This will be the sixth Ryder Cup in which former Gophers star Tom Lehman has participated when play gets underway Friday at Hazeltine National Golf Course, and the former Ryder Cup captain talked about some of his experiences playing in the tournament and working as a captain or assistant captain.
Lehman competed three times as a player, with the Americans losing 14 ½-13 ½ to the Europeans at Oak Hill (near Rochester, N.Y.) in 1995 and by the same score at Valderrama in Sotogrande, Spain, in 1997. The U.S. won 14 ½-13 ½ at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1999.
“It is no fun to lose,” Lehman said. “It’s a great experience, I loved it, played some good golf, but it was no fun losing. It was way more fun winning. Way more fun winning. It’s very difficult to watch the Europeans celebrate, especially on U.S. soil, at the end of a Ryder Cup. I just don’t want to see that happen again this year.”
Lehman also served as a non-playing captain at The K Club near Dublin, Ireland, in 2006, and an assistant captain at Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, in 2010 and this week at Hazeltine.
Lehman was asked if there’s any reason he can pinpoint for the Europeans’ success in recent tournaments, winning six of the past seven Ryder Cups.
“That’s a great question,” he said. “If you can figure out why, maybe we’ll win this time. It seems to me they play with less pressure on themselves and they make a lot more putts. I think we definitely have over the years put more pressure on ourselves than we needed to. We play with a little more anxiety than we need to. And if we can relax and just play golf, we’ll probably be a lot better off for it.”
Lehman talked about what he expects from Hazeltine and how the course will affect golfers on both sides.
“Hazeltine has always been very difficult,” he said. “Every time there has been a major championship out there, it has really tested the field. It’s a very daunting challenge, difficult shots, awkward shots, some real length in the par-5s and par-3s, so it’s really kind of become one of the more difficult golf courses that you will play. Of course, the best players over the week will definitely rise to the top, and I think if the U.S. team has the better players, which I think we do, I think we will rise to the top.”
How does he think the weather and course preparation will affect play?
“I think it’s going to be set up in such a way to promote birdies,” Lehman said. “I think the fans want to see birdies, I think the players would prefer to play a course where you can make birdies. There isn’t a lot of rough, though there is some length, and it’s playing quite wet right now, so it is playing a bit long.
“But the forecast is quite nice, and I think the course will dry out. I think because of the lack of rough, you’re going to see more birdies than less, but it’s not an easy golf course. It’s a championship golf course, a major venue. If the wind blows at all, it could play very, very difficult.”
A different event
For Lehman, there is no bigger event in golf than the Ryder Cup. He said the raucous atmosphere created by fans is something not seen at many other tournaments.
“If you’ve ever been to a [professional] soccer match, then you’ve been to a Ryder Cup,” Lehman said. “If you watch it on television, watching an AC Milan play Manchester United or something like that, you get a feel for the partisanship and the home team advantage you have due to the amazing fans and the pride they exhibit. It’s like a football game or soccer match on a golf course, very much the kind of thing where every swing of the club makes somebody happy.
“You’ll get a cheer for hitting it within 2 feet with a 5-iron, and you’ll get a cheer if you miss a 3-foot putt. It’s very partisan, very nationalistic, very much a pressure-packed situation. Every hole from the first to the last, from Friday morning to Sunday evening, is like playing the back nine of a major championship. It’s a very unique atmosphere.”
Lehman also thinks this 12-man U.S. squad, which is composed of Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed, Jimmy Walker, Brooks Koepka, Brandt Snedeker, Zach Johnson, J.B. Holmes, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar and Ryan Moore, will handle the atmosphere better than some recent squads.
“I just think we have a different mentality going in,” Lehman said. “I see a way more relaxed team. Everybody is talking about, ‘Hey, because they lost so much [and] because of the task force, there’s too much pressure on the U.S. team,’ but what I see is a relaxed team and [eager] to go play.
“I see a team that is very motivated to win, very single-minded in their focus on winning. I haven’t seen that kind of collective group mentality on a Ryder Cup team ever. This is a whole different attitude amongst the team going into the Ryder Cup, and it’s extremely positive.”
Lehman was asked how the event has changed from its humble beginnings to what it is today.
“Oh my, I mean think of the beginning like a friendly golf match between two golf clubs or two golf organizations, probably with a barbecue afterwards,” he said. “And now it’s a multi-, multi-, multi-million-dollar-type deal with the biggest audience around the world of any golf tournament, probably the most pressure, the most significant event of the year. It’s like the Super Bowl for golf, a huge deal.”
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