Glory Days - Recollections of the 1999 Ryder Cup

By: Rob Duca

The Presidents Cup begins on Oct. 1 at Muirfield Village in Ohio, and the lack of buzz tells all you need to know about the event. Which is why I'm thinking of the Ryder Cup right now, and anxiously awaiting next year's matches at Gleneagles in Scotland.

The Presidents Cup is what the Ryder Cup used to be - a laid-back blip on the golfing calendar that generates little attention, intensity or patriotic fervor.

It's hard to imagine there was once a time when only diehard golf fans cared about the Ryder Cup. That began changing when the United States vs. Great Britain format was altered in 1979 to include continental Europe. That brought fresh young blood into the equation such as the charismatic and supremely talented Seve Ballesteros.

The matches were never the same. Meaning, they actually became a true competition.

Europe has a 9-7 overall advantage since then, with their win in 1985 their first in 28 years. They backed that up with their first-ever victory on American soil two years later, and prevailed yet again in 1989.

But the Ryder Cup entered uncharted waters in 1999 at The Country Club in Brookline. I was fortunate to be there for those matches, and I returned to The Country Club last month to cover the U.S. Amateur, which got me thinking back to those seminal three days 14 years ago.

Those matches opened under a cloud of controversy. The issue had all the explosive elements of a made-for-TV movie: Greed, exploitation and patriotism. The question was: Who was being greedy and unpatriotic and who was being mysterious and defensive?

Until that time few people had paid attention to where profits (or lack thereof) from the matches were going. That changed in 1985. By '99, the Ryder Cup was a mega-event expected to generate $65 million for the PGA of America. And with that, the U.S. team members began wondering: Where's our cut?

Tiger Woods, David Duval and Mark O'Meara led the charge with their comments during that year's PGA Championship. On the opposite side stood team captain Ben Crenshaw, who expressed outrage at the stars, questioning their loyalty to their country.

In a column written for PGA Magazine, Will Mann, then the PGA of America president, fired back at the players.

"[The Ryder Cup] matches cost the association money every two years from 1927 until 1991 when we signed a rights agreement with NBC Sports," he wrote. "This contract offset the hard costs of producing the matches, plus generates a modest profit as compensation for more than 60 years of underwriting this grand golf tradition."

In other words, if the PGA of America was now making a bundle, too bad.

With that as an ugly backdrop, Europe's Paul Lawrie had the honor of opening the matches at 7:30 a.m. on Friday morning. Already, traffic was bumper-to-bumper on the narrow streets that run parallel to The Country Club, and fans standing eight deep circled the first tee box, filled the entire right side of the fairway and stretched halfway down the left side.

By the time the competition ended on Sunday afternoon, and the Americans had completed the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history, Duval, Woods, O'Meara and the rest were singing a different tune. Tom Lehman maintained it was better than winning the British Open, which he'd done in 1996.

"It was unlike anything I've ever experienced," said Duval, then the No. 2-ranked player in the world.

Duval had previously called the matches "an exhibition." But after closing out his triumph over Jesper Parnevik, he joyously circled the green, furiously pumped both fists and embraced the emotional avalanche as the crowd chanted "USA! USA!"

The still-vivid memory of Justin Leonard's
celebration on the 17th green

Of course, the iconic moment came from Justin Leonard. Trailing by four holes with eight to play, he captured five of the next seven, culminating in his 45-foot putt on the 17th green that set off the wildest celebration in golf history of dancing, hugging, disbelieving teammates and wives.

This was the team that wasn't supposed to be, you know, a t-e-a-m, but instead a collection of individual stars incapable of sacrificing themselves for the greater goal. But they came together in their darkest hour to find a collective purpose. At the closing ceremonies, a teary eyed Crenshaw said, "I couldn't be more proud of this group of guys."

The comeback shattered the decade-long contention that the rich Americans weren't hungry enough, together enough, fiery enough or tough enough to produce the shots when they truly mattered.

Crenshaw was the driving force behind the comeback from a 10-6 deficit. The golf world thought he'd gone batty on Saturday night when he stared down reporters in a press conference, pointed his finger at them and firmly declared, "I believe in fate and I have a good feeling about tomorrow."

He then walked into the team room and repeated that sentiment.

"I kept thinking, 'Golly, I hope this doesn't come back to haunt us,'" Davis Love said. "But he kept saying it so many times, and every time anybody said, 'Whether we win or lose,' somebody else would stop and say, 'Wait a minute, we're going to win.'''

I'll never forget that final day. The roars began echoing across the course almost immediately and never stopped. Each time a number was posted on the scoreboard, cheers rang out. It was eight hours of mayhem, with one American after another confidently striding the fairway, fists held high as thunderous applause washed over him.

The unprecedented, over-the-top celebration following Leonard's putt that did not officially clinch the Cup (Jose Maria Olazabal still had a putt to extend the match) set the stage for what the Ryder Cup has since become. Colin Montgomerie said he "couldn't believe what I was seeing," and Olazabal added, "I understand there were a lot of emotions going on, but at the same time you have to have your feet on the ground and realize what the situation is."

The Europeans were seething afterward, and Crenshaw offered an apology. But the Americans didn't completely back down.

"Memories are sometimes short," Lehman said. "Valderrama [in 1997] wasn't exactly a cakewalk for us."

The Presidents Cup has never had anything like this. The Ryder Cup, it seems, will never again be without it.

Brookline, 1999, made certain of that.

Rob Duca is an award-winning sports columnist who wrote for the Cape Cod Times for 25 years, covering golf, the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins. He is now managing editor of Golf & Leisure Cape Cod magazine and has written for a variety of other publications, including Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe, Yankee magazine and Cape Cod Life.