Originally created 09/17/06

Taylor crosses into uncharted waters

Sitting in his living room watching the Ryder Cup hype build on television, Vaughn Taylor was naturally curious when The Golf Channel unveiled its team pairing predictions.

Friday's fictitious four-balls and foursomes flashed on his widescreen television. Then came the same for Saturday's matchups. Each day had one thing in common - Taylor's name never showed up.

"That was a bit upsetting," said Taylor, a 30-year-old Ryder Cup rookie from Augusta. "But there's no telling. I don't know what to expect. I don't know if I'll play at all until Sunday. If I don't play until (Sunday's singles matches) that's fine and I'll understand why. It's about the team "

If there is an American theme for the Ryder Cup this week at The K Club in Ireland it is the great unknown, and Taylor is as off the radar as it gets. Up until now Taylor has represented Goshen Plantation, Hephzibah High School, Augusta State and himself.

Now he's representing the United States. Of the four unheralded rookies on the 12-man American team dispatched to wrest the cup from a stout European squad, Taylor might be the least known quantity.

The Golf Channel slight plays off everything everyone doesn't know about Taylor - who joins former Masters Tournament champion Larry Mize (1987) as the only Augusta representatives to play in the Ryder Cup. All they see is the quiet guy who keeps to himself, owns a pair of PGA Tour victories in events opposite World Golf Championship tournaments and has never played a single official match-play event in his life.

What they don't see is the intense competitor who caddies have tagged with nicknames such as Vaughn-cano and the Ninja for what U.S. captain Tom Lehman calls Taylor's unrivaled hatred of losing.

"You can't go off his personality," said Trey Keepers, a longtime friend from North Augusta and Taylor's first caddie when he broke through from the Nationwide to the PGA Tour. "He's a different person inside the ropes."

That's the player the U.S. team is counting on to show up at The K Club.

In what Taylor calls golf's "proving ground to see what you're made of," he hopes to show everyone that there is more to him than meets the eye on the rare occasions they've seen him play in three seasons on the regular PGA Tour.

"Sometimes during weeks when the tournament is not very big, I kind of find myself a little unenthusiastic," Taylor admitted. "I've found that playing in bigger tournaments and bigger events is just more interesting and gets that feeling of competitiveness in me. Next week is going to be the ultimate stage for all of that. You either want to dig a hole and jump in it or you want to show everybody what you got.

"I've never liked failure and never liked losing. When I get there, I'm going to feel whether I want to dig a hole and jump in or not. Is it too much for me? Am I going to be able to handle it or am I going to be able to play the way I want to play under the pressure? You're just going to learn a lot about yourself."

Another realm

Taylor is a virtual stranger not only to the golfing public but his teammates as well. The only U.S. players he knows well are Zach Johnson and Chad Campbell - relationships that date back to their mutual experience on the Hooters Tour.

More accustomed to spending time on the road in the company of caddies, Taylor found different dinner companions once the Ryder Cup qualifying was over. One night during August's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Tiger Woods took Taylor and the other rookies to a private dinner at the Diamond Grill. At least it was as private as any dinner with the world's most famous golfer gets.

"There was an older gentleman's birthday with a huge crowd in there," Taylor said. "People just come up and interrupt the conversation. They just want to speak to him. It was kind of strange."

In between the interruptions Woods tried to convey his experiences on the young players he's taken under his wing. That Woods' Ryder Cup baptism came on hostile turf in Spain in 1997 added even more weight to his advice.

"Most of his conversation was about the atmosphere and saying we haven't seen anything like it as far as the number of people and people rooting against you, noise, chants, cheering when you miss a putt," Taylor said. "Those type of things that we just aren't used to. Nobody really asked questions. We were kind of all ears and just listening to what he had to say."

If sitting down for dinner with Woods wasn't enough to convince Taylor he'd entered another realm in his career, the point was hammered home two days later. That's when he sat in the locker room at Firestone surrounded only by his teammates and captain watching two more of their party - Woods and Stewart Cink - play off. When it was over, the whole group boarded a chartered plane to Ireland for a two-day scouting and bonding trip.

