U.S. recaptures Ryder Cup

Some 45 minutes after Sunday's end of the 29th Ryder Cup matches, Bernhard Langer emerged from the European players' trailer, looking calm and collected as he walked through the crowd and up the stairs of the Ocean Course clubhouse.

In his left hand, he still held his putter.

He had not, as most of the 25,000 spectators might've expected, flung the club into the sand dunes or the ocean. It would live to play another day. Langer, too. Less than an hour earlier, though, the look on the German golfer's face had suggested otherwise. When his 6-foot putt at the 18th hole slid across the right edge of the cup and stayed out, Langer reacted as if struck. His head snapped back, mouth open, eyes closed in pain.By the margin of that missed putt did the United States reclaim the Ryder Cup.

By that margin, the United States' Hale Irwin halved his match with Langer, giving the American team a 14 1/2-13 1/2 victory that ended Europe's control of the Cup. When Langer's putt refused to drop, a roar went up at the 18th green, punctuated by chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" as six years of frustration were purged.

For three-time U.S. Open champion Irwin, though, the first emotions Sunday were relief -- and sympathy.

"I'd never wish what happened on anyone," said Irwin. "I knew what Bernhard felt like, because I'd just gone through it myself."

Moments earlier, Irwin had flubbed his chip shot from behind the 18th green, then narrowly missed a 20-foot putt. Langer needed only make his putt to forge a 14-14 tie and leave the Ryder Cup in European hands.

"If you can imagine the shock, then the exhilaration," Irwin said. "A 180-degree turnaround in the matter of a 6-foot putt."

It was that kind of day -- indeed, that kind of week.

"A glorious competition,"said U.S. team captain Dave Stockton, who happily endured a champagne shower and a dunk in the Atlantic by his team. "It's a shame someone's got to lose a match like this."

He grinned. "But God, what a thrill."

American golfers hadn't enjoyed the thrill of victory since 1983, and several players on the 1991 team were members of the 1989 U.S. team that had failed to regain the 65-year-old trophy.

Lanny Wadkins, playing in his seventh Ryder Cup, was so overcome with emotion, he couldn't speak when an NBC-TV crew came looking for a reaction. "The last time I was like that was 1983, when I hit a shot to help win the Ryder Cup," Wadkins said.

Mark Calcavecchia, whose failure to win Sunday was forgotten in his team's victory, was so disappointed when he halved his match with Colin Montgomerie, he had briefly left the course.

"I needed time to regroup," he said. "My wife said, 'Hey, there are 11 other guys with you.' I realized then it wasn't an individual thing, but a team thing. Thank God for my teammates."

Both teams endured the powerful winds and the rugged hazards of the Ocean Course, a Pete Dye layout built especially for the Ryder Cup. Those conditions only added to the tension of the international competition.

The U.S. and European teams entered Sunday's 11 singles matches deadlocked at 8-8, after splitting 16 team matches played Friday and Saturday. And though the Europeans took the early lead with victories by Nick Faldo over Raymond Floyd and David Feherty over Payne Stewart, the Americans slowly but surely battled back.

The Europeans seemed to grab an advantage when Montgomerie, 4-down after 14 holes, took advantage of Calcavecchia's collapse -- two bogeys and two triple-bogeys -- to win the final four holes and earn a draw. That gave Europe an 11-9 bulge.

The two sides split the next two matches, putting Europe up 12-10.

Then Paul Azinger helped switch momentum back to the Americans, sinking clutch putts of 10 and 6 feet at Nos. 16 and 17 to top Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal, the Europeans' best player, 2-up. When Chip Beck, Fred Couples and Wadkins won three of the next four matches, the U.S. had a 14-13 lead.

Biggest was Beck's 3 and 1 victory over Ian Woosnam, the No. 1-rated player in the world. Beck had played poorly in losing two team matches Friday, but he took the lead for good Sunday when he holed a sand shot for eagle at No. 11.

"When I hit it I thought, 'Oooh, I've hit my spot. That's gonna be good,' " Beck said. "That was probably the best round, under the circumstances, of my career."

Finally, it came down to the two veterans, Irwin and Langer.

Irwin, who never trailed in the match, led 2-up after Langer bogeyed at No. 14. But Irwin gave a stroke back at 15, then missed an 8-foot par putt at 17 to bring the match to even.

"I had a sneaky suspicion it would come down to the last match," Irwin said. "I went to the last hole knowing I hadn't played the last five holes well.

"The pressure . . . I couldn't breathe, I couldn't swallow; I could hardly hit the ball. The 'sphincter factor' was high."

Irwin hooked his tee shot at 18 into the gallery, then was over the green on his second shot. He tried to pop a sand wedge close to the hole, but left it 20 feet short, turning his head away in disgust.

Langer, meanwhile, putted 6 feet past the hole. When Irwin left his 20- footer just shy, the door was open for Langer.

Moments later, it slammed in his face.

European captain Bernard Gallacher said later, "No one should face that kind of pressure. Bernhard had tears in his eyes in our trailer, but he's got nothing to cry about.

"He hit great shots. He's wonderful."

Irwin agreed. And the 45-year-old veteran of five Ryder Cups had advice for his younger teammates.

"You get few moments like this in your life, and they may never come again," he said. "These moments are special."

For winners and losers alike.