Wednesday, October 3

Sampson: Choking in the Ryder Cup

By Curt Sampson

Copyright © Curt Sampson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

FOR THOSE WHO ENJOY WATCHING SOMEONE else’s disaster, we now approach a golden age. This past week the biennial competition between all-star teams of golf professionals called the Ryder Cup took place. Since it became competitive in 1985—that is, when Team Europe won after a long and boring losing streak—the Cup has overflowed with examples of gracelessness under pressure.

Recently I made myself expert in the amazingly efficient ways the Ryder Cup can make the world’s best golfers dissolve like after dinner mints. My test case was the 1991 edition of the exhibition, nicknamed then The War by the Shore—which is, not coincidentally, the name of my new book. Until now, no Ryder Cup has been as purely agonizing for its participants. Reviewing that collection of missed putts, hopeless swings, and weeping—even from the winners—I wondered how high the stakes must be for elite athletes to forget skills they’d practiced to the point of instinct.

“Mostly I remember fear,” recalls John Garrity, who covered the War by the Shore for Sports Illustrated. “I had seen nervous golfers before but nothing like the boys of Kiawah Island. Even the best players approached with resentment and anxiety. Nobody wanted to be the goat.”

Why that particular Ryder Cup was so fraught had to do with a sudden, shocking US losing streak; the contentious personalities involved (Mr. Azinger, meet Mr. Ballesteros); the overlay of uber-patriotism in the aftermath of the Gulf War; and the hardest course in the world, a field of play designed to magnify mistakes. But as we recall the whys, we should not miss a chance to contemplate the whats.

The symptoms of choking, of course, are not confined to the neck. The word evokes images of food blockage and nooses, and that’s pretty much the feeling—but not all of it. Lungs that have done nothing more strenuous that walk from here to there heave like they’ve just run an 880 in a track meet with peckish wolves. The wildly beating heart is as a just-caught fish flopping on the dock. The mouth is dry, arid even, while hands suddenly sweat like Nixon during Watergate. The gastro-intestinal tract…well, I don’t want to talk about the gastro-intestinal tract.

Tennis reminds us of another failing body part with a delightful metaphor. Players so overcome by nervousness that they are unable to hit the final shot to win a match are said to have “cement elbow.”

Head, hands, heart, elbow: whatever cruel jokes the rest of the body plays, the real center of tension is in the center of the skull.

As I searched for meaning in the episodes of shocking failure in the ’91 Ryder Cup, I came upon David Eagleton, the neuro-anatomy professor who wrote Incognito: The Secret Life of the Brain. I read and have kept re-reading Chapter 5, entitled “The Brain is a Team of Rivals.” In this theory, a mind-boggling number of neural pathways—I just think of them as voices—compete to have their way. They do not co-operate, and there is no wise arbiter evaluating the competing claims. If the stakes are high enough, if the fear is real enough, and the voices loud enough, randomness prevails.

Neural chaos reigned during the excruciatingly entertaining war by the Kiawah Island shore in September 1991. We saw something similar this past weekend. Performers we perceive as immune from pressure hear voices.

Curt Sampson is a bestselling author whose new book is The War on the Shore: The Incomparable Drama of the 1991 Ryder Cup. Learn more about Curt and his books at

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