SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — Steve Stricker and Padraig Harrington still haven’t faced the toughest part of being Ryder Cup captains, a decision they can only hope never gets revealed.
Whose name goes in the envelope?
It might be the biggest secret in sports, often overlooked because the envelope has been unsealed only twice, most recently 28 years ago.
At some point Saturday evening as the captains are filling out their lineups for the final session of singles matches, they are required to put one name in the envelope. That player would sit out and be given a half-point if someone on the other team can’t play because of injury.
“The most uncomfortable thing I ever had to do,” said Curtis Strange, the U.S. captain at The Belfry in 2002.
It’s even more complicated this year because of COVID-19. Along with submitting one player in case of injury, three more names go into a second envelope in case players have to withdraw from the final session due to a positive coronavirus test.
Stricker has played on three Ryder Cup teams and was an assistant captain three times. Even as an assistant to Tom Watson, Davis Love III and Jim Furyk, he never knew whose name went into the envelope. And he’s not sure what he’ll do on Saturday.
“I probably will talk to my assistants and then probably not tell them who I put in there,” he said. “You don’t want to have anybody know that they went in the envelope. At least I wouldn’t want to know if I was in there, and I probably was in there at some point.”
The envelope became part of the captains’ agreement in 1979 and wasn’t used until American Steve Pate was injured in a car accident in 1991 at Kiawah Island. He played one match Saturday and couldn’t play again. The name in Europe’s envelope was David Gilford.
The most recent name unsealed was Lanny Wadkins, arguably the best Ryder Cup player in U.S. history. He made Watson’s job easier in 1993 at The Belfry by volunteering his name for the envelope.
“What was disturbing to us was hearing noises the Euros were going to have someone get sick,” Wadkins said Wednesday night. “I told Tom since I was a captain’s picks, I had already played three matches … I was trying to make it easy for him. I told him to stick my name in there. Other people deserve to play.”
Turns out Sam Torrance had a foot injury and didn’t play, and the record shows a halve with Wadkins. The Americans wound up winning, 15-13, their last victory on European soil.
“He picked me. I thought it was my duty (to go in the envelope),” Wadkins said.
He only had one regret. The singles lineup had Wadkins playing Seve Ballesteros, the heart of Europe’s team.
“That’s the only thing that (ticked) me off. I was 4-0 against him. I saw the lineup and thought, ‘That’s what I gave up?’”
Instead, Wadkins was given a tie with Torrance. Jim Gallagher Jr. took Wadkins’ place in the lineup against Ballesteros and beat the Spanish great, 3 and 2.
Wadkins was captain the next time at Oak Hill. He said he couldn’t recall whose name was submitted and wouldn’t have shared it, anyway. Also vague is what happened to the envelope once all 12 players teed off that Sunday.
“I think they burned it,” he said.
That’s a possibility. Kerry Haigh, the championship director at the PGA of America in charge of the U.S. team on such matters, said the host country is responsible for the envelope.
“I’ve seen it burned,” he said. “John Paramor burned them one year. It’s usually destroyed. You don’t want to tear it in two and have someone else find it. I personally put it in a place no one else will get to it. It is stressful, especially for the captain.”
No need telling that to Strange.
The decision from nearly 20 years ago is still vivid, and he wasn’t about to reveal the name he chose.
“The whole thing is very uncomfortable — writing the name on the paper, sealing it in the envelope,” Strange said. “You don’t ever want that name to get out. You don’t ever want to destroy someone’s confidence. But you’re obligated to put a name in the envelope.
“These guys become family,” he said. “And it’s like you’re telling one of them you don’t love them as much.”
Strange didn’t like the rule then and doesn’t now. He always felt if a player couldn’t go on Sunday, he should default and the other team gets a point. Now, captains have to choose. He tried to look at who was playing well and who was the most confident, all the while knowing the game can change without notice.
“They’re all world-class players,” Strange said. “Just because one guy is not playing as good as the next one, he’s one swing or one shot away from going out and shooting 65. How am I supposed to choose knowing that?”
It never was an issue. The name remains with him and no one else.
Hal Sutton was on that 2002 team and always thought it was him. The matches had been postponed one year because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Sutton was No. 16 in the world when he qualified and was out of the top 100 when the Ryder Cup was finally played.
“On the flight over, I called Curtis off to the side and told him I haven’t played as well this year and don’t feel compelled to play me,” Sutton said.
Sutton played once — he and Scott Verplank took down Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn in foursomes — and then he lost to Bernhard Langer in singles.
Was his name in the envelope? Only one person knows and Strange isn’t saying.
Odds are the names in the two envelopes at Whistling Straits will never be revealed. Strange considers it the best-kept secret in golf.
“That envelope,” he said, “is sacred.”
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