Golf’s Ryder Cup begins Friday in Wisconsin, and many millions of us will watch intently as men of normally steely nerve turn to jelly.
Jim Gallagher Jr. of Greenwood remembers teeing it up at The Belfry in England in 1993, an untested Ryder Cup rookie on golf’s biggest stage.
“I was jerking I was so nervous,” Gallagher said. “I couldn’t get my right hand to stay still to put the ball on the tee and the tee in the ground, so I switched to my left hand. That didn’t work either.”
Eventually, he managed to tee the ball, and he said a silent prayer that he still remembers, at age 60, these 28 years later: “Please, just let me be calm. Please let me be able to play my best.”
Golf history tells us Gallagher, now a Golf Channel commentator, busted that first drive 280 yards right down the middle of the fairway, that he was a winner in two of his three Ryder Cup matches, and that on Sunday of the Ryder Cup, in perhaps the most important of the deciding matches, he defeated the late, great Seve Ballesteros, Europe’s all-time Ryder Cup hero, 3 and 2. History also tells us that the 14-12, come-from-behind U.S. victory was the last time the Americans have won the Ryder Cup on European soil.
So, how does one deal with the immense pressure?
“The adrenaline and the anxiety can overwhelm you if you let it,” Gallagher said. “But once you get to playing and the adrenaline really kicks in, it’s like you become uber-focused. You just play. You block out everything else. It’s a constant adrenaline high all day long, and you lose yourself in it. It goes by so fast.”
To understand the significance of Gallagher’s victory over Ballesteros, you must first understand Ballesteros’ Ryder Cup magnificence. The Spaniard is by far the man most credited for turning the Ryder Cup around from a three-day Red, White and Blue victory party into a serious competition that the Europeans now win far more often than they lose. Ballesteros, winner of five major championships and 95 tournaments worldwide, was a splendid golfer at any competition but at his best in the Ryder Cup’s pressure-packed match play format. It was as if Seve willed himself — and the Europeans — to victory.
Said his long-time partner and fellow Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal: “When Seve gets his Porsche going, not even San Pedro in heaven can stop him.”
But Jim Gallagher Jr. did.
“I don’t think anybody except maybe Cissye (his wife) and me thought I had a chance to win that match,” Gallagher recalled in a phone conversation Tuesday. “But I was playing well, and I knew I could beat him. And I’ll tell you this, Seve knew it, too.”
At least one other person knew. Maria Floyd, wife of golfing legend Raymond Floyd, knew. On a shopping trip the evening before the final matches, a jewelry store proprietor learned her identity and told her that Tom Watson, the U.S. captain, had made a serious mistake in matching the rookie Gallagher against the great Ballesteros.
“Tell you what,” Maria Floyd responded. “See how much money you got in that cash register, and I’ll bet Gallagher beats your guy.”
The bet was made. The jewelry story guy paid.
“When I heard that story it raised hackles on my neck,” Gallagher said.
That’s just one of so many memories Gallagher has of the defining moment of his golfing career.
Here’s another: “So Tom Watson is our captain and he’s watching my match with Seve, and he keeps asking me what I need. Do I need some water? Need a snack? We’re talking Tom Watson — Tom freaking Watson! — is asking me what I need. I finally said, ‘Well, I could use some peanut butter crackers since you asked.’ And Tom Watson goes and fetches me some peanut butter crackers.”
Best memory of all?
That came when he returned to Greenwood was greeted by 21-month old daughter, Mary Langdon Gallagher, wearing a Ryder Cup T-shirt that said, “My daddy beat Seve!”
That cherished memory remains fresh all these years later when Mary Langdon has two little girls of her own. The rest of us can only wonder how it feels to represent your country, under intense pressure, before a world-wide audience of millions. Jim Gallagher Jr. knows.