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Wake up the echoes

9/20/2006 - Golf

The enduring image of the 1987 Ryder Cup for most people is one of celebration. The triumphant Europeans, winners on American soil for the first time -- at Muirfield Village GC over a United States team captained by no less than Jack Nicklaus -- kicked up their heels on the 18th green like eager showgirls at a crowded audition. Not only an exclamation point on a decisive victory, the scene was a symbol of an emerging trend: Golf's best players no longer had to grow up on the Pledge of Allegiance.

But the man who had as much to do as anyone with bringing about that chorus line of joy that sunny Sunday afternoon in Ohio has another favorite memory. Eamonn Darcy, whose 1-up victory over Ben Crenshaw in singles was a crucial moment, relishes what Nicklaus did in the immediate aftermath of the Irishman's 5-footer to seal the conquest. "He put his arm around my shoulder and had a chat with me going off the green," Darcy says. "He said, 'Eamonn, that was a great putt. That hurt me a lot. Well done, you'll remember it the rest of your life.' "

Nearly two decades later, with the first Ryder Cup to be played in Ireland right around the corner stoking the memory, Nicklaus' promise has been fulfilled. In addition to providing a pivotal point in Europe's historic victory, Darcy was a harbinger of more Irish magic. Beginning in 1985, Europe has walked away with the Cup seven of 10 times (six wins, one tie). Since Darcy, an underdog with an underwhelming, loopy swing, beat Crenshaw, three other Irishmen have found themselves -- by the random nature of Ryder Cup pairings and the grace of the golf gods -- in decisive roles on the final day.

"The beauty of it is, everybody has a chance to contribute," says Tom Watson, a four-time Ryder Cup player and American captain in 1993. "You never know who is going to come up with the pièce de résistance. It could be anybody."

Following Darcy's 1987 heroics, Christy O'Connor Jr. was the point man in 1989 at The Belfry. At Oak Hill in 1995, it was Philip Walton. When the outcome was in doubt in 2002 at The Belfry, Paul McGinley was the golfer on the spot. "Luck of the Irish, if you want to call it that," says Northern Ireland's David Feherty, the golfer turned CBS announcer who played in the 1991 Ryder Cup. "Being at the right place at the right time."

In varying degrees of style, all of the men from the Emerald Isle delivered at crunch time. "We are tough fighters, coming from a small country," says O'Connor, whose 18th-hole 2-iron against Fred Couples is one of the most clutch swings in Ryder Cup history. "I wouldn't say we're beaten to the ground, but things come out of Ireland a lot tougher. To be accepted in the sporting world, I think you do fight that [little] bit harder."

The Irish impact on the Ryder Cup, like pouring a Guinness, took a while. Although the event began in 1927, no Irish golfers competed against the U.S. until Fred Daly in 1947. Despite the presence of Irishmen, America's foe remained "Great Britain" until 1973, when Ireland was added to the team name. Of the 128 golfers who have competed for Great Britain/Great Britain & Ireland/Europe through the years, 17 have been from Ireland or Northern Ireland, none more distinguished than Christy O'Connor Sr.

O'Connor Sr., whose revered standing in his homeland is such that he has long been known as simply "Himself," was for two decades as predictable a presence in the Ryder Cup as matching sweaters. O'Connor, the uncle of Christy Jr. (the younger O'Connor took on Jr. to give himself an identity on tournament scoreboards), competed in 10 consecutive Ryder Cups from 1955 to 1973. His number of appearances has been exceeded only by Nick Faldo (11) and equaled by Bernhard Langer.

Playing at a time when the U.S. usually had too much firepower, O'Connor posted an 11-21-4 Ryder Cup record. Now 81, he won dozens of tournaments but is known for turning down 20 Masters invitations. He preferred to stay close to the land where he learned the game as a caddie. Lee Trevino once appraised O'Connor as one of the three most natural swingers of the club he had seen, along with Roberto De Vicenzo and Neil Coles. "He was the Sam Snead of Irish golf," says Feherty. "He had one of the greatest swings. He was truly gifted, not just physically. He had a tremendous imagination."

