U.S. team practices Thursday

U.S. team practices Thursday (September 27, 2012)

Hot-tea concessions and an on-site betting parlor. Waterproof fans and riveting competition. A bagpipe’s hymn and a bishop’s prayer.

Ten years ago this month, courtesy of my gracious editors, I chronicled one of sport’s grandest events: the Ryder Cup.

No matter you knowledge of, or affinity for, golf, this is three days of must-see TV. The burdens of playing for team and homeland, rare in this ancient game, can turn major champions into weekend hackers and obscure names into national heroes.

So as the United States and Europe prepare to tee off Friday morning at Medinah Country Club in the 39th Ryder Cup matches, some memories from 2002 at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England.

* The centerpiece of our coverage was U.S. captain Curtis Strange, a Hampton Roads native and then a Williamsburg resident. On the day Strange was appointed captain in 1999, reigning U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart and five others were killed in a plane crash.

Seventeen days before the biennial matches were scheduled to begin, the 9-11 terrorists struck. Less than a week later, the 2001 Ryder Cup was postponed until 2002.

“Everything will remain the same,” Strange said then. “The teams, the site, the captains. This will always be the 2001 Ryder Cup team. Our hats, our gear will still say '2001.' And we will never forget why we're playing in 2002.”

* Strange gave me unrivaled access during his captaincy. I flew with him via private jet from Atlanta to Newport News after he chose Paul Azinger and Scott Verplank to complete the 12-man U.S. squad. We sat in the study of his Kingsmill home as he revealed pairings on a chalkboard. He escorted me into the U.S.’s team room at The Belfry, complete with ping-pong and billiard tables, a Harley poster and a photograph of Stewart.

* Scotland’s Sam Torrance, an eight-time Ryder Cup competitor, captained the European side. He and Strange are friends, and back in the day, they had hoisted a pint or two.

But Torrance was on the wagon for the Ryder Cup.

“I lost three stone, which would be 40-odd pounds,” he told me via cell from Ireland. “I lost that in a year-and-a-half, totally in preparation for the Ryder Cup, because when you're the captain you want to look good. I didn't want to be this fat slob walking about, sweating everywhere.”

* Given the Strange-Torrance friendship, and the lingering somberness from 9-11, this Ryder Cup had a distinctly different vibe than 1999’s Battle of Brookline.

“ I think we all understand that the Ryder Cup might have been going a little too far, over the edge,” Tiger Woods said. “It's not a blood bath. We are out there competing and having fun. What happened in '99, I think the fans went over the top, the players went over the top, and the media went over the top ... and we all learned from that.

“It's not going to be the same. It's not going to be over the top. We all understand it's not life and death. It's terrible to say, but 9-11 reminded us all of that, and it's sad to say that it takes something like that to remind us that it is just a sport.”

Reminder aside, Strange and Torrance wanted their players on edge.

“Emotion is why everybody likes to watch this event so much,” said Strange, a two-time U.S. Open champion and now ESPN analyst. “We play as robots every day of our lives out here. We think we play better, and we do, when we hold our emotions inside. In the Ryder Cup, it's OK to let your emotions run freely. I think it can be detrimental to you, but it's still the way you play the game in the Ryder Cup. Because of that, the fans like it, the TV audience likes it, everyone in this room enjoys it because of that.”

At Thursday’s opening ceremony, a Nottinghamshire Police bagpiper played Amazing Grace, and the Bishop of Warwick prayed for those touched by 9-11.

* The 2002 Ryder Cup was the first for American Mark Calcavecchia since 1991 at Kiawah Island, where in singles he was 4-up on Colin Montgomerie with four holes to play. Calcavecchia finished triple-bogey, bogey, triple-bogey, bogey to gift-wrap a halve for Europe.

After his collapse, rather than watch other matches on the course, Calcavecchia vanished to the beach, where he sat in the sand and hyperventilated.

“I just took it too personal,” Calcavecchia said. “I just felt like the weight of everything was on me.”