Hazeltine rekindles Gallagher’s stirring Ryder Cup memories

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Greenwood’s Jim Gallagher, Jr. is spending this weekend at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota, covering the Ryder Cup for The Golf Channel.

Sounds glamorous, no?

Well, it does until you learn Gallagher must be at the network’s set at 3 each morning to prepare for the early show. There’s nothing glamorous about 3 a.m. Period.

“It’s my job now,” Gallagher said by phone from Hazeltine Thursday afternoon during the Ryder Cup opening ceremonies. “There’s worse ways to make a living.”

Gallagher covers the Ryder Cup from a most unique perspective. In 1993, when he was one of the top eight to 10 players on the planet, Gallagher was the hero of the American’s stirring, 14-12 victory over the Europeans.

Rick Cleveland

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

“Still the highlight of my career,” says Gallagher. “Most people don’t remember that I won the Tour Championship and they don’t remember my other victories much, either. But they do remember that I beat Seve (Ballesteros) in the key match on the final day of the Ryder Cup.”

To be more specific, Gallagher waxed Ballesteros, the heart and soul of Team Europe, in the pivotal match of the event. If there’s any such thing as an upset in golf, this was a huge one. Ballesteros was a heavy favorite with London bookmakers. Golf World had written an advance analysis of the Ryder Cup and declared that Gallagher didn’t even belong on the team. Said he didn’t have the backbone for it. Wasn’t tough enough. Wouldn’t stand up to the suffocating Ryder Cup pressure.

“Chapped my (derriere),” Gallagher says. “If you want to fire me up, tell me I don’t belong. Tell me I can’t do something.”

During the first two days at The Belfrey, Gallagher played gutsy, at times splendid golf. He was part of one winning four-ball match, part of one losing one, even though he played especially well in the latter

When it came time for Sunday’s finale, U.S. captain Tom Watson matched Gallagher, the Ryder Cup rookie, against the Spaniard Ballesteros, who had a deserved reputation as one of the most fierce competitors in golf.

Gallagher remembers walking down the first fairway and overhearing one of Seve’s teammates tell him to bury Gallagher, that he fully expected Seve to beat Gallagher 7 and 6. The partisan European crowd chanted: “Seve! Seve! Seve!”

Jim Gallagher Jr. tees off during the 2013 Senior PGA Championship.

AP file photo

Jim Gallagher Jr. tees off during the 2013 Senior PGA Championship.

“In retrospect, I am sure very few people expected me to win,” Gallagher says. “But I knew I could win. And I’ll tell you something else, Seve knew I could win to. That’s really the only two people that matter in match play. You and the guy you’re playing. I promise you Seve knew I could win.”

At the nine-hole turn, Gallagher led Ballesteros three-up.

“I had Tom Watson, one of the greatest golfers in history of the sport, asking me if I needed water or anything,” Gallagher says. “Think about that. Tom Watson was fetching water for me. I won’t forget that.”

The European crowd tried to to fire up Seve and rattle Gallagher as they headed to the tenth tee: “Seve! Seve! Seve!”

Gallagher won the tenth hole to go four up.

“The crowd made me all the more determined,” Gallagher says.

Yes, Gallagher says, the pressure, especially on the first day, was suffocating.

“I was jerking on the first tee,” Gallagher says. “I remember thinking: ‘What in the world have I gotten myself into?’”

He handled himself superbly.

This week at Hazeltine has rekindled the memories. “When they play our national anthem, if that doesn’t fire you up, if that doesn’t raise the hackles on your neck, I don’t know what would,” Gallagher says. “That’s when I realized what I was playing for. That’s when it really hit home for me. I could see some of our young players going through those same emotions.”

Back in 1993, Gallagher says, the Americans expected to win. Never mind that they were on foreign soil. The Americans almost always won back then. They expected to win.

“That’s flipped,” Gallagher says. “Now, the Europeans have been winning and they expect to win.”

Gallagher believes this is the best U.S. team in years.

“Our guys can win,” Gallagher says. “I believe our young players can stand up to the pressure. I really think it’s important for them to get off to a good start and not play from behind like it’s been recently. If the Europeans start fast, it will just reinforce their confidence and naturally have our guys doubting themselves.
And what else has changed about the Ryder Cup in 23 years?

“Just the overall production, the pageantry, all the surroundings,” Gallagher says. “The Ryder Cup has become like a big SEC football Saturday on steroids.”

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog.