Curt Sampson’s new book, “The War By The Shore,” takes you behind the scenes of the 1991 Ryder Cup contested at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island. As with Curt’s other golf books — including “Hogan” and “The Masters” — “The War By The Shore” is rich with obscure details such as: 1.) Ryder Cuppers Payne Stewart and Mark O’Meara were intimidated by teammate Hale Irwin and didn’t want to be paired with him. 2.) A local Charleston radio station acquired the phone numbers of the European players and called them early in the morning as part of a bit called “Wake Up The Enemy.” 3.) The 2-way radios that European captain Bernard Gallacher had received for communicating with his team had open channels that allowed anyone — including nearby truckers and U.S. Captain Dave Stockton — to eavesdrop.
Curt and I had a conversation over the phone and it was a lot of fun chatting with this most prolific of golf writers. “The War By The Shore” will be available for purchase September 6th and can be pre-ordered now at Amazon.com in both the hardcover and Kindle editions. It’s a fascinating read!
Golf Conversations: I really enjoyed “The War By The Shore.” There were some interesting little nuggets in there that were worth the price of admission. Tell that story about when Raymond Floyd had his practice session at the Ocean Course before the ’91 Ryder Cup. His caddie that day was a guy named Jim Kelechi.
Curt Sampson: I’ve known Jim for a long time; he had told me the story years ago and I remembered it. I asked him about it again when I got this project. He was very happy to share the story. It was kind of a karmic payback in Jim’s eyes to have this story repeated in print.
It was a couple of months before the Ryder Cup and the Ocean Course was still raw and barely open. The word came into Kiawah that a couple of the leading Ryder Cup players were going to be playing the course for a practice round. There wasn’t a caddie squad there, so a couple of assistant golf pros volunteered to caddie.
One of them was my friend Jim who had Ray Floyd’s bag. And Ray was … how can I put this? He was intense. It wasn’t a friendly round. There wasn’t even a wager that day. It was more like boning up for a final, or studying to pass the law bar.
GC: Or trying to pass the PGA Player Aptitude Test.
GC: Was Floyd playing by himself or did he have another pro with him?
CS: In the group were Lanny Wadkins, who brought his own caddie. And Fred Couples, who didn’t have a caddie; another of the assistant golf pros on the island took his bag. Jim Kelechi had Ray Floyd.
There was a lot of intensity, not much give and take … not a casual atmosphere. When the round was over, Ray, in lieu of payment, offered this golf pro — for whom golf balls were not a scarce commodity — a sleeve of golf balls as payment.
My friend was dumbfounded then and remains so today.
GC: Oh, man! I have a Ray Floyd story, too. Many years ago, I was in the gallery at a Senior PGA Tour event at the Meadow Brook Club in Jericho, Long Island. I was standing near a bunker and the green was about 15 feet above me.
Floyd was on the green, watching another player putt. Then he turns his head and catapults a huge loogie that lands in the bunker right next to me. I look up at him and say something sarcastic like, “Nice one, Raymond.” And he gives me that so-called “Death Glare” of his. I think it melted the Dove Bar I was holding.
CS: Maybe the point of the story was to show not that Ray is a cheap guy because I don’t really know that Ray Floyd is – I don’t know him. But an intense man that was preparing for the big event. And maybe that story illustrates just how into it he was … how paying his caddie was a detail that maybe intruded on his concentration? I don’t know! I’m making excuses for him!
GC: You’re being very diplomatic, Curt. So allow me to cut to the chase and say the guy’s a cheap you-know-what. Now let’s get back to “The War By The Shore.” How did the idea for the book come about?
CS: I remembered the tournament vividly. I wasn’t there but I remembered the ’91 Ryder Cup very well. And I remember how very hard I was pulling for my set of 12 heroes to defeat those “bad guys” from across the pond.
It seemed like a miscarriage of everything that was right for the U.S. to keep losing the Ryder Cup. So I remembered very well that feeling of wanting Langer to miss that putt on 18.
Moreover, I had lived and worked in the area for a couple of years back in my golf pro days. I worked in a club up the coast on the other side of Charleston called Snee Farm when I was an assistant pro. This is back when the dinosaurs walked the earth.
