Ryder CupJuly 13, 2010

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.

"I want the players to feel comfortable, like they're back in the U.S.," she says. "We have a chef coming in to prepare the meals, and I've checked the food in Wales to make sure we can make it as much like what the players get at home as possible. For example, there are different ways to make lasagna, and we want it to be U.S. lasagna."

The U.S. team will be assigned an entire floor at Celtic Manor, a posh resort. "The caddies will be on the floor with us, along with their girlfriends or wives," Lisa says. "PGA officials will be on the floor, too. The idea is to make us all part of the team, to have us close together."

"Lisa is taking care of so much of the behind-the-scenes stuff, it's freed me up to play and do many of the things the PGA of America has asked me to do," Pavin says. "I'm very thankful she's there, because in the end the Ryder Cup is a competition, not an event. The gifts, the entertainment, the accommodations and the camaraderie are nice, but it's not a deal where you go to play and have fun. It's a serious competition, and it's a lot more fun when you win."

To field a winning team, Pavin has formulated strategies and contemplated factors that don't bring to mind any successful captain of the past. There was criticism during late spring that he hadn't consulted enough with Azinger, and there even was the suggestion of a rift between the two, but Lisa Pavin says that the former teammates not only have talked but that Corey has read Azinger's book, Cracking the Code, which details his strategy at Valhalla. "This stuff really gets blown out of proportion," Lisa says. "Not many people know it, but the Azingers are godparents to Corey's second-eldest son, Austin. Corey needs time to speak with people within his time frame. He's very busy."
Another early juicy episode was Pavin's remark in May that Tiger Woods was not a lock to be a captain's pick if he didn't make the team on points, which prompted Jack Nicklaus to say of Pavin, "He'd need a brain scan if he left Tiger out of the team." Pavin backed off the remark publicly in June, and even in April had praised Woods despite his so-so Ryder Cup record.

What became evident during these mini-dramas is that Pavin is an independent thinker on a number of subjects: what type of players to select, whether to favor youth over experience, how to prepare first-timers for the shock of Ryder Cup pressure, what constitutes ideal pairings, and contingencies if a player loses his game or is injured. (Steve Pate, with whom Pavin was going to partner all week at Kiawah in 1991, was injured in a car crash two nights before the first day of competition.) Pavin wants to exert his style of leadership skills and intuition. "Corey has insights into people not everybody has," says Ben Crenshaw, who captained the winning U.S. team at Brookline in 1999 and was Pavin's teammate in '95. "He's a student about many things, including people and human nature. He's a very perceptive person. He takes a lot of mental notes, and he doesn't forget them."

Corey Pavin

a greenside chip for a dramatic

four-ball victory in 1995.

Photo by Stephen Szurlej

Certain types of players would do well to imagine what types of mental notes Pavin is making. "I'll avoid the careful player, the player who protects his position in tournaments," he says. "There are players like that, players who aren't willing to win at all cost. I'm not saying the players have to be aggressive; I'm saying they have to be unafraid to do things that might lose a tournament or, if they're high up the leader board, take a risk that could mean a lower finish."

Young players such as Anthony Kim, whom Pavin is on record as admiring but who is recovering from thumb surgery, are being monitored closely. Other players surely catch his eye, especially Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Ricky Barnes and Nick Watney. Although they all are on the short list of first-timers, Pavin views age alone as meaningless. "It can run contrary to what you might expect," he says. "Players can be young and able to handle the pressure, and old and not be able to handle it. I don't think in terms of age, I think in terms of character. It's a rare trait, but many American players have shown a knack for it. Lanny Wadkins, Curtis Strange, Payne Stewart, Paul Azinger, Ray Floyd, Phil Mickelson, Tom Kite, Tom Lehman--most of whom wound up captaining, by the way--have that trait. I'm looking for guys who embrace the pressure."

Pressure is much of what the Ryder Cup is about, and Pavin recalls being so nervous hitting the opening tee shot at the 1993 Ryder Cup at The Belfry that his hand was literally shaking. "I had an awfully hard time teeing my ball," he says. "But I piped it down the middle, and Lanny and I won our match, 4 and 3."

How does he plan to prepare players for the shock of playing in Wales, with a partisan crowd screaming for the other side?

"You can express it to some extent, but not fully," he says. "You always try to explain the hostile environment of playing in Europe and give players ways to prepare, but at that point it's up to them. Some adapt very quickly, other's don't. It's very interesting seeing how some of our guys just walk through the door and handle it.

"For sure the nervousness is increased tenfold beyond what they would feel at, say, the U.S. Open. I liked that, because when you see how you react under the most adverse conditions, it sets the bar for what you are as a player." Pavin is essentially warning rookie players that they will be walking into a dark room, and to expect the unexpected. But in Pavin they have a captain who knows more than just the lash. In all his Ryder Cup appearances as a player, and as an assistant under Lehman in 2006, Pavin hardly had an end-of-the-world attitude.

"Corey surprised me in 2006," says Stewart Cink, who has a shot at making his fifth Ryder Cup team. "He was a lot of things that week: likable and goofy at times, serious and businesslike at others."

Strange recalls a crushing loss at Oak Hill in '95. "I lost a close match [1 up] to Nick Faldo and didn't play well at the end," Strange says. "The disappointment was terrible, and I went to the locker room to cool down. I was sitting there, bent over, staring at my shoes, when I felt a body plop down next to me. It was Corey. He didn't say anything, but it was clear he was there for me, absorbing some of what I felt. We sat there in silence for several minutes, and suddenly I started to feel a little better. I said, 'OK, let's go support the team.' And off we went. I always appreciated him for that."

