Golf: Torrance has complete faith in the rookies

Ryder Cup: `Let's leave Bernhard out of it. Robert Karlsson was unlucky. But Jesse needed a foursomes player, and Andrew Coltart is a much steadier player'
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The Independent Online
WHEN SAM Torrance was just a wee boy, albeit a wee boy with a rare talent for golf, he had three sporting fantasies. One, to win the Open Championship. Two, to win the Order of Merit. Three, to hole the winning putt in the Ryder Cup. Well, one out of three ain't bad, and Torrance would not swap his momentous putt on the final hole at The Belfry in 1985, which sealed America's defeat for the first time since 1957. Not even for parts one and two of his boyhood dream.

But first things first. The 46-year-old Scot is non-playing vice-captain of this year's European team, along with Ken Brown, and played a frank and full part in the selection of the two wild cards, Jesper Parnevik and, more surprisingly, Andrew Coltart. He will not be drawn on why Coltart was effectively preferred to the veteran Bernhard Langer. "Mmmm, Bernhard..." he says, and my tape recorder pricks up it ears. Then, disappointingly, "...let's leave Bernhard out of it. Parnevik was guaranteed, which left one place. Bernhard was obviously strongly considered, and whatever the press says, Faldo got a glimmer too. Robert Karlsson was unlucky. But Jesse [the captain, Mark James] needed a foursomes player, and Andrew is a much steadier player than Robert."

Whatever the whys and wherefores, the fact is that Europe will be going into the Ryder Cup on Friday with seven rookies. The vice-captain is unconcerned. He has complete faith in the new boys. Jean Van de Velde is "a lovely bloke and a bloody good player" who was "completely raped" on the 72nd hole of the Open Championship, having opted to do with his second shot what Torrance insists he and every other pro would have done in the circumstances. "He was 70 yards wide, for God's sake. None of us would have gone for the fairway."

Paul Lawrie, he adds, is "a beautiful swinger". Besides, never having dipped their toes in the cauldron, the rookies might have an advantage over seasoned Ryder Cup players. "Tom Watson told Davis Love that it's the only golf event that makes your knees shake, and Love just laughed, but when he played in it, he said `you were right'. And the Americans will be feeling added pressure because they've lost two running."

Torrance, eight times a Ryder Cup player between 1981 and 1995, knows whereof he speaks. Indeed, win, lose or tie at Brookline, the European team could hardly want for a more experienced captain next time round. "That would be lovely," he says, dismissing his chances of actually playing at the Belfry in 2001. "Realistically, I think this was my last chance. Missing out last time [at Valderrama] hurt more than anything. In fact I stopped drinking for 20 months in an effort to make this year's team."

His abstinence ceased as soon as he realised for sure he would not climb high enough in the rankings, when a recurring back problem forced him to withdraw on the first morning of the Open Championship. "I waited till I got home because I wanted to be with my wife [the actress Suzanne Danielle]. I had a couple of pints and then we split two bottles of wine. Actually we left most of one bottle, but I was singing and dancing..." If he had stayed on the booze for those 20 months, I venture, then perhaps he would have made the team. "Yeah, well, maybe I went too far. I'm not very good at moderation."

We are sitting on a sunny terrace at Wentworth. It is 11am and Torrance is supping a pint of bitter between drags on a home-rolled cigarette, making me feel a bit wet for ordering a milky coffee. He is one of golf's great characters; hard-drinking, chain-smoking, plain-speaking, and as honest as his putter is long. On which subject, it was the pressure of the Ryder Cup - at Muirfield Village in 1987 - which started his years of torment with the conventional putter. In fact he can trace it directly to the final hole of his singles match against Larry Mize.

"I was one down. He was farting around trying to get a drop from a water hazard and eventually hits it 50ft past the pin in four. I hit a five- iron 12ft short in two. But then he holes it for a five, so suddenly I have to two-putt to halve the match. And at that moment, my hands start shaking. And I have no idea where I'm going to knock that putt, whether off the green or a foot in front of me. Somehow, I shookled it up somewhere near the hole, and got my four. But that was when it all started."

He tried all kinds of cures, including hypnosis, before settling on the broomhandle putter which, along with the pencil jammed behind one ear, and the ciggies, became his trademark. He still sometimes flirts with the short putter. "I used it last year, the week before the French Open, in the Robert Sangster Pro-Am at Sunningdale. I shot 63, won the pro-am, then played here at Wentworth the next day, used it again, and shot 64. I wasn't entered in the French Open so I phoned and asked for a late invite. They said `no problem, Sam, you're in.' So I went over and won the tournament. But did I take the short putter? No. I didn't have the balls."

Torrance roars with laughter. We are talking the morning after his highly satisfactory fourth-place finish in the Swiss Open and he is on cracking form, telling stories some of which are printable. I keep trying to steer him back to the Ryder Cup, and invite him to recall his debut, in the 1981 drubbing at Walton Heath.

