Political correctness crushing American captain’s passion
Published 30/09/2010 | 05:00
The quiet, softly spoken, clean-cut chap who has spent Ryder Cup week at Celtic Manor smiling graciously and picking every word he says as carefully as a vegan at a barbecue.
Can this really be Corey Pavin, the fist-pumping 5'9" firebrand who was first over the top in golf's notorious War on the Shore in 1991?
The same Pavin who whipped the home crowd at Kiawah Island into a frenzy when he and partner Steve Pate donned army forage caps for the Saturday morning fourballs against Europe?
Pavin didn't play especially well at Kiawah but his well-intentioned act of homage to the US military, who had just led the coalition forces' liberation of Kuwait in Desert Storm, established him as the patriotic poster boy of American golf.
So, it was hardly surprising when Pavin's wife Lisa (36) dubbed 'Captainess' in the US because of her overpowering dedication to the team cause, wrapped herself in the stars and stripes (and little else) for a stunning photo on the cover of 'Avid Golfer' magazine.
Thank heavens someone in the Pavin family seems to be excited. Her husband's muted public contribution to this week's Ryder Cup has been completely at odds with his reputation.
One of Pavin's players at Celtic Manor, Matt Kuchar, summed it up nicely yesterday when he said, "my most vivid memories of him playing golf are the Ryder Cup experiences and he seemed to be very outgoing ... a real fireball."
Especially at Kiawah Island, on the first of three appearances as a player in the most excruciatingly intense arena in professional golf.
Back then, Pavin wore a moustache. When combined with his slight, sinewy frame and thick black hair, this sometimes led to comparisons with Charlie Chaplin.
Freddie Mercury might have been more appropriate, given his passionate commitment to his country at the Ryder Cup and his relatively combustive nature.
Of course, the true golf enthusiast would also know Pavin as an ingenious shot-shaper who carved out a brilliant US Open victory at Shinnecock Hills in 1995. This was the undoubted highlight of a career that features 15 tournament victories on the US PGA Tour and a dozen more around the globe, including one in Europe, the German Open in 1983, as Pavin cut his teeth as a professional on international fairways.
Yet, behind Pavin's public persona and the bare statistics of his career in sport, lies a life far more complex and intriguing than many people on this side of the ocean might imagine.
For example, three months before Kiawah, Pavin completed his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. He was baptised a Roman Catholic, the faith of his first wife Shannon, days before the 1991 US Open at Hazeltine.
That marriage unraveled at the turn of the century. Pavin filed for divorce in November 2000 -- a process so painful, especially for his two sons Ryan and Austin, then 17 and 11 years old respectively, that he understands at least some of the emotional trauma recently endured by Tiger Woods.
Pavin remains a devout Christian and, like his immediate predecessors as Ryder Cup captain, Tom Lehman and Paul Azinger, and is, by all accounts, a familiar face at the weekly bible classes on the PGA Tour.
Three months after his divorce, Pavin employed Lisa Nguyen as his personal assistant and, three months later, they became emotionally involved.
Nguyen, 14 years his junior, was born the daughter of a Vietnamese naval officer and was a baby in arms when the family was evacuated to the US in 1974, prior to the Fall of Saigon.
At age 11, when her mother died, little Lisa helped raise her two sisters and brother and then combined cheerleading with business studies at University.
Anyone who had read her comments in the build-up to this Ryder Cup will understand how this vivacious young lady became a catalyst for complete change in Pavin's life.
"I want this position to stand out," she said of her role as wife of the US captain. "I want to help the PGA brand the Ryder Cup to another level, to another market. I think that's where my business mind comes in.
"It's not just about clothes. I'm thinking of how to take the PGA of America to other people who wouldn't normally be interested. We'll see how it works." Wow, that might have raised a few eyebrows at the Palm Beach HQ of the PGA of America.
Pavin took a long hard look at himself as one marriage failed and another began. He came to the conclusion that a frosty Ben Hogan-style approach to his career and relationships, consciously constructed to enrich his golf performance, had left him poorer as a human being.
"I'd say that before, I was kind of unapproachable," he explained to 'New York Times' writer Larry Dorman a few years back. "I didn't allow people in, and that was my fault. I thought that was the way to succeed as a golfer.... I thought that if I was just me, I would lose focus."
Lisa told Dorman: "When I met Corey, I could tell he was empty inside, somewhat unfulfilled, and definitely lonely. The more I got to know him, the more I realised his unhappiness wasn't just on the golf course but in his personal life as well. He didn't have strong friendships; he wasn't close to his family."
Pavin's playing career declined in the late '90s and he went 10 years without a win -- from the 1996 Master Card Colonial to the 2006 US Bank Championship -- as much because of the impact of new technology and the new emphasis placed on length as opposed to control of the golf ball.
Yet, by all accounts, the 'new' Corey Pavin still flourished in his private life, and, after serving as one of Tom Lehman's vice-captains at The K Club in 2006, he was viewed as the natural successor to Paul Azinger, who led the US to victory at Valhalla two years ago.
While Pavin has mellowed with age, that doesn't entirely explain his muted performance at Celtic Manor this week.
Only the faintest echo of Kiawah has been heard ... when Pavin yesterday defended his decision to invite F-16 fighter pilot Major Dan Rooney, who also happens to be a qualified PGA of America golf professional, to address his team on Tuesday night.
"It wasn't so much a motivational speech, per se, but maybe a little more awareness of what's happening around the world and how, in a military sense, the team unit and accountability to each other is very important," he explained.
We all mellow with age, of course, but one hopes and suspects that the Corey Pavin who stands before his players in the team room is more passionate and animated than the insipid lookalike who has been performing his public duties this week.
It's a truism that Ryder Cups are won only by players and lost by captains. Just one of recent losing skippers has been spared public castigation -- Lehman went way beyond the call of duty in his efforts to bind a group of individuals into a real team, which certainly did not deserve the lashing it took at The K Club.
In fairness, the captain of the away team at the Ryder Cup really is on a hiding to nothing as he performs a role that requires him to be almost as well versed in the arts of diplomacy, discretion and self-discipline as he is at spotting the perfect foursomes partnership.
Though Azinger's inspired leadership helped turn the Ryder Cup tide back in America's favour at Valhalla, one suspects his abrasive personality and outspoken nature probably would have been a liability at Celtic Manor this week.
Azinger even had the advantage of staging a 'pep rally' in Louisville city centre on the eve of the Ryder Cup, at which he suggested home fans should applaud missed putts by Europeans. Thankfully, the good people of Kentucky ignored him.
Yet it's the job of Pavin this week to ensure he and his team do or say nothing whatsoever to antagonise the crowd or make their task any more difficult than it already is.
How sad that the overwhelming need for political correctness has crushed Pavin, one of golf's most passionate and intriguing characters, into a cardboard effigy of himself.