Ryder Cup 1991: Blood, Sweat And Tears

Bernhard Langer at 1991 Ryder Cup
David Cannon/Getty Images
Europe's Bernhard Langer missed a putt on the final hole of the 1991 Ryder Cup that gave the United States a victory in the War on the Shore.

This article first appeared in the October 07, 1991, issue of Sports Illustrated.

You had only to examine Mark Calcavecchia's face on Sunday afternoon to appreciate the cauldron of pressure the Ryder Cup has become. His eyes were red and swollen, his checks drained of color, his gaze vacant. Calcavecchia had contributed 2 1/2 points to the U.S. team's winning effort, but he had buckled when it counted most, and he knew it.

The face of Germany's Bernhard Langer was no less revealing. A six-time Ryder Cupper and the winner of 24 European tour events and the 1985 Masters, Langer fought back tears as he left the 18th green of the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, S.C., wending his way through a jubilant crowd that was chanting, " U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" Langer had just missed a six-foot putt for par that would have beaten Hale Irwin and allowed the Europeans to retain the Cup with a 14-14 tie. Blameless, he took the blame.

It's true there were more happy faces than sad ones as the sun poked out of the clouds over Kiawah, turning the marsh grasses gold and warming the brows of basking alligators. The Ryder Cup was back in American hands for the first time since 1985, when the Europeans wrested it away at the Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England. There was much hugging, whooping and flag-waving, and the U.S. players carried team captain Dave Stockton over the dunes and tossed him into the Atlantic surf.

However, the enormous prestige of the biennial Ryder Cup competition is taking a toll on players from both sides of the Atlantic. They still mouth platitudes about solidarity and team play, but what Ryder Cup pressure most brutally exposes is individual vulnerability. Here are a few of the notable Kiawah crack-ups.

Irwin, a three-time U.S. Open champion, practically handed the Cup back to Europe by losing a one-up lead over Langer with two holes to play in Sunday's final and decisive singles match. Irwin three-putted the 17th green and then fluffed a greenside pitch on No. 18 for another bogey. "I couldn't breathe, I couldn't swallow," he said. "The sphincter factor was high."

Reigning U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart drove into the water on No. 17 and swept a fairway iron onto the dunes on No. 18 as he and Calcavecchia fought to protect a 2-up lead in their Saturday foursomes (alternate-shot) match with Mark James and Steven Richardson, both of England. Richardson, a Ryder Cup rookie, then gagged on a four-footer that would have salvaged a half point for the Europeans. "It was a gift," said Stewart, "but we'll take it."

Current Masters champion Ian Woosnam of Wales, the top-ranked player in the world, missed so many short putts that he was alternately kicking his putter and threatening to bite it. Meanwhile, his English teammate Nick Faldo, a two-time British Open and Masters winner, lost three matches and sat out another, saying his lack of touch on the Bermuda -grass greens left him "petrified."

Chip Beck and Paul Azinger of the U.S., one down to the Spanish twosome of Seve Ballesteros and Jose-Maria Olazabal in a Friday four-ball (better-ball) match, put consecutive tee shots into the drink on No. 17 to lose.

None of these collapses, however, rivaled that of Calcavecchia, the 1989 British Open champ, on Sunday. Playing in the third singles match, Calcavecchia was 5 up on Scotland's Colin Montgomerie at the turn, and 4 up with four to play. After losing the 15th hole with a triple bogey and the 16th with a bogey, Calcavecchia appeared to get a reprieve when Montgomerie found the water on the diabolical 17th. But Calcavecchia—one of the water babies who cost the U.S. the Cup in '89 by splashing on the 18th at the Belfry—buckled, skulling a tee shot that hit the water halfway to the green.

That was bad enough, but Calcavecchia then blew a two-foot putt to give Montgomerie the hole with a five. Only one up going into the final hole, Calcavecchia bogeyed, Montgomerie parred, and the Europeans got a half. Devastated, Calcavecchia fled the course, returning only at the insistence of his wife, Sheryl. "The same thing happened in '89," he said. "I was upset. I needed to regroup a little."