The idea for the book came, I think, the day I noticed that the Ocean Course had snagged the 2012 PGA Championship. I thought this was a perfect time to remember that very vivid tournament. Maybe the most nerve-wracking event ever. I can’t think of another one with more drama and more pressure and more crying and choking.
GC: More than that Skins Game when Fred Funk wore a skirt?
CS: Ok, now you’ve trumped me. That’s true!
So the idea for the book incubated for a while. I wrote a proposal and was able to sell the book to Gotham Books, a division of Random House.
GC: How long did it take you to research the book? Was it a difficult process?
CS: Not especially difficult compared to my other books. The subjects were pretty well defined. One very handy thing for me was that about eight of the characters on the European side had written autobiographies, which is not something that happens in the U.S.
GC: The U.S. guys are watching SportsCenter and playing video games, not writing books.
CS: Montgomery, Faldo, Torrance, Langer, Gallacher, Woosnam … they’ve written autobiographies in which they discuss in detail what happened to them at Kiawah in ’91.
The Americans … so many of them are still playing on the Champions Tour. I was able to chat with O’Meara, Steve Pate. I was blown off by Wayne Levi, of all people, who refused to chat with me.
GC: What about Couples?
CS: Fred looks so stricken; the poor guy is shy. I saw him surrounded after his round at a Champions Tour event by photographers and fans; he just looked so very uncomfortable, I left him alone. Fred does not have a reputation as an introspective chap or a particularly verbal guy. So I decided to leave poor Fred alone at this time and I don’t really regret it.
GC: Curt, the book has some intricate research details. For example, when you wrote about the Concorde that the Euros flew over in … how did you discover the colors of the stewardesses’ uniforms?
CS: I like the research part of writing, Robert. I performed web searches and talked to a few guys about their flights on the Concorde. And from photographs in one or two books, I was able to see who was sitting with whom and in what row. I hope it’s fun for you to read, it’s the kind of thing I like to write … or a way I like to write, I suppose.
Some of those personal things – that sort of detail – can add some richness and make you read into the next paragraph.
GC: I enjoy reading about those obscure factoids. It indicates that you, the author, took the trouble and time to write this. You didn’t phone it in. So kudos to you, Curt.
What I didn’t know about the ’91 Ryder Cup – and your book details this – is the way the PGA of America went overboard with favoring the Americans in the pre-tournament activities … and were fairly insulting to the Europeans. I couldn’t believe it when the CEO of the PGA, Jim Awtrey, said the following excerpt from your book:
“Awtrey implored the Lord for safety, friendship, good weather, a fair competition AND … a U.S. victory. Amen.”
Praying for a U.S. victory? Not very sportsmanlike. What were they thinking?
CS: I think it was not a subtle time. I think the desire to win back the Cup was overwhelming. Also, I think there was a little bit of a role played by the atmosphere. The post-Gulf War victory atmosphere.
That can be overstated but maybe it flavored things 3% or 5%. Enough to make some of the behavior a little bit over the top. Remember that this was the first time that U.S. Ryder Cup crowds really got into it. They weren’t anything like – and never will be – like the European crowds.
The U.S. lost in ’85 over there. So to put the world right, in 1987, we’ve got Nicklaus as captain on a course he co-designed in Ohio. The gallery there acted like they were at just another golf tournament. They applauded for Faldo, Langer, and Woosnam. They appreciated good golf and didn’t have the partisanship that came to be the norm in the Ryder Cup.
Nicklaus reacted by making sure that there were a good deal of American flags passed out for the weekend to get some home-field advantage going.
GC: In your book, you also mention a highlight film that was shown at a pre-Ryder Cup dinner and it only had clips of American players.
CS: Yeah. No memoirist on the European side forgets that. There were various versions of what happened: threatened walkouts, sarcastic remarks, and mild to severe outrage.
A guy named Potter wrote a book called “Gamesmanship.” The sub-title is delicious: “The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating.” And we were doing that, our side. We were maximizing the home court and maybe that’s not really such a sin.
GC: Do you think the PGA of America did this on purpose or was it just ignorance?
CS: Yes, counselor. You should be a lawyer, Robert. That was a helluva question!
I think one or two of these things were mistakes; one or two were deliberate. Such as the theme: “The Ryder Cup Belongs in the U.S.”, which was a message that was everywhere. The logoed merchandise was disappointing for the Europeans; they didn’t want to buy shirts that had only the American flags on them.
