BLOOMFIELD, Mich. - They're two of the most respected men in the game today.
They're modest gentlemen, and major champions.
Those good-guy personas came out as U.S. Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton and his European counterpart Bernard Langer visited Oakland Hills Country Club, site of the 2004 Ryder Cup, to talk about their roles as captains. They had nothing but good things to say about one another, and mixed in a little humor, in front of a throng of media. But make no mistake, come next September, the two will be dead serious about beating one another in golf's biggest event. The 35th Ryder Cup matches are scheduled for Sept. 17-19, 2004.
Sutton is 0-for-2 against Langer in Ryder Cup competition, losing 5-and-4 in 1985 and 4-and-3 in 2002, something that Sutton hasn't forgotten in his preparation to revive the U.S. team, which has lost six of the last nine Cups, including last year at The Belfry.
"I think I owe him one. That goes without saying," Sutton said. Langer cracked up the crowd with his response: "He's not just a great winner, he's a great loser." Sensing he better do some damage control, Langer blurted out, "My English is not so good. I think you got the message."
The love-fest between the two was in full bloom. Sutton called Langer, 46, a "trojan" for his ability to be so good for so long, while Langer said Sutton "always fights like a lion."
Interestingly, Langer, a two-time Masters Champion and 10-time Ryder Cup player, is still in the running to make the European team as a player, which has raised some questions about his captaincy. The winner of 66 tournaments world-wide tried to downplay that scenario.
"I've thought about it even more in the last few weeks," he said. "If I should play extremely well and qualify as No. 1 or No. 2, I would give it (playing) some consideration. But I don't think I will. I'm not playing well enough. I'm very committed to being the captain."
Although he continues to play, Sutton, the 1983 PGA champion with a 7-5-4 mark on four Ryder Cup teams, isn't a threat to make the U.S. team. Sutton, an imposing presence at 6-foot-1 with a booming voice, is best known for his win at The Players Championship in 2000, where he held off a charging Tiger Woods. He's gained a reputation as a blue-collar worker, someone who weathered a slump that included a nine-year winless stretch (from 1986 to 1995). The former U.S. Amateur champ has 14 career PGA Tour victories, but none since the Shell Houston Open in 2001.
In keeping with the theme Ryder Cup captains Sam Torrance and Curtis Strange adopted last year, the two captains say they want to keep the Ryder Cup a friendly competition, avoiding the fiasco that occurred at Brookline in 1999, where the two teams clashed after a dramatic celebration by the Americans on the 16th green.
"It's going to be a great match, spirited," Sutton said. "But we're going to treat the game with respect, and all of us are going to be gentlemen. This is a gentlemen's sport, and we're going to treat it that way. I want to walk off the course and still be friends."
There are sure to be hecklers in the crowd to add to the electric atmosphere, but Langer said his players won't show the gamesmanship they've been accused of in the past. Slow play has been the biggest consternation between the teams.
"It's only a game, and we need to keep it that way," Langer said. "(We will) play hard and do our best, but we want to keep it fair and make it exciting for everybody watching. If we win the Cup, we want to win by the correct rules, not by gamesmanship. No tricks. It's not necessary."
Both captains agreed that Oakland Hills, with its slick, bending greens, should be a great match play venue. Sutton said every time he drives through the gates at Oakland Hills, "I feel golf." Oakland Hills has hosted six U.S. Opens and last year, its first U.S. Amateur.
"The course is very tough and has extremely difficult greens," Langer said. "You haven't won the hole just by hitting the green. There are many opportunities for three-putting or doing weird things on these undulating, fast greens. It lends itself to match play."
Sutton hopes to evoke the spirit of the Olympics to inspire his players. The Americans have gained a bad reputation for complaining that they aren't paid to play. While the Europeans seem to mesh better as a team, the Americans have played recently like a collection of talented, arrogant individuals with personal agendas. Sutton hopes to unify the team under the American flag.
"There is something lacking in American sports in general. It used to be our honor to be able to play for our country, rather than our country's honor to have us playing for them," Sutton said. "I'll bring that out loud and clear."
Sutton also said he doesn't plan to set up the course to favor the Americans. There will be a new tee on No. 6, a 356-yard par-4 that could transform into a thrilling hole at 300 yards, much like the drivable, par-4 10th at the Belfry in 2002.
"I told (PGA officials) to just set it up like a PGA Championship," he said. "The only thing I asked was, these greens are so severe, to keep them at a reasonable pace."
What: The 35th Ryder Cup matches
When: Sept. 17-19, 2004
Where: Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield, Michigan.
Fast fact: The U.S. team has lost six of the last nine matches.
October 13, 2003