A Ryder Cup to remember

Senior WriterSeptember 21, 2001 

Things were going to be different this time, Mark Calcavecchia says. No self-inflicted pressure. No feeling of failure, of letting down his teammates. No emotional meltdown.

This year's Ryder Cup, he was going to enjoy himself. Unlike what happened 10 years ago. "Obviously, I wanted to be a part of it again," says Calcavecchia, who was set to play next weekend in his first Ryder Cup since Kiawah Island's Ocean Course in 1991. "This time, I think I was going to have a lot of fun." On this 10th anniversary of the 29th Ryder Cup's visit to South Carolina, none were looking forward to the biennial golf competition between the U.S. and Europe more than Calcavecchia.

It would be a chance to relive Kiawah's good moments - and expunge the wrenching ones from his psyche. Then last week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon intervened.

Now, there will be no 34th Ryder Cup Matches this year at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England. Security concerns for the two teams of professional golfers from the U.S. and Europe forced postponement of the biennial competition until 2002.

Calcavecchia agreed with the decision. He has lived with his Ocean Course memories for a decade. What's another 12 months?

In 1991, Calcavecchia was the poster child for what the Ryder Cup has become: a nerve-wracking, nationalism-tinged battle of wills and emotions. Which, of course, is why it also is golf's greatest spectacle.

On the final day, going head-to-head with Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, Calcavecchia built a four-hole lead with four holes left. He could not lose. He did something worse: He didn't win.

Fighting a strong headwind, he played abominably down the stretch. On the Ocean Course's wicked par-3 17th, Montgomerie hit his tee shot into the water. "It should've been over," Calcavecchia says. "Instead, I smother-popped one in the water, too."

When he hacked up the 18th to lose his fourth hole in a row and give Montgomerie an improbable halve, it was too much. Calcavecchia and his wife walked over the nearby sand dunes to the beach, "and I broke down and cried," he says.

"I wish I could've thrown my clubs against a brick wall. Instead, I cracked up for a while."

What makes his story so incredible is this: the U.S. won, a thrilling 141/2-131/2 outcome not decided until the final match's final putt, a missed 6-footer by Europe's Bernhard Langer. "I hardly remember the celebration," Calcavecchia says. "I was still in a state of shock."

His is one of many such tales from Sept. 27-29, 1991. South Carolina has only one chapter in the Ryder Cup's 74-year history, but none of the Ocean Course participants will ever forget it.

BITTER RIVALS

The PGA of America and the media dubbed it "The War by the Shore." They didn't know any better in 1991.

Today, using "war" to describe a sports event seems insensitive, even obscene. Ten years ago, though, the U.S. had just won the Gulf War, and patriotism and national pride ran high.

That fueled an almost jingoistic fervor for that year's Ryder Cup. After 25 years of U.S. dominance, the Europeans had won in 1985 and 1987 and retained the Cup with a tie in 1989. Suddenly, an event that most Americans had largely ignored for years seemed important.

"As much as anything, it was the way the Europeans rubbed it in," says Lanny Wadkins. "In my mind, they weren't very gracious winners. Any time they lost, they had an excuse."

The European team also had the look of winners. Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Seve Ballesteros had won six of the previous 12 Masters titles, and four of eight British Opens. Woosnam in 1991 was ranked No. 1 in the world.

The setting for 1991 was Pete Dye's new Ocean Course, a spectacularly windswept, seaside course that seemed to favor links-bred British and Scottish players. The layout also favored loud, often rowdy fans from both sides of the Atlantic.

"You had a bunch of exuberant fans. I think they grow excitement on the oaks down there," says Hale Irwin, now a Senior Tour star. "And the Europeans have always been into it anyway. So you had American fans on the dunes on one side of the fairway and European fans on the other side, yelling at each other."

The result was a pressure-cooker that set the tone for Ryder Cups since. Fans waved flags and chanted like a football crowd. Even the American players got into the spirit, wearing camouflage caps - to honor Desert Storm troops, they said.

The eventual U.S. victory was so emotion-packed that, 10 years later, members of the European team still shun questions about those matches.

"Why do you want to talk about that one?" Faldo says when approached at the PGA Championship. "That was the worst ever. That almost ended it right there."

Even Langer, one of the PGA Tour's most accommodating players, begs off. "I hope you understand," he says, "that's a painful memory for me."