The defeat was no disgrace, for the American team has arguably never been stronger. It included - deep breath - Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Ben Crenshaw, Ray Floyd, Tom Kite, Jerry Pate, Hale Irwin and the man Torrance considers to be the most talented golfer he has ever seen, Lee Trevino. "The draw for the singles was made on the Saturday night and I was playing Trevino. And he says, `Sammy, I'm going to beat the moustache off you.' Which he did, 4 and 3. So in my childish immaturity I shaved my moustache off for the dinner that night. I knew he was going to beat me, too. It was the only Ryder Cup match I ever knew I was going to lose. But then, when we won in 1985, and Lee was captain, he came up and said he was glad it was me who got the winning putt. That was really nice. He's a delight, and great to play with."

Not everybody concurs. Jack Nicklaus, for one, is not known for laughing giddily at the non-stop Trevino patter. And with glee, Torrance recalls a long-ago World Matchplay final between Trevino and Tony Jacklin. `Tony went up to him on the first tee and said `Lee, I love you and respect you but I really don't want to talk today.' And Trevino said, `that's OK Tony, you only have to listen." The guy is incredible. I once played a practice round with him in the Benson & Hedges at York, and I have honestly never laughed so much in my life. I guarantee that the people in the gallery will still remember it to this day. And he can do things with a golf ball you wouldn't believe. He showed me how to play a plugged lie that day at York. I've been brilliant at plugged lies ever since, and it's thanks to him."

One of the many pleasures of playing in the Ryder Cup, adds Torrance, is the opportunity it affords to solicit practical help from one's peers. "You wouldn't dream of it on the regular Tour, but in the Ryder Cup you can ask them things and they give you proper answers, too. Plenty of times I've asked Faldo and Langer about chipping and stuff. A little chip over a bunker in a pressure situation. Do you hold it lightly? What do you do? Anyone can hit a nine-iron into the green, but these guys are magicians with those tricky little shots. Magicians. You just want to ask them, `is there anything I don't know?' And they'll take you out and do it with you.'"

The arch magician, of course, is - was - Seve Ballesteros. And his passion for the Ryder Cup was - is - almost scary. "Oh God," says Torrance. "Seve was incredible. You see, he hated Americans with a vengeance. Because they loathed foreigners winning their events. They're better about it now, and they love Garcia, but in the early days Seve never got the respect he thought he deserved. They called him Steve. And if you really want to piss Seve off, call him Steve. So at night he'd be shouting at us, `we must beat these bastard Americans!'"

In 1985, at The Belfry, we did. On the 17th green, in his all-important singles match against Andy North, Torrance holed a heroic six-footer to square the match. Then, on the 18th, North drove into the water. "And I was crying coming off the tee because I'd hit an enormous drive and I knew I'd done it." Torrance cries easily. "I once cried walking off the first tee in the Open at St Andrews because of the reception I got. I even cry at the bloody Jungle Book, when I think Baloo is dead. But I really had tears streaming down my face at The Belfry. I thought we would still win but I wanted it to be me holing the winning putt. And I knew I had him. I knew."

That image of Torrance, arms outstretched in victory seconds before being engulfed by his euphoric team-mates, is one of the most memorable not only in golf, but in all of sport. Indeed, the Ryder Cup - which Torrance, unbiased of course, equates with such epic occasions as the World Cup final and the Olympic 100 metres final - has produced many such images.

"Remember Olazabal dancing the samba or mamba or whatever it was, at Muirfield Village in '87? That was incredible. We played a course designed by Nicklaus, run by Nicklaus, and a team captained by Nicklaus, and we killed them. The scenes afterwards. Oh God. Darcy doing the Irish jig. And Woosie and I went down to the international village where all the European supporters were. They couldn't believe we'd gone to join them. I had to give away my shoes, my shirt..."

Yet not all Ryder Cup memories are quite as uplifting. There was, for example, the infamous `War on the Shore' at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, in 1991, when the American Corey Pavin donned combat fatigues, and Bernhard Langer ultimately missed the putt to retain the Cup. "Corey has regretted it ever since. He's a lovely little bloke, actually, and a good friend. As for Langer... Langer was incredible. The putts he holed on 15, 16 and 17 just to take him up 18. I would never have given Irwin that putt on 18. He would have missed it. He was feeling worse than he had ever felt in his entire life. But Langer is so strong. `Take that away and let me concentrate on what I have to do,' that was his approach.

"I was by the side of the green next to Olazabal, and I have never in my life sat next to a man with so much fire, so much passion. When Irwin hit his shot to the green, Ollie was digging me in the ribs saying `go on Sam, watch de ball, watch de ball, we can make it moooove.' And he was serious. He honestly thought that we could will the ball to miss the green and sod off onto the beach. And I tried, believe me."