Playing in the Ryder Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime feeling for top golf pros, except that they get to do it every other year.
That is the appeal: It is totally different from what golfers normally do, yet it is such a familiar tradition that is one of sports' hottest rivalries. The pressure is excruciating and exhilarating, which is why pros from the U.S. and Europe consider it their Super Bowl.
"I look at the Ryder Cup as the biggest event in golf. Not the biggest championship, that's for other tournaments, but the biggest event. You play for a little trophy and a lot of pride," said Curtis Strange, who played in five Ryder Cups, was the U.S. captain in 2002 and will be an ESPN analyst at the 2012 event, starting Friday at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago.
Strange said the biennial Ryder Cup always has been intense among the teams -- he has heard stories about U.S. captain Sam Snead being none too pleased that Jack Nicklaus conceded a putt to Tony Jacklin, ensuring a tie in 1969 -- but that the public became engaged only after the U.S. lost in 1985.
"My first Ryder Cup was 1983. We won by one point, and there were probably only a thousand people out there, max,'' Strange said. "After we lost in '85, when we came back in '87, the crowd was 25,000 strong every day. It had changed overnight."
If a lack of American dominance is a catalyst, then excitement might be off the charts this year. The U.S. -- once so dominant that the opposition's team had to be expanded from Great Britain and Ireland to all of Europe -- has lost four of the past five times. None of the 12 American players has a winning career record. This year's event will have added spice because of the burgeoning rivalry/friendship involving Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, the world's top two players. Each has said he would like to play against the other in a singles match Sunday.
But the Ryder Cup transcends particular eras and individual stories. It is a fascinating anomaly, a team event in an individual sport; a contest that offers no prize money yet still is on golfers' minds while they are playing for $10 million in the FedEx Cup.
"We play a game where we think we play our best when we keep our emotions in check. Then all of a sudden it's OK to let the emotions run freely," Strange said this week. "That's part of the fun."
With golfers playing for their country or continent, the fun can be torturous. Graeme McDowell, who won the deciding match for Europe in Wales two years ago, said during a First Tee clinic at Bethpage last month that he is nervous for every single shot during the Ryder Cup. Jose Maria Olazabal, Europe's current captain, said in an interview on Golf Channel this week that on the way to the first tee for his first Ryder Cup appearance, "I was shaking like a leaf."
Mark Calcavecchia, who had won the British Open, was reportedly in tears for an hour after he blew a four-hole lead to Europe's Colin Montgomerie at the 1991 Ryder Cup -- an extremely tense weekend that culminated with Bernhard Langer's missed putt on the final hole, and that probably established the Ryder Cup as a compelling TV spectacle.
Roger Maltbie, who covers the Ryder Cup for NBC and calls it his favorite event, recalled during a conference call kneeling near the final green at Kiawah Island that day in 1991 with European Ryder Cup rookie David Feherty. The latter, now a TV analyst and U.S. citizen, whispered to the American announcer that every golfer grows up dreaming of putting for a major championship. But seeing Langer line up his 5-footer that day, Feherty said, "Not one of us on either team wants to be the guy to have to hit that putt."
Strange, a Hall of Famer, has experienced every angle. He birdied the final four holes to beat Ian Woosnam and preserve a tie for his team in 1989, then bogeyed the final three holes in a climactic loss to Nick Faldo in 1995. Of the latter, he said, "The sun does come up the next day, but that night, it doesn't seem like it's going to."
Crowd reactions push the boundaries of sportsmanship envisioned by seed merchant Samuel Ryder, when he first sponsored the matches in 1927. As captain in 2002, with the matches postponed a year after 9/11, Strange approached his European counterpart Sam Torrance with a call for more civility. Civility reigned, the U.S. team did not.
Even as the losing captain, though, Strange said it was the greatest week of his life. "Players want direction. They were fantastic," he said. "A couple of them still call me 'Captain.' They have no idea how much that means to me.
"Unfortunately, you can only be captain once," he said. "Maybe that's enough."