Ryder Cup captains bringing in inspirational speakers is nothing new. Tom Kite had President George H.W. Bush speak to the U.S. Team at Valderrama, a speech Scott Hoch recalled as “one of the highlights of the week.” Ben Crenshaw asked then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush to address his team on Saturday night in Brookline, a speech about love and bond and country in which Bush read William Travis’s letter from the Alamo. According to Davis Love, there wasn’t a dry eye in that team room.
It’s become a standard practice to one degree or another: Two years ago, for example, Paul Azinger downplayed the rah-rah motivation, forgoing any cheerleading videos, and keeping the team room low-key, but he did have inspirational speaker and coach Lou Holtz come in on Wednesday for a speech.
Captain Corey Pavin said he would also stay away from the motivational videos and cheerleading atmosphere. “I just don’t think the guys need to be motivated,” Pavin said. “They are as motivated as they are going to be.” But the captain did continue the tradition of bringing in speakers. On Tuesday, the guest of honor in the team room was Major Dan Rooney, a PGA Professional from Oklahoma who is also an F-16 pilot and decorated combat veteran. After his third tour in Iraq, Maj. Rooney returned home and founded Patriot Golf Day, creating what has become the perfect vehicle for the golf community to give back to the families of wounded and fallen veterans.
A true American hero, Rooney spoke to the team members, wives, caddies, and PGA of America officers for 20 minutes on Tuesday. According to those who were there, the talk was moving and sober.
“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 the military, team unit and accountability to each other is very important,” Pavin said. “He is a very inspirational guy, and he's just a great patriot.”
The stories Rooney told left the room, in the words of Phil Mickelson, “the quietest that I had ever seen an audience.”
Bubba Watson shed a few tears. “He talked about the Stars and Stripes and what a big honor it is to put that on and how we should be thankful for what we do,” Watson said. “All of us were emotional because of what he does that lets us play golf and play in The Ryder Cup.”
None of the players wanted to share specific stories from Rooney – “It was just pretty personal, a personal team thing,” Jeff Overton said – but all of them were touched. Overton also said that this wasn’t about equating a golf tournament with going to war, but instead, “it was about the fact that this isn’t war. It was about perspective.”
Jim Remy, president of the PGA of America, was also in attendance. He said, “The time that Major Rooney spent with the team was both emotional and incredibly motivational. I’ve never seen a speaker capture the attention of a Ryder Cup team quite like I witnessed with Dan. I know this will help our team compete at the highest level.”
Nothing bonds men like the shared experience of combat, and while one of the Rooney’s points was that golf isn’t war, he did emphasize the pride and responsibility that comes from representing your country. He also wanted to tell the players how uplifting and exciting it is for men and women in uniform to see golfers playing for their country.
The players feel the same way about those serving abroad. None of the Americans shied away from their enthusiastic support of the troops, or the respect they have for the military. “I feel proud to be part of a country that cares about the civil rights of people all throughout the world and not just in our own country,” Mickelson said.
Pavin echoed those sentiments and then added: “I want these guys to be accountable to each other and have each other's backs, and basically that's what happens in the military. (Rooney) just shared a few stories about that and how it relates in the military. It was kind of fun listening to some stories he was telling last night after his speech. I think for a lot of us that are not in the military or have not experienced that, to talk to a fighter pilot and the things that he does -- night runs, all of the stories -- it was really entertaining and quite fun. And it was pretty emotional. But a good kind of emotion.”
For Bubba Watson, it was also personal. Watson’s father, a Vietnam combat veteran, has terminal cancer. In all likelihood, this will be the elder Watson’s last chance to see his son play on an American team.
“I'm playing this for him and representing the United States,” Watson said. “I more than likely am never going to be in the military unless they ask for our help, so this is my chance to be like my dad.”