He clutched the Cup at the victory press conference and smiled while his teammates needled him affectionately. Nonetheless, his skin had a sickly pallor rarely seen on a golfer. Said Calcavecchia, "I've had enough tension this week to last a lifetime."

What to make of so much fear and trembling? Some observers will argue that the 14 1/2 - 13 1/2 American win proved something—that the U.S.PGA Tour is renascent, maybe, or deeper than the European tour. "For us to come through redeems our Tour a little bit," said Beck. "They've been ungracious winners the last couple of years. They've criticized us and degraded us, and it's been hard to take."

But it's hard to see how the merits of pro golf in either the U.S. or Europe can be adjudicated by one swipe of Langer 's putter. What's more, the Europeans won by two points in 1987, and the teams tied in '89.

What recent Ryder Cups have proved is individual mettle, so perhaps we should start according Ryder Cup heroes the same respect we grant the winners of major tournaments. Consider this curiosity: Aside from Ballesteros, the spiritual leader of the European side and winner of 4 1/2 of a possible five points at Kiawah, and former PGA champion Lanny Wadkins, Ballesteros's American counterpart, who accounted for 3 1/2 points, the five top performers were Olazabal for the Europeans and Azinger, Beck, Fred Couples and Corey Pavin for the U.S. Collectively they have won zero majors, and collectively they can probably beat any five players in the world.

Azinger and Couples, in particular, left Kiawah with their reputations enhanced. The lean and hungry Zinger, good-naturedly referred to by one British reporter as "some kind of stick insect," played much better than his 2-3 record suggests. He was the best shot maker and the most relentless competitor among the Americans. Two of his defeats, both shared with Beck, were at the hands of Ballesteros and Olazabal, who were undefeated as a team, and the score of both matches was 2 and 1. In the latter loss, a Friday afternoon four-ball, Azinger had six birdies on his own ball. Saturday morning he and Mark O'Meara waxed Faldo and David Gilford 7 and 6 for the most lopsided victory of the weekend. On Sunday, Azinger took on Olazabal and won 2 up in the best match of the competition. Two years ago Azinger was 3-1 at the Belfry, including a one-up win over Ballesteros in singles. The Europeans now regard him not as a giant-killer but as a giant.

For Couples, Kiawah meant redemption. Two years ago he wound up sobbing on the shoulder of his wife, Deborah, after bogeying the 18th hole to lose to Ireland's Christy O'Connor Jr. This year he teamed with 49-year-old Raymond Floyd to win two matches on Friday, carried the struggling Stewart to a crucial half against Ballesteros and Olazabal on Saturday and made easy work of Scotland's Sam Torrance on Sunday.

Too much was made of Floyd's steadying influence on Couples. "I don't think I'm making Freddy any better," said Floyd after their two victories on Friday. "The experience he gained in the last Ryder Cup has made him better."

Also vindicated was Pete Dye, the designer and builder of the Ocean Course. Dye has long contended that he builds his punishing layouts with match play in mind. The Ocean Course, with its table-top greens, marshes paralleling the fairways, huge carries over water, and sprawling sand-and-scrub transition areas (the course has no bunkers), forced the action on every hole and put a premium on creative shot making, particularly on Saturday and Sunday, when the wind gusted to 30 mph. The sadistic 17th, a 197-yard par-3 over water to a diagonal green the width of a hearth rug, was so unassailable that players aimed their tee shots at the spectators on the dunes to the left of the green, hoping for lucky caroms. "It's so hard it's unbelievable," Floyd said of the course. "If you had to play this golf course with a scorecard, I don't see how you could finish."

Nothing illuminated Dye's match-play design better than Friday morning's first foursomes match. Ballesteros and Olazabal found themselves in marshland on No. 2 (triple bogey) and up to their hips in scrub on No. 4 (double bogey), but they still edged Azinger and Beck. (Had it been a medal round, Ballesteros would have been making plane reservations at the turn.) The match provided the Europeans their only point of the morning, as the Americans took a 3-1 lead.

