curtis Strange, a teammate of Pavin's in 1995. "That's where the respect comes from. There aren't many players you'd want playing a clutch shot or hitting a key putt more for you than Corey Pavin in his prime. That's why they'll respect him."
Bernhard Langer, who with Nick Faldo was on the receiving end of that 18th-hole chip-in at Oak Hill and who suffered three defeats to Pavin at that Ryder Cup, agrees with Strange. "As a player, Corey had a good Ryder Cup record [8-5 overall], but I always saw his record as irrelevant because of everything else he brought to his team. His tenacity is something else." Much of the captaincy in the modern age is nuts-and-bolts stuff, a harried logistical mélange of travel, interviews, practice, competition, spouses, speeches, uniforms, ceremonies, dinners, galas and celebrity visits. Pavin is not dismissive of these elements, which some view as a distraction but he sees as part of the deal. A large part of the ancillary duties he has delegated to his wife, Lisa. A quick-minded extrovert who relishes e-mail and her cell phone, Lisa was on a first-name basis with PGA of America officers and their Ryder Cup personnel years before her husband was selected to lead Team USA. Her to-do list, much of it already done, includes raingear, umbrellas, sitting sticks, food menus for the team room, and invitations to family, friends and boosters from UCLA, Corey's alma mater. But she has taken her responsibilities to another level as the Cup draws near. Corey refers to her as The Captainess.