When O'Connor's timing was right -- and it often was -- his crisp strikes had scarce equal. He was nicknamed "Wristy Christy" because of the handsy action he honed hitting balls on beach sand as a young man, but he worked his elbows after dark. "He enjoys a social drink as much as the next man, but no more than that," wrote Peter Dobereiner of O'Connor in Golf Digest in 1973. "The point is that every Irishman wants to buy Christy a drink. It is a national ambition, a duty. And since there are more Irishmen abroad than there are in Ireland he can never escape."

Feherty recalls the first time he got to play with his hero, in a tournament at Royal Dublin on a cold and windy day in 1980. Anxious to watch O'Connor warm up on the practice tee, Feherty instead saw a man a bit worse for wear from the previous evening. He rolled a few balls out of his shag bag but never hit them. "First shot he hit off the first tee with this blitzkrieg of a hangover was this sweet little draw down the right side of the fairway," says Feherty. "That was the day I learned God doesn't need to warm up. He shot a 68, kicked my ass. He was past his sell-by date by then, but he was incredibly athletic."

Following O'Connor's Ryder Cup farewell in 1973, three of his countrymen -- John O'Leary, Darcy and Christy O'Connor Jr. -- were part of the next GB&I team, but it was routed 21-11 at Laurel Valley GC. Darcy and O'Connor got off to an inauspicious start, a 3-and-2 four-ball loss to Tom Weiskopf and Lou Graham. Darcy also was Billy Casper's victim in singles as the American competed in his eighth and final Ryder Cup. "When I went over there in '75 as a youngster, it frightened the life out of me to play against those guys," Darcy says.

Although he also played on the 1977 and '81 teams, Darcy hadn't won a Ryder Cup match and had a career mark of 0-8-2 when he teed off against Crenshaw in 1987. But he didn't let his record get him down. "I played some great matches against great players and had gone right down to the wire," Darcy says. "Sometimes you can come up short; it doesn't mean you played bad."

If Darcy lacked confidence, he was buoyed by Europe's 10½-5½ lead going into the 12 singles matches. Darcy's swing has the plane of a Ferris wheel going back, his right arm not wanting to mingle with the rest of him, before he re-routes it on the downswing. "My swing is very similar to Jim Furyk's," Darcy says of his technique. "It's just the way I've played all my life. I know my game. I'm a pretty decent striker of the ball. If I have a shortfall, it would be my putting."

Against a master putter such as Crenshaw, Darcy wouldn't have seemed to have an edge on the greens, but walking off the sixth green after three-putting from 50 feet, Crenshaw smacked the ground in frustration with his putter, snapping the shaft. Not only did he have to use a wedge and a 1-iron to putt with instead of trusty "Little Ben," but he soon had to confess to Nicklaus what happened. "He just looked at me, gave me that look," Crenshaw says. "He said, 'I don't blame you, the way things are going.'"

At the time, Darcy insisted he hadn't known Crenshaw had broken his blade, and he's sticking to his story two decades later. "I never knew he had broken his putter until after the match," Darcy insists now. "Maybe he had a reason [for not using a putter]. I just wasn't interested. My focus was pretty good that day."

And Crenshaw was pretty good with his substitute putting tools. Darcy was 3 up after nine holes, but Crenshaw went ahead with a par on the 16th hole, a short-lived lead after Darcy outplayed him on the 17th. "When I won 17, I could see Ben was feeling the pressure just as much as I was," Darcy recalls. "Then I got my tee shot into the fairway [on 18], and he tweaked his into that little creek."

Crenshaw scrambled for a bogey, holing a 7-footer with his 1-iron. After being bunkered in two, Darcy was left with a slick 5-foot par putt to win the match. "I was very conscious how fast it was," says Darcy. "I guess that week I was up for the putt. I just dribbled it down, and it went in the left half of the hole." Seve Ballesteros formally clinched Europe's victory with a win over Curtis Strange a short while later, but Darcy's point was the critical blow.

Two years later, it was O'Connor Jr.'s turn. He hadn't won a European Tour event since 1978 and hadn't played in the Ryder Cup since 1975. "I missed out on four occasions by one spot [on the Order of Merit]," O'Connor says. "I was 11th by only £14 in 1985. I could have made six [teams], but as it turned out I made two." He was 11th in qualifying in 1989, when he was 41, but was a wild-card selection by captain Tony Jacklin after the slumping Sandy Lyle declined his berth. Jacklin had bypassed O'Connor when he was 11th in the rankings in 1985 in favor of José Rivero; this time he skipped Walton to choose O'Connor.

