HARTFORD, Connecticut – In 52 years in journalism, only a handful of thousands of events that I have been fortunate to cover stand above the others.
Jack Nicklaus shooting 6-under-par 30 on the back nine for a closing 7-under 65 to beat several of the leading players of the day by a stroke to win the 1986 Masters and become the oldest champion in tournament history at 46 will always be No. 1. The roars on the back nine of Augusta National Golf Club as Jack hit one memorable shot and putt after another with son Jack Jr. walking alongside as his caddie is as thrilling and heartwarming as it gets, especially them walking off the 18th green arm-in-arm.
But a close second is the United States’ miracle run in 1999 in the final-day singles to pull off the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. The most memorable moment of the biennial competition against Europe actually came Saturday night, when U.S. Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw, with his team trailing 10-6, ended his press conference with 32 of the most famous words in the history of golf.
As Crenshaw approached the end of his gathering with the Fourth Estate, he pointed his right index finger and declared, “I’m going to leave you with this thought, and then I’m going to leave. I’m a big believer. I have a good feeling about us. That’s all I’m going to tell you.”
To try to fuel a record comeback, Crenshaw “front-loaded” his singles lineup, and it produced wins in the first six matches by Tom Lehman, Hal Sutton, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Tiger Woods and David Duval, who was more animated during a 5-and-4 rout of Jesper Parnevik than about any other time in his career, including twice cupping his right ear after a winning putt to incite the fans.
The Americans were aided by European captain Mark James not playing three players in the first two days of team match, Jarmo Sandelin, Jean van de Velde and Andrew Coltart. Not surprisingly, they were crushed by Hal Sutton, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, and the Americans never trailed again, with wins by Steve Pate and Jim Furyk putting them on the verge of history.
But there was plenty of controversy during the match between Justin Leonard and Europe’s Jose Marie Olazabal. Olazabal raced out to a 4-up lead, causing always blunt NBC television commentator Johnny Miller to say Leonard, who had played poorly in the team matches the previous two days, should have stayed home on his couch in Texas. But Leonard quickly made Miller look silly, winning four holes to pull even going to the 17th hole, which is across Clyde Street from where legendary amateur Francis Ouimet lived when he routed English stars Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff to win the 1913 U.S. Open.
Leonard’s approach shot on the par-4 hole barely found the front of the green, while Olazabal was well inside the American. But Leonard rolled in an improbable 45-foot birdie putt that set off a wild, premature celebration that included several of the U.S. players, caddies and wives running across the edge of the green. Olazabal had to wait several minutes to try to sink his 22-footer for birdie to tie, but he missed, leaving Leonard 1-up with one hole to play, assuring him half a point and guaranteeing an American victory.
The incident was viewed by many in both the U.S. and Europe as appalling sportsmanship, which it was. Veteran broadcaster Alistair Cooke described the last day of the event as “a date that will live in infamy” in a “Letter from America” entitled “The arrival of the golf hooligan.”
The behavior of the U.S. team and spectators was also criticized by both teams in their post-match press conferences, especially the hyperbolic Europeans, some of whom sounded as if the Americans had acted like ax murderers. Some U.S. fans raucously heckled and abused European players, especially temperamental Colin Montgomerie. But in the true spirit of the competition, Payne Stewart conceded Montgomery a 10-foot putt on the 18th green, giving the Scot a 1-up victory in the meaningless final match. Montgomerie commended Stewart for his act, but sadly it was one of Stewart’s last public appearances as he died in a plane crash less than a month later.
In many ways, Europe’s similar comeback in 2012 for a 141/2-131/2 win was even more impressive as it came “on the road” at Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago. But I was on my couch watching that debacle for the Americans that included Justin Rose making a 50-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to key a victory over Mickelson, who gave the Englishman a thumbs-up as they headed to the 18th tee.
But that event was even more emotional than in 1999 as it was the first Ryder Cup since the death of flamboyant Hall of Famer Seve Ballesteros, who had been part of four victorious matches and captained Europe to victory on his home soil at Valderamma in 1997. Ballesteros had usually teamed superbly with fellow Spaniard Olazabal, who was the European captain that year. The Europeans’ motto was “This One’s For Seve” and they wore navy blue and white garments, his traditional Sunday colors, on the final day.
The team’s kit also bore the silhouette of Ballesteros famously celebrating his win in the 1984 Open Championship at the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland. When Martin Kaymer’s 6-foot par putt on the 18th green beat Steve Stricker and clinched the Cup for Europe, the “Miracle at Medinah” was complete and caused Olazabal to peer skyward and break into tears, as he did during his comments at the closing ceremonies.
Yes, the biggest team competition in golf can certainly provide monumental moments.