Pavin acknowledges his empathetic side, but adds, "I'm not going to do things as captain to pacify the media or even my team. I'm not unwilling to rock the boat in the team room, or outside the team room. I'm not going to say things just to say things. If there's something I feel needs to be said or done, I'll do it. I don't care how people judge me. My job is to make Team USA play better, to field the best team I can that week. That's it."

The environment and activities in the team room have been focal points of interest to the media the last several Ryder Cups, with past U.S. presidents, athletes, celebrities and all manner of surprise guests showing up. Pavin comes off as skeptical. "The idea of having people show up is interesting, and I'm thinking about it, but I'm not sure how productive it is," he says. There is speculation as to how boisterous the crowds at Celtic Manor will be, an unknown quantity because it's the first time Wales has hosted a Ryder Cup. Pavin regards it as a nonfactor. "It's definitely harder to win when you're away, but it's also more fun and satisfying," he says. "I always enjoyed quieting the crowd with a good shot or big putt. But I think the crowds will be great. At the K Club in Ireland in 2006, they were terrific. They clearly didn't want us to win, but they did appreciate good shots by our side. They weren't disrespectful in any way."

When Pavin mentions "quieting the crowd," he's also alluding to his love for give-and-take with opponents. "I have no issue with responding to something an opponent does," he says. "I like that type of thing; it's how I like to compete." He points to 1995 and Lehman's memorable singles victory against Seve Ballesteros. The fact that Seve, whose long game was in tatters, would try bits of gamesmanship was not lost on Lehman, who came to Pavin for advice. "I told Tom, 'Just play your game and don't pay any attention to anything Seve does on the golf course,' " Pavin says. "Now, I wouldn't give the same advice to everybody. If it were Lanny--or a confrontational personality I might have on my team--I'd tell them to give it right back at the guy. You tailor the advice to the personality."

Eight members of Pavin's team will be determined by the points list on Aug. 15, and his captain's picks are due Sept. 7. Already Pavin is playing mix-and-match; throughout the summer Lisa Pavin was discovering random pairings lists scattered about their Dallas home, the finds invariably coinciding with Corey being on the telephone, checking on players and seeking thoughts from players, assistant captains and Champions Tour pals.

What could those pairings look like? Pavin praises Azinger's captaining in '08, and even hints at a narrower derivation of the four-man "pods" Azinger used with such success. "As a general rule, a given player will be well-suited to teaming with two or three other players, in both four-balls and foursomes," Pavin says. "One thing I like about that is the way it handles contingencies. Understand, if Plan A doesn't work out--say a player comes to me on Friday morning and says he isn't playing well, and to sit him down--you need a Plan B. But what if something also happens to his partner? Now you need a Plan C. Without going into detail, I've actually considered a scenario where you need Plan D. The thing with keeping groups of guys together is, it takes care of Plans A through D. You work within that group."

A key component of Azinger's pod system was matching similar personality types. Pavin mentions a less-structured, more human approach. "Let's take Lanny again," he says. "The 1995 Ryder Cup was my third, so I knew my way around. Lanny was the captain and a real take-charge guy. I like to be in charge as well, but I was flexible enough to understand that by giving in to Lanny, it helped him, and the team."

Pavin is confident that Azinger's success was not an anomaly, a mere disruption in a trend that shows Europe taking five of the last seven Ryder Cups. He points, surprisingly, to the FedEx Cup. "It used to be that after the PGA Championship, there was a five- to six-week period leading up to the Ryder Cup where guys weren't especially motivated to play," he says. "The FedEx Cup has given guys an incentive for their games to peak late in the year."

Then there's the ebb and flow of types of golfers who populate the tour. "For maybe 10 years leading up to Valhalla, the U.S. was very much like the Europeans were back in the years we were winning all the time," Pavin says. "We were very top-heavy, but not nearly as accomplished in the middle as we once were. What happened at Valhalla was, we had Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker and Boo Weekley, all of whom were rookies but who had won golf tournaments. Extremely competitive people. I don't mean to knock the players we had before them, but we hadn't had players like that in a while. We're in a new cycle."

As driven as Pavin has been, there also is the realization that the whole of the Ryder Cup is greater than its nationalistic parts. Dave Stockton loves to tell of Ian Woosnam picking Pavin up and carrying him onto a team bus at the conclusion of the '91 Ryder Cup, both teams riding together. Pavin is good friends with Mark James, who ranted endlessly about poor U.S. sportsmanship after the Americans ran onto the green after Justin Leonard's big putt against Jose Maria Olazabal at Brookline in 1999. Pavin also is an admirer of his European captaining counterpart, Colin Montgomerie, and says, "If I could have 12 of one guy, I wouldn't mind having 12 Monties. His Ryder Cup record is unbelievable [20-9-7], and he was equally good at the team and singles formats. He embodies what the Ryder Cup is about."

Tony Jacklin might sum it up best. One of the great Ryder Cup captains--the man who made Europe competitive in the 1980s after decades of the team getting hammered--says it's all about perspective.

"Not many people remember that before Corey joined the PGA Tour, he played a year in Europe," Jacklin says. "It instilled in him a sense of the big picture. He made friends there, and at the Ryder Cup at Kiawah he visited our quarters, which at the time was a shocking thing for a player from the opposing team to do. That spoke volumes about him; it showed he doesn't see just one side to the Ryder Cup. The fact there is more than one side is what it's about in the end, isn't it?" Jacklin pauses.

"I'm rooting for Team Europe, of course. But I have to say, if the American team adopts Corey's spirit, then watch out, Europe."