Couples was 29, a star in the making, considered the favorite in what would turn out to be the pivotal singles match. "The press might have felt [I was the underdog], but I certainly didn't," O'Connor says. "I had played extremely well that year. I knew Fred's game. He hit the ball farther, so I was going into the pins first, which is always an advantage, I think."

Jacklin thought so too as O'Connor and Couples played the Belfry's par-4 18th, which features a big green guarded in front by a pond. "[Jacklin] came and said, 'One more swing for Ireland. You hit this ball over the water and you're going to make it tough for Fred,'" says O'Connor. From 221 yards, O'Connor's 2-iron shot covered the flag and finished 3 feet away. "I think I put Fred off by hitting such a shot," says O'Connor, who watched Couples flare a 9-iron weakly right of the green, just as Jacklin had predicted. After Couples missed an 8-foot par putt, he conceded the hole to O'Connor. Europe got a 14-14 tie and kept the Cup for another two years. The Ping 2-iron that O'Connor used raised £150,000 for various charities before being returned to O'Connor. It was stolen -- along with O'Connor's car -- in England in 1991.

The Europeans were looking to regain the Cup in 1995 after consecutive American victories at Kiawah and The Belfry. As Europe honed in on its goal on the final day of singles, the burden fell to Walton, little known to Americans who hadn't noticed him play collegiately at Oklahoma. While Nick Faldo took down Strange and David Gilford edged Brad Faxon in crucial matches that also went to the 18th hole at Oak Hill, Europe's 14½-13½ victory was assured when Walton outlasted Jay Haas, 1 up.

"We both knew what was at stake," says Haas, who won the 16th (by holing a bunker shot) and 17th holes (when Walton missed a 4-footer for par) to tighten the deficit to one hole. "I thought I was going to do it. I was so excited getting to the 18th hole, the pressure [was all] on him. But I just didn't handle it. Choked like a lot of us have. Like I had before and probably will again."

With Haas hacking his way to a 5, Walton had the luxury of two-putting from 8 feet for bogey. Amid the celebration that echoed the one Darcy had sparked eight years earlier, Walton said: "Maybe the Americans know me now. Tell 'em I'm related to all those Waltons on that TV show."

Seven years after Phil-boy's heroics, Paul McGinley was the Irishman on the spot in 2002, all square with Jim Furyk on The Belfry's home hole. "I found out after crossing the bridge [to the 18th green] that it was up to our match," says McGinley. "I didn't have to look at the board; [Captain] Sam Torrance came to me and said, 'Up and down to win the Ryder Cup.' I guess he thought I could handle the pressure. That was one of Sam's strengths, knowing how to handle different people."

McGinley pitched from over the green to 8 feet. Furyk nearly holed his greenside bunker shot. The Irishman's putt to fulfill Torrance's command had, says McGinley, "a break of two balls outside the left lip." His putt was true. "I remember raising my arms in the air and it seemed like an eternity before anybody reached me," he says. "But there was a big celebration. It was like shaking a bottle of champagne again and again and finally the cork comes out and there's a big explosion."

Soon McGinley was thrown into the lake, carrying in his pocket a gold four-leaf clover ball marker that Feherty had loaned him for good luck that morning. It was a gift from Feherty's wife on their one-year anniversary, and Feherty feared McGinley's swim had deposited it in the lake. That night, as the party raged on, McGinley returned it.

In 2004 McGinley was back as a strong part of the European team with countryman Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland. The trio will no doubt receive the loudest cheers next week at the K Club, but there also will be the fond recall of the three previous Irish heroes.

Darcy, 54, plays the European Seniors Tour after a couple of seasons on the Champions Tour. The 58-year-old O'Connor Jr. is busy designing golf courses. He walked away from a helicopter crash in 1992 but endured the loss of his 17-year-old son, Darren, in a 1998 auto accident. Walton, 44, never played better than he did in 1995. He has struggled since 1999, failing five consecutive times in the European Tour qualifying school final. "I didn't want the limelight," Walton told a reporter in 2003. "But I've watched the video of the [1995] Ryder Cup once or twice and my hands still sweat when I watch it."

Like the TV Waltons, and fellow Irish heroes, he'll be in reruns forever.

Bill Fields is a senior writer for Golf World magazine