"It hit me there," Taylor said. "How many people would want to be a fly on the wall with everybody in there? What felt good about the team is these are the guys you play every week and I'm probably the one they know the least. It's pretty neat to have the guys who I didn't know so well take an interest in me. They look at me and think, 'Vaughn's on my team now.' "

Just being 'V'

There are nearly constant reminders of how far and fast Taylor has risen to this fraternity.

"It's not too long ago I was on the Hooters Tour. It's been fast and all flown by. It's a little surprising but at the same time I've been there every day playing and going through it all. I feel comfortable and not too amazed by it."

It wasn't until he became a candidate this year that the Ryder Cup ever registered on Taylor's ambitions.

Like any kid growing up playing golf in Augusta, the destination of his dreams usually led down Magnolia Lane to the Masters .

The first Ryder Cup he even remembers was the 1991 matches at Kiawah Island, S.C. Taylor was 13 and just starting to take golf seriously.

"I really didn't know if I was ever going to be good enough," he said. "I never really put too much pressure or expectations on myself and kind of took it as it came. It was never my goal to play in the Ryder Cup."

Ready or not, that eventuality has arrived. Taylor's only match-play experience in his life came in Ryder Cup-style practice rounds at Augusta State that pitted the American players on the college squad against their overseas teammates. What happens when the stakes are real has Taylor just as curious as everyone else.

"I'm working on things and trying to prepare myself for the pressure of it, but you never really know until you get there and get in the moment and the atmosphere," he said. "That's going to be the point where you step up or you're not going to be ready and get scared. I'm looking forward to that."

Taylor has proved himself throughout his career. He's won at every level he's played on - four times on the Hooters Tour, once on the Nationwide Tour and twice on the PGA Tour. He faced moments of relative consequence on each occasion and delivered.

But that was for himself. This time it's for his team and his country. The intensity of the matches will exceed anything he's encountered in other events.

"The difference is going to be from the first shot to the last shot you're in it the whole time," he said. "I don't think there's ever a break."

Those closest to him believe Taylor will not be overwhelmed by the moment.

"I have full confidence he'll handle it well because he doesn't treat it as such a big deal," said Keepers, who'll travel to Ireland with a couple of Sage Valley Golf Club members to follow their favorite American. "He's just being 'V' and it's just golf. They're not asking you to guard Shaq or play offensive line for the Dallas Cowboys."

The big picture

As much as Taylor loves being at the center of golf's ultimate team competition, the things that come with being a part of the Ryder Cup are less enjoyable. Over the final months of qualifying, the demands on his time kept increasing as did the debate about the merits of his game. With the intensity increasing as the matches get closer,

Taylor has struggled under that microscope.

"I'm having a tough time dealing with it," he said. "There's times I just don't want to be bothered. But if I want to play better and win tournaments, that's the way it is.

People want your time for a reason. It's a good thing. I have to just take a step back and look at the big picture and realize why things are happening the way they are and not get down about it or upset with all of it."

The scrutiny on the U.S. team and especially its four rookies has been intense. It has run the gamut from Lehman expressing complete confidence in his squad to NBC television analyst Johnny Miller saying "this is probably on paper the worst Ryder Cup team we've ever fielded."

Taylor believes everybody is making way too big a deal about it.

In the end, one thing can make all of the hard work and the stress of qualifying and the ceremonial trappings worth it. Taylor is too busy trying to get his game in peak shape to daydream about being the guy the U.S. team needs to score the winning point on Sunday.

But when he dares to dream, Taylor looks forward to one thing more than anything else.

Sunday night.

"I couldn't imagine being in a room with Tiger, Phil (Mickelson) and the whole team all celebrating as one in victory with family and friends," Taylor said.

"That would just be a blast. You never want to look ahead at holding the trophy, but I've thought about Sunday night and that would be an amazing experience."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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