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Returning with a new attitude

Mark Calcavecchia plays Friday in his first Ryder Cup since 1991, where he hyperventilated after a key match.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 24, 2002


The pressure is immense, sometimes intolerable. These are the best players in golf, players who have prospered in the heat of major championships and other big tournaments. But the Ryder Cup has a way of making stars wilt.

Mark Calcavecchia is an excellent example.

When the Ryder Cup begins Friday at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England, it will be his first appearance in these matches between the United States and Europe since 1991 at Kiawah Island, S.C., where he was left sobbing on the beach.

And to think, his U.S. team won. What would have happened had the Americans lost?

"I just freaked out for no reason," Calcavecchia said. "I just took it way too personal. I felt like the weight of the world was on me when, in fact, it's just a game. One guy does not win or lose a Ryder Cup, but I just felt my finish had cost us the Ryder Cup, and that's when I had a hard time."

Calcavecchia, 42, is a former University of Florida golfer who has played the PGA Tour since 1982. He has 11 victories, including the 1989 British Open, where he hit a clutch 5-iron shot on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff, then defeated Greg Norman and Wayne Grady to capture the Claret Jug.

At the time of the '91 matches, Calcavecchia was in his prime. Though he may not have been playing his best that week, he did finish with a 2-1-1 record, which is often forgotten.

He is remembered, instead, for the final day, one filled with anxiety.

Four years earlier, the United States had lost for the first time on home soil. Calcavecchia was part of that team at Muirfield Village in Ohio. In 1989, he was on the team at The Belfry that tied Europe. But because the Europeans had won the previous Cup, they retained it. The 1991 matches were hyped for nearly two years.

"I just knew it was going to come down to the wire," Calcavecchia said.

It was during the Sunday singles when Calcavecchia suffered his inglorious fate. Leading Scotland's Colin Montgomerie 4-up with four holes to play, Calcavecchia needed a tie on any of the remaining holes to end the match.

And he couldn't do it. Montgomerie won each hole, stealing a half-point that appeared monumental. Making matters worse was the way Calcavecchia blew it.

Montgomerie all but gave him the match when his tee shot at the 200-yard, par-3 17th found the water. Calcavecchia, playing second, simply had to find dry land and he would surely tie the hole -- if not win it -- to end the match.

But Calcavecchia dumped his ball in the water too, hitting a miserable, low 2-iron shot that barely made it halfway to the green. NBC commentator Johnny Miller called it the worst pressure shot he had ever seen.

"The reason I did that is I didn't think it was enough club and I just got so far out ahead of it, I smothered it," Calcavecchia said. "I was trying to hit it low, hard and left. ... We both dropped. Hit it on the green. His missed. I putted up about 2 feet. Had that for the win. Yanked that."

So after making a triple-bogey 6 when a 5 would have ended the match, Calcavecchia went to the 18th hole. There he also had trouble, hitting a good-looking second shot that trickled over the green and left him a tough chip. He did not get up and down. Montgomerie won the hole with a par, earning a half-point for Europe that Calcavecchia believed would cost the United States the Cup.

Calcavecchia went off with his wife, Sheryl, to a nearby sand dune and began to hyperventilate. Paramedics were called. He eventually settled down before returning to watch the final drama. It wasn't until Germany's Bernhard Langer missed a 6-foot par putt on the 18th hole in a match against Hale Irwin that it was over and the Americans had won 141/2-131/2.

Payne Stewart hugged Calcavecchia, exclaiming that Calcavecchia's half-point was the difference. It hardly made Calcavecchia feel better.

"It was tragic what happened to him," said Dave Stockton, the U.S. team captain in 1991. "But he's the reason we won. What people don't remember on Sunday is our first two singles players, Raymond Floyd and Payne Stewart, were getting killed in their matches. Then comes Calc, who was 5-up over a great player like Colin Montgomerie after nine holes. To a man, we were all commenting, "Look at Calc, this is awesome.' He gave us hope when we didn't have much."

While on the beach, Sheryl prayed that Mark would never play in another Ryder Cup. But he is back, more than a decade later. Only Hal Sutton and Irwin have gone as long between Ryder Cup appearances. Sheryl won't be part of the scene this time; the two are getting a divorce.

Calcavecchia insists he is glad to return -- and a changed man.

"No matter what, I will enjoy myself," he said. "I'm not the smartest guy on the planet, but I do pay attention to the way things go sometimes. Events are up-and-down enough in my life to realize I've got to start learning from them. What I learned from the last Ryder Cup is I was just way too overhyped. It was crazy. That doesn't mean I'm not going to get upset if things don't go well at the Ryder Cup, but I will enjoy myself. I won't fall for that again no matter what happens."

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