OMINOUS START

Dave Stockton has his own painful memory from 1991. Doubly painful, in fact.

Stockton, now 60 and playing the Senior Tour, was the PGA of America's choice for U.S. captain in 1991, a reward for his two PGA Championships (1970, 1976). "I gave up all my corporate stuff and spent a year promoting the Cup, explaining what it was all about," he says.

He knew what he faced. When the U.S. team lost in 1987 at captain Jack Nicklaus' Muirfield Village, Europe's first win on U.S. soil, "that opened eyes that we could be beat here," Stockton said.

Still, the U.S. team looked strong, with Calcavecchia, the 1989 British Open winner; Irwin, a three-time U.S. Open champ, 1989 PGA and 1991 U.S. Open winner Payne Stewart; plus hot players in Wadkins, Paul Azinger, Corey Pavin, Fred Couples and Steve Pate. Stockton's captain's choices were Chip Beck (3-0-1 in the 1989 Ryder Cup) and Raymond Floyd, a tough, seasoned player who teamed well with Couples.

"I had a bunch of superstars, one hell of a strong team," Stockton says. "The limo wreck stopped that."

The night before the first matches, both teams were en route to Charleston when Pate's limo hit another vehicle. He suffered injured ribs, played only one doubles match and had to sit out the singles.

"Pate was playing the best of any of our guys, not even close," Stockton says. "That drastically changed my pairings. I think we should've won 17-11, but we didn't get to show how good we were."

The first pairing Friday wasn't affected. Azinger and Beck began foursomes (alternate shot) play against the "Spanish Armada" of Ballesteros and his protege, Jose Maria Olazabal at 8 a.m.

That match would show how seriously both sides would take this "friendly" competition.

SEVE'S MIND GAMES

Through nine holes Friday morning, Azinger and Beck led the Spaniards, 3-up. But on the ninth tee, Beck says, "Seve was coughing at the top of my backswing.

"I told Zing, 'If he does that again, I've got to say something. You don't do that. That's not golf.' I was mad." The mind games had only begun.

On the 10th tee, Ballesteros complained to a referee that Azinger and Beck had violated the one-ball rule, which stated that teammates in the alternate-shot format must use the same type ball on each hole.

"You're right. We did it on (No.) 7," Azinger said. "That's the only hole we did it on, though."

"You did it a couple of times," Ballesteros replied.

Since the inadvertent violation hadn't been caught at the seventh hole, Azinger and Beck incurred no penalty. But the conversation wasn't finished.

"Well, we certainly aren't cheating," Azinger said testily.

"We don't say that," Ballesteros said. "There's cheating, and there's breaking the rules." And he smiled and patted Azinger on the shoulder.

"They accomplished their goal: They got us upset," Beck says. "I respect Seve, he'd always been a true sportsman toward me. But in U.S.-Europe competition . . . well, the timing on his coughs was impressive."

Azinger was infuriated. "Then Zing ran a putt way by the hole," Beck says. "I missed it coming back, and that turned the tide on us." The Spaniards won three of the first four holes on the back nine, and Ballesteros' birdie at 18 clinched the match.

"Just another chapter in Seve's book," Irwin says.

That was Europe's only victory in four morning foursomes. But in afternoon four-ball (best ball), Ballesteros and Olazabal again beat Azinger and Beck -"they kept drawing the toughest opponents," Stockton says - and the Europeans won 21/2 points to cut the U.S. lead to 41/2-31/2.

The pattern continued Saturday. The Spanish duo was unbeatable (3-0-1 in doubles play), and while the U.S. was better in foursomes, building an early 71/2-41/2 lead, the Europeans made up for that by sweeping the first three afternoon four-ball matches.

Floyd and Couples, 2-0 on Friday, had lost to Ballesteros and Olazabal in Saturday foursomes, so Stockton sat Floyd and paired Couples with Stewart against the Spaniards in the day's final match. Olazabal and Stewart sank short par putts at the 18th hole to halve the match, and the score was U.S. 8, Europe 8.

That night, Stockton and European captain Bernard Gallacher unveiled their lineups for Sunday's singles. Stockton was "overjoyed" that Europe's top players were bunched in the middle, while the U.S. had Stewart, Floyd and Calcavecchia leading off, Couples, Wadkins and Irwin anchoring.

"I wanted my best players going first and last," Stockton says. "And I wanted Hale to finish. I figured the three-time U.S. Open champ can stand anything."

