Originally created 09/23/99

Stewart willing to be American leader



BROOKLINE, Mass. -- Payne Stewart is the kind of guy who cranks up the volume on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" in the hallway of the hotel, someone who would look as comfortable draped in the Stars and Stripes as in his knickers and tam o'shanter.

How badly did he want to play in this Ryder Cup?

After securing his spot on the team by winning the U.S. Open, he was at The Country Club within a month getting to know the course. During the last two major championships, he proudly wore a Ryder Cup hat during the practice rounds.

Nothing, however, showed his determination quite like his victory at Pebble Beach in February, which moved him that much closer to his first Ryder Cup team since 1993.

"I want to get on the Ryder Cup team because I'm tired of us losing," he said. "The last two Ryder Cup teams I was on, we won. And the last two I wasn't on, we didn't win."

Here he is, finally, ready to make a difference, willing to grab his teammates by the collar and shake some spirit into them if he finds it lacking.

"He's a beauty," Mark O'Meara said. "Payne is Payne. He's got a tremendous love for the game of golf, and it shows. And I think that helps our team, no question about it."

Remember that roar Stewart let out when he made a 15-foot par putt to win the U.S. Open? Should the United States finally win back the Ryder Cup, he just might be heard all the way back to Britain.

"He wears his feelings right there on his sleeve for all the world to see," Tom Lehman said. "And for that reason, he's a fantastic teammate and partner. If you have problem being excited about what's going on being around him, you have a real problem."

Lehman and Davis Love III played against Stewart and Justin Leonard during an alternate-shot match Wednesday in a gloomy drizzle at The Country Club. It was tight until the end, when Stewart holed a chip for birdie on the 18th.

About three hours later, the first words out of Stewart's mouth summed up his mood.

"I think everybody is ready for Friday," he said. "I know I am. This is something I've looked forward to all year long, and I'm very excited about being back."

That excitement may have been lacking the past couple of years, certainly two years ago at Valderrama. One of the questions Americans seem to face after every loss -- five of the last seven, to be exact -- is whether they possess the same passion as Europe when the stakes are as simple as a gold chalice that could fit in carry-on luggage.

That doesn't appear to be the case this year.

"We're a little bit more determined because there are a few of us that have been through some losing teams," Love said. "We all get along very well. There's not any real dissension. A lot of guys are having a lot of fun."

It all starts with Stewart. The leader is captain Ben Crenshaw, who has instilled a sense of history about the Ryder Cup and a sense of purpose about winning it back. But leadership also comes from the players hitting the shots, and the search for that player always seems to go back to Stewart.

"Payne is fired up about it," Love said. "Whoever goes out with him to play better be ready for that. He's going to get us going in the morning and keep us focused on what we're doing."

That kind of passion might be what it takes to cope with the pressure that is saddled on the American team like never before.

Just like in 1995 and 1997, the U.S. team is stacked from top to bottom -- only David Duval lacks Ryder Cup experience, and the 12-man team has won a combined 11 major championships. No American is lower than 28th in the world ranking.

Not that credentials ever matter. The United States hasn't won a Ryder Cup since 1993, and not on home soil since the "War on the Shore" at Kiawah Island in 1991.

"They must be under pressure being the 12 best players in the world, according to themselves," England's Lee Westwood said, responding to Jeff Maggert's assessment the day before.

This U.S. team does not belong solely to Stewart. Tiger Woods is playing his best golf ever, and the rest of the team has looked so sharp this week that Crenshaw is not sure which four players will sit out the first round of matches when the Ryder Cup begins Friday morning.

"I didn't think it was possible that 12 fellows could be playing well at one time, and it's darn near there," Crenshaw said.

Woods prefers to lead by example, as do Duval and O'Meara. Stewart intends to do both, of which he could do neither the past two Ryder Cups.

"Sitting in your living room on your couch watching it, you can't make any difference whatsoever," Stewart said. "So, here I am. If captain Crenshaw chooses to play me, I feel that I can make a difference playing. If he chooses not to play me, I'll make a difference by being out there supporting my team."