Reading all the stories popping up on this year’s Ryder Cup—particularly the ones from 1991—sent my memory cells back in time. Back as far as 1985.
At that time, I was working for a golf developer in California, and I had never heard of the Ryder Cup. However, one of the developer’s courses, PGA West, was slated to host the 1991 matches and the announcement was to be made at the PGA Championship at Cherry Hills in Denver.
The appointed time was 11 am. It was a Wednesday. The course: PGA West Stadium Golf Course.
There was so little interest in the Ryder Cup that there were less than 12 people in the media room including four officers of the PGA, a senior vice president from the company I worked for, the late Bob Green from the AP, some PGA of America staffers and me.
It was a non-event. After I counted them, I realized I had an uphill battle getting people to take interest in the event. Adding to the difficulty was the fact that PGA West would not be open for another four and a half months.
Now, of course, everyone knows that PGA West did not host the 1991 Ryder Cup. And that meant the event was awarded first to a course that hadn’t been completed and then to a course that wasn’t even started.
Same developer would own both. Same course designer. Pretty interesting when you think about it.
In 1987, I went to Muirfield Village for the Ryder Cup so I could see it first hand. There was no hype. It was not a big media deal, particularly because football had started, and in Columbus, Ohio, fall is ALL about football.
Match play was giving the television people fits because they were accustomed to matches ending at the 18th, and with match play they couldn’t predict how or where matches would end.
Because of the technology changes and portable cameras of today, that is not as much of an issue anymore. With the way golf was televised at the time, it was not difficult to cover four matches, but it was hard to cover eight and nearly impossible to do 12.
In 1987, it was probably a miracle that the Ryder Cup was televised at all. If Jack Nicklaus hadn’t been involved as team captain, maybe it wouldn’t have been.
After two days off play, Europe had blasted through the US squad and was ahead 10.5 to 5.5. It was particularly surprising because—looking at the records of the US team—they should have certainly been stronger than that.
It just didn’t happen.
Some young kid from Spain named Jose Maria Olazabal was Seve Ballesteros’ partner, and they could not lose. No one could pronounce his name. At the time, it was worse than Louis Oosthuizen.
They and the other Spanish players were becoming known as the Spanish Armada, but that was mainly because of Seve and Olazabal who dominated the Ryder Cup like Spain had controlled the high seas centuries earlier.
In the singles, Ben Crenshaw—probably our best putter at the time—broke his putter “Little Ben,” after missing a putt somewhere on the front nine. He had to putt with a long iron or a wedge the rest of his singles match, but realistically, by that time, Europe only needed 3.5 points to retain the Ryder Cup.
When their team danced on the green at the 18th and sprayed champagne everywhere, US fans were a little dumbfounded. The Europeans had now won two of these in a row. It gave the players pause.
Even though the 1987 US team included six guys who had won majors and three who would go on to win them, Europe relied on Seve, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, and Bernhard Langer to beat the US squad.
Those four played every match and carried every partner, if necessary. It was in singles that they knew they would have a problem, so they had to have a strong lead headed into Sunday because they knew lined up 12 against 12, they would lose more matches than they would win.
Hiding the lesser players became part of the European Secret Strategy. However, what most US golf fans did not know was the European Tour was rumored to be struggling financially. Whether that is truth or simply rumor, I do not know, but there are many European players from those 1980s teams who have said on the record that they had to win to keep their tour going.
It was more than a trophy for them. It was existence.
What I was thinking at the time was that if Europe should go on to win the next one in 1989—which happened—by the time the event came to PGA West, it would be a battle royale. Well technically it was a tie, but tie goes to whoever had the cup coming in, so Europe retained it.
Ian Woosnam was added to the European mix in 1989, and then Colin Montgomerie joined it in 1991. Ballesteros, Faldo, Langer, Montgomerie and Woosnam became Europe’s fab five, coming together for the first time at Kiawah Island in 1991.
The US now had lost in 1985, 1987 and 1989. In between, there was a Gulf War and Dave Stockton ordered up some camo caps. Golf World ran a headline that said War by the Shore giving the matches a new theme. This did not come from the PGA or the players. It was media-inspired.
By the fall of 1991, the US players were tired of losing to Europe. Really tired. Not only were they losing the Ryder cup, but they’d also begun losing to them at the Masters with regularity.
This era was the first glance into a future in which US Players were no longer at the top of the world of golf. Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo traded places as number ones in the late 1980s and early into the early 1990s.
In 1991, the US Open was still “ours,” the British Open was pretty much “theirs” and the PGA had a long string of US winners with the exception of Wayne Grady, David Graham and Gary Player. But we come from a culture that likes to have it all.
If the US had somehow won in 1989 at The Belfry, there is no doubt the 1991 matches would have been different in tone, character and perhaps outcome.
The Ocean Course at Kiawah had survived a hurricane while it was being built. The story behind the change of venue had to do with politics and contracts, but it was a win-win for the owners and for the PGA at the time.
However, to think that it would be a nice, civil contest was silly. It is not a nice course. It is a large horror show. It is the ultimate Pete Dye experience, and by that time the US was pretty desperate to win a Ryder Cup.