GC: Do you know if anyone ever asked Jim Awtrey or any of the senior PGA guys about this?
CS: The highest level guy I spoke with was Gary Schaal, who was vice president that year and became president the next. I think, to him, that wasn’t a particular issue. It didn’t seem untoward, unlike anything seen when the Europeans hosted.
GC: In the beginning of one of your chapters, there’s a quote from Paul Azinger. He said something like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the Ryder Cup could be like pro wrestling where you could flatten your opponent?” Refresh my memory on that.
CS: Yeah. He was reflecting more on golf generally. I had read that quote in amazement in an interview he had with John Garrity. To me, it was so vivid, so revealing of an attitude and a character. I made a mental note about it and had a use for that quote many years later.
GC: In a recent Golf Digest issue, they had a handful of quotes from various ’91 Ryder Cup participants, and I think Azinger said something like he’s a little more “mature” now.
CS: Good. He, and Seve for that matter, made nice years later. And scarcely acknowledged how nasty they were to each other in a couple of Ryder Cups. This one in ’91 in particular. I don’t know if they became friends but at least they were friendly and respectful. The truth is, they were brutal. They had the knives out when they played each other in a couple of Ryder Cups.
GC: Seve accused Azinger of always standing too close to him.
CS: Yes. And Azinger was saying, “What’s with Seve’s cough?” He was certain that Seve had intimidated the match referee into giving him some favorable drops because Seve was wild as a hawk off the tee at times.
GC: Then there was that infamous tee ball of Hale Irwin’s on the 18th fairway; it was hooking towards Missouri but somehow, when Irwin arrived at his ball, it was sitting in the fairway.
CS: That remains a puzzle to me. I’ve watched the video tape … you’ve got a cadre of gallery marshals in attendance while Irwin and Langer hit. This ball, this pull-hook that Irwin hit goes over their heads and the ball ends up in the fairway.
To me, the only possible explanation is that these were the first gallery marshals ever to stand in the fairway — in this very crucial moment — to allow a big chunk of the crowd into the fairway. That would be the first time I’ve heard of that. But it seems like that would be the only explanation for how that ball wound up in the short grass when Hale had hit it way left.
Now Langer, without saying so that I could quote it, he was certain that the ball was kicked or thrown or otherwise illegally moved back toward civilization.
GC: You know what, Curt? I think you might be missing something here. Go back to what we were discussing a bit earlier about the CEO of the PGA, Jim Awtrey, and praying to the Lord for a U.S. victory. Is it possible that Hale Irwin’s tee ball was some sort of miracle shot…?
CS: Oh! A divine intervention!
Thank you, yes! A divine intervention.
CS: Possibly the Big Hacker in the sky decided to help out Hale.
GC: Don’t tell me prayers aren’t answered. There it is. You can’t explain it. The videotape replays don’t explain it.
CS: Well, the ball struck a PGA of America employee square in the back. Kathy Jorden was her name. Maybe from that point it hit somebody on the heel and someone inadvertently moved that ball. Or maybe it was an act of God.
GC: And on that note, I think you have the sequel to “The War By The Shore.” The title?
“Divine Intervention at Kiawah.”
And that’s a freebie, Curt. No co-author credit.
CS: Thanks, man.
GC: I have to say: you are the most articulate golf pro I’ve ever spoken with.
CS: Oh, that’s damning with faint praise, I’d say, Robert!
GC: You see, that’s exactly what I’m talking about!
GC: Curt, you’re a wonderful writer. I’ve enjoyed all your books and I wish you much success with “The War By The Shore.” When will it be available for purchase?
CS: The formal release date is September 6th but that only means that every book store across the country that wants it, has it. I’m going to be at the PGA at Kiawah and I expect to be selling and signing books there.
GC: Good man!
CS: I hope your readers will order early and often.
GC: We’re talking about book buying here, Curt. Not voting!
Thank you very much for your time. Congratulations on the book.
CS: Thanks, Robert. You have a staggering amount of editing to do to make my ramblings here sound like they make sense.
GC: Oh, I don’t know about that.
CS: It involves some work on your end and I appreciate it.
GC: Oh, please. 98% of the stuff I make up anyway, so don’t worry about it.
Please send me a head shot I can post with your interview. And keep it clean.
Have fun at the PGA.
CS: Thanks, Robert. Bye.