In the afternoon's four-ball competition—the Americans' bete noire at the Belfry—Floyd and Couples overpowered Woosnam and Faldo 5 and 3, and O'Meara and Wadkins halved their match with Torrance and Ireland's David Feherty to give the U.S. a 4 1/2-3 1/2 lead at day's end. The lack of discourse between Woosnam and the taciturn Faldo led some observers to conclude that the Europeans were suffering discord, but European captain Bernard Gallacher angrily rejected the notion as "completely offensive, because the European camp has never been happier."

On Saturday morning the happy Woosnam sat out the alternate-shot matches while the happy Faldo and Gilford got blown away by Azinger and O'Meara and the Europeans dropped three of four matches. But they found themselves in the afternoon four-ball, winning 3 1/2 points to even the score at 8-8.

That left Sunday's 12 singles matches to settle the matter. The draw had originally pitted Ballesteros against Ryder Cup rookie Steve Pate, but Pate suffered a bruised hip early in the week when three limousines in the U.S. motorcade piled up on the way to a banquet in Charleston. Pate played on Saturday afternoon, getting treatment for his injured side during the round, but he couldn't answer the call on Sunday. By agreement the Europeans paired Pate with the player (Gilford) whose name Gallacher had chosen and put in a scaled envelope, called the match a draw and awarded a half point to each side. The shuffle meant that Gilford's original opponent, Wayne Levi, would play Ballesteros, who prevailed 3 and 2.

Faldo and Feherty won the first two points for the Europeans. Then came the Calcavecchia fiasco, which sent a chill through the American side. Minutes later, however, Pavin beat Richardson 2 and 1, and Azinger's 2-up win over Olazabal quickly followed. The U.S. pulled even at 12-12 with Beck's 3 and 1 defeat of Woosnam. Then the Americans went ahead 14-13 on easy wins by Couples and Wadkins, and only two golfers were left on the course, Irwin and Langer. "There's nobody I'd rather have back there than Hale," Wadkins said.

Irwin seemed up to the challenge. One up on Langer at No. 16, the 46-year-old Irwin got up and down with a superb chip shot that stopped two feet from the cup, forcing Langer to roll in a tough six-footer to halve the hole. On the 17th Langer drove into the crowd by the green and got a nice bounce onto grass. Irwin answered with a stoic three-wood to the back edge of the green, but he three-putted for a bogey, leaving Langer, who had putted from off the green to within four feet of the cup, with that short putt to win the hole and even the match. Employing the bizarre putting style he uses to cope with the yips on short putts—he grips both the putter and his left forearm with his right hand—Langer made par, raising the specter of another Ryder Cup deadlock.

The 18th was brilliant drama, with the players and captains, their wives, the officials, the news photographers and most of the 25,000 spectators lining the dunes from tee to green. Langer hit the better drive, but both players' balls stayed on the short grass. Their second shots drifted right of the green, with Langer 's gaining a small advantage in length. Then came the shocker: Irwin spilled his 70-foot pitch shot only halfway to the hole. "My disappointment after my pitch shot was so great that nobody on this team will ever know what it was like," he said afterward.

Irwin missed his long putt for par, so the match boiled down to Langer and six feet of Bermuda grass, with the hole and the Cup at stake. When the ball slid over the right edge of the cup, Langer straightened and grimaced as if a knife had been thrust into his back. The crowd roared and groaned simultaneously. Within seconds Langer 's face took on a wooden look, as first Irwin and then his European teammates hugged him, and screaming spectators poured onto the green. "I feel extremely sorry for Langer, because he played very well coming in," said Irwin. "I know what he feels like, because I went through it."

So, yes, the U.S. has regained the Cup. This time, though, even the winners seemed to need consoling. Sam Ryder's homely little trophy is turning into a blood prize.

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