Davis Love III remembers standing on the 17th tee at The Belfry on Sunday of the 1993 Ryder Cup matches in England.
He was 1-down to Europe’s Costantino Rocca with two holes remaining and the Ryder Cup hung in the balance. It was Love’s first appearance in the matches and he had been hit by all that comes with it, the nerves, the pressure and the deep sense of camaraderie typically foreign to the solitary game of golf.
Love’s captain, Tom Watson, walked over and delivered a simple message.
“I remember (Watson saying) ‘All right, it all comes down to your match.’ I really didn’t need to hear that,” Love said. “It was one of the stunning moments of my career.”
For 16 holes, Love had watched Rocca hole long putts and chip in against him, one mini-drama after another unfolding through their match. It couldn’t continue, Love thought. Rocca will do something to lose one hole and I’ll win the other, Love told Watson.
Love made two pars, won the match 1-up and the Americans retained the Ryder Cup.
Since then, the United States has won the Ryder Cup just twice and now it is Love’s turn to captain the team at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club, where the matches will begin Friday.
For a man born to a club pro in Charlotte 48 years ago, this is golf’s version of knighthood. He’s won 20 PGA Tour events, including one PGA Championship and two Players Championships, but this is different.
The trophies represent achievements. Being captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team is a major honor.
Love, an All-America golfer at North Carolina in the mid-’80s, has spent years preparing for this week. He played on six Ryder Cup teams, was assistant captain to Corey Pavin in 2010 and played on six Presidents Cup teams.
Early on, Love asked his wife, Robin, to save mementos of each Ryder Cup team experience to help him if he ever got this chance.
Love has seen Watson’s intensity, Tom Kite’s competitiveness and Paul Azinger’s version of social engineering by breaking his 12-player team into four-man pods. He remembers playing for Ken Venturi and Arnold Palmer and feeling the sting of letting down teammates on the course.
He has followed no model for his captaincy, taking what he liked best from others and mixing it with his own style.
“He brings a lot of experience,” Phil Mickelson said. “He’s been with so many captains, he knows what he likes and what he doesn’t and he’ll apply that to his own captaincy.”
Azinger has counseled Love to know the men on his team more than the players they are.
“I told Davis the one thing that really helps is to know the personality types and how to communicate with them,” Azinger said. “You don’t have to hold anybody’s hand, but occasionally a guy needs to be encouraged or challenged.”
When Love talks about his Ryder Cup memories, they go more to people than results. He talks about playing pranks in the hotel hallway with Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson two years ago in Wales.
He remembers seeing Payne Stewart play the piano in his pajamas at an after-party in 1999. He recalls sharing a cigar with Europe’s Darren Clarke after their singles match in Ireland in 2006.
As much as Love would like to captain a victory this weekend, he wants to make the experience as special for the players on his team as his captains did for him.
When play begins, he can only watch. He’ll be on his cart, motoring between matches, talking with his assistant captains, moving from place to place, encouraging, cheering, whatever is needed.
He’s been there. He knows playing in the Ryder Cup is a feeling like nothing else in golf.
“It’s the last nine holes of a major championship when you have the lead,” Love said. “It’s that kind of nerves and the fear of losing. It starts on Friday with the first match. It doesn’t wait until Sunday afternoon to start.
“You know it’s going to come down to a point or a half-point, maybe your point on a Friday morning. There’s so much passion to win on every hole. It’s the intensity of having to par the last hole to win the Masters or the U.S. Open and it’s like that on the first hole Friday morning.”
Love felt it 19 years ago when Watson asked him to go win the Ryder Cup for the United States. Now it’s his turn to do the asking.