So 24 golfers, captains, wives, PGA officials, more busses than you can imagine for transportation and 25,000 people packed themselves onto a small strip of land in South Carolina and created one of the most memorable golf experiences and golf events in the history of the sport.
The Concorde did a flyby. The sitting US president made opening remarks via video. It was, as Ron Burgundy likes to say about himself, kind of a big deal.
From open to close, being at the event felt like the funny concerned tingle of anticipation you get before a massive thunderstorm when the sky turns greenish. Or when you get inside just as an immense bolt of lightning hits and the thunder is so loud it rattles the grounds. It’s like being in your first 5.3 earthquake and wondering if the earth is going to swallow you up.
The course practically shook with sound.
What happened isn’t effectively caught by the cameras and pictures, although it tells some of the tale. It doesn’t capture the energy of the crowd. The chants. The singing. The flag waving. The cheerleading of the players for teammates.
It was raucous. It was riotous.
If the Fab Five had all played to form, the US would not have won. Nick Faldo had a terrible Ryder Cup, uncharacteristically losing three matches over the first two days. Those three matches would have more than given Europe the trophy.
Then, Sunday, when the US was ahead in several matches, the announcers sounded blasé. On site, it did not feel that way. Watching the twosomes starting to play their way through the back nine, one by one, the matches tightened. Whether it was nerves—like those that consumed Mark Calcavecchia—or lucky—like the one Hale Irwin got off PGA of America staffer Kathy Jordan’s back—there was a series of little events on the course until the matches were tied with Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer the only two left standing.
Seeing the pairings come through the 17th was ear-shattering as well as nerve-wracking. How golfers took the club back on that tee is unknowable. The noise was just incredible. It was equal to the 18th hole at the British Open, which is typically the loudest in golf.
When there was a pause in the action, one side of the hole would chant USA and the other side would chant Eu Ro. They did the wave once or twice, but when players were on the tee or hitting shots around the green, it was excruciatingly silent.
Watching tee shots go into the water was painful, no matter who hit them. When Corey Pavin hit his shot out of the bunker, he lept into the air three feet coming out of the sand and onto the green and nearly beat the ball to its resting point. I began rooting for guys to finish on the 16th so they wouldn’t have to play the 17th.
When it came down to Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer on the 18th hole, the crowd was massive. There wasn’t an inch to move and almost not enough air to breathe. Watching both second shots miss the green was not a good predictor of what was to come. When Irwin hit a poor chip, it was like the life was sucked out of the US fans.
It looked as though Langer would surely win, but his chip went too far, perhaps an over-compensation for the way Irwin’s shot reacted on the green. While Langer’s putt did not look impossible, the situation made it that way.
Hale Irwin said later that nobody could have made that putt under those circumstances. Langer has said there were spike marks in the path, and I cannot argue whether there were or there weren’t. What was plain was that Langer was in agony and Irwin was in shock when the putt did not drop.
The Ryder Cup was coming back to the US. The whole place just plain went nuts. People were embracing each other, hopping up and down, yelling at the top of their voices.
As much as the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline is discussed as the biggest comeback in Ryder Cup history, and as combative as some of the situations were with a few players—notably Colin Montgomerie—it was just not quite the same as it was at Kiawah.
Fans at Kiawah were not rude. They were just enthusiastic. Fans in Boston were down right mean to some of the European players.
Also between 1991 and now, several things have happened and one of the more important is the elimination of the Ballesteros rule on the PGA Tour. When Seve Ballesteros first emerged, he was so good that the PGA Tour insisted on a minimum number of events to either keep Seve here or to keep him from cherry picking events with the biggest purses.
The Tour asked Seve to play 15 PGA Tour events which did not include the majors. So that meant Seve would have to play 18 times in the US. He was needed in Europe and could not effectively play both tours since they started in the spring and ended in the fall.
He would still be able to get a certain number of exemptions. The Ballesteros rule did not just affect Seve. It affected all other Europeans and resulted in a "Them and Us" mentality on both sides of the Atlantic. Bernhard Langer who has lived in Florida since the mid-1980s played the bulk of his career in Europe because of the rule.
When the Ballesteros rule was rescinded, the 15 events include four majors. With that change, Europeans have been able to support their tour as well as play in the PGA Tour. We have since seen a growing number of golfers from Europe who maintain homes in the US, and who play regularly on the PGA Tour.
Today, we know these guys, and we kind of like them. What’s not to like about Irish guys named Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy? Probably a third of the US is Irish in some fashion.
So having many European players, whether Ian Poulter or Justin Rose or the Irish gang here on a regular basis makes them more familiar to all of us. Poulter—with his fashions and his gazillion kids and his fast cars—is just plain fun. Don’t we all wish we could be Ian Poulter?
Today the Ryder Cup is reminiscent of the time it was said that the Presidents Cup could easily be played in Orlando because most of the International Team lived there.
Now, is that good or bad? It’s just different. It just means that the raw emotion of the Ryder Cup of 1991 or even 1999 s probably a thing of the past.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
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