Still, Stockton was wary after Europe's comeback. "I definitely didn't think we'd be tied on Sunday," he said. "Saturday night, for the first time, I thought we might not win."

THE SAVIORS

. Corey Pavin. Chip Beck. Remember those names.

Both players played at the top level into the mid-1990s, but after brushes with major championships - one triumphant, one not - both have fallen off golf's radar screen.

Pavin, who won the 1995 U.S. Open, is going through a divorce now and trying to rebuild his game. Last week, he ranked 88th on the Tour money list. In 1991, he was No. 1.

Beck, hammered by the press after his runner-up finish to Langer at the 1993 Masters, plays the Buy.com Tour these days. He had planned to do Ryder Cup commentary next week for Britain's Sky Sports.

That's now. On that Sunday in 1991, they saved the U.S. team.

Stockton's first three players produced only Calcavecchia's half-point. Stewart lost to rookie David Feherty, Floyd fell to Faldo, and the U.S. trailed, 101/2-81/2.

But here came Pavin, his slight build and bushy moustache belying a bulldog's tenaciousness. Up by two holes over Steven Richardson at the 17th, Pavin chipped from a nasty lie in the sand, 50 feet from the hole, to within a foot to clinch the win, the first of the day for the U.S.

For Pavin, a Ryder Cup rookie, that moment remains his favorite in golf. "(The Ryder Cup) is the most pressure you will ever feel," he says. "The last hole of the '95 U.S. Open? No comparison; I was 100 times more nervous at the Ryder Cup."

Beck faced Woosnam, the world's No. 1 player and Masters champion. At the par-5 11th hole, the match all square, Beck's second shot landed in a green-side bunker so deep, "I could barely see the top of the (flagstick)," he says.

Then Beck holed his blind shot for an eagle. "Right then," he says, "I knew Woosie would have to play great to beat me."

Beck's win tied the matches at 12. A Couples win and a Mark O'Meara loss made it 13-13 and set the stage for the finish.

FANTASTIC FINISH

After Wadkins closed out Mark James at the 16th green to give the U.S. a 14-13 lead, "I was as mentally and physically fried as I've ever been," he says. "I was worn out." Not too worn out, however, to walk in with the day's decisive match: Irwin vs. Langer.

The pairing featured two of the world's steadiest players: Langer, the cautious, deliberate German vs. Irwin, whose three U.S. Open wins were a testament to his rock-solid game. "It was very much like watching great theater unfold," Wadkins says.

When Stockton asked Irwin to anchor, Irwin says, "I told my wife, 'It's going to come down to this one.'"

Because Europe held the Cup, it could keep it with a tie. The U.S. needed at least a half point from Irwin to win. That didn't seem a concern as Irwin took a 2-up lead through 14 holes.

"I needed every bit of that, obviously," Irwin says.

Langer parred the 15th to pull within one, then at the 17th, Irwin missed a 6-footer, and Langer, putting his cross-handed style - he now uses a long putter - made his 5-footer to tie the match.

Langer's tee shot at 18 was down the middle. Irwin, knowing that "the worst you could be was be right," hooked his shot toward the left-hand dunes. Then, surprisingly, "it hit someone and stayed in play," he said.

Irwin's 3-wood shot was just short and right, while Langer's ball was in the back fringe. When Irwin flubbed his pitch well short of the hole, and Langer rolled his first putt just six feet past, the U.S. seemed doomed.

Irwin's 20-footer was short and left. As he looked at Langer, he thought, "I hope he doesn't know what I know" - that Langer's putt would break right more than it appeared.

When his attempt did just that, sliding over the right edge, Langer's knees buckled and his head snapped back as if he had been struck. The U.S. players and fans stormed the green - a celebration for some, relief for others.

Later, Irwin coined the memorable term "sphincter factor" to describe the tension. "I couldn't breathe, I couldn't swallow," he says. "I wasn't hoping Bernhard would miss, but . . . there was a lot at stake on that 6-footer."

Never again, Pavin says, would he feel that sort of pressure, even in other Ryder Cups. "I still want the U.S. to win, but I know it's not the end of the world," he says.

"In 1991, it felt like it was close to the end of the world."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- All content © THE STATE and may not be republished without permission.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- All archives are stored on a SAVE™ newspaper library system from NewsBank, inc.

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service