Ryder Cup 1999: Smokin'

Justin Leonard at 1999 Ryder Cup
Simon Bruty/SI
Justin Leonard's putt on the 17th hole in 1999 set the American team into a frenzy.

The article first appeared in the October 4, 1999, issue of Sports Illustrated.

Having exhausted all the superlatives to describe the U.S.'s record comeback to steal the Ryder Cup, perhaps we should simply allow the facts to speak for themselves. For the day, the Americans won a stunning 56 holes to 33 by the Euros. Of the pivotal first six matches, all of which the U.S. won to gain a death grip on the Cup, none made it to the 17th hole. No team had ever overcome more than a two-point deficit heading into the singles, but the U.S. made up more than twice as many points. In the first 10 matches to be concluded, the Americans won eight and halved another. "It was a mighty display of firepower," said Hal Sutton, who got the snowball rolling with a decisive victory over Darren Clarke.

European captain Mark James was left to describe the events of the day. "They got the momentum early on by holing a load of stuff," he said. "We didn't respond with our best play, and then the whole thing got out of hand. Just when it seemed we might pull it out, they holed a bunch more stuff."

James, with his sardonic wit and deadpan delivery, was the MVP of the week's press conferences, and he proved to be a gracious loser, but he deserves the shredding he's going to receive for some of his decision-making. The man they call Jesse had decided from the start to hoard as many points as possible during the team play of the first two days. So he asked his seven best players to tee it up in all four wearying sessions, fatigue be damned. History has frowned upon this approach. Since 1985, the year the Ryder Cup really heated up, Europeans who have played in all four matches heading into Sunday have gone 10-19-5 in singles, a telling record considering that we're talking about their best players. "The kind of golf that was demanded out there, the level of adrenaline that was required, you can only go to the well so often," said U.S. assistant coach Bruce Lietzke. "Mark James wanted to ride his seven horses, and as I look back on it, that was the wrong strategy."

The Euros are a hearty bunch, and they dismissed talk of fatigue, but Sutton, who with Tiger Woods was the only American to play five matches, spoke to the effects. Sutton was bent over like an old cypress tree on Sunday night when he said, "By the 11th or 12th hole today I was dead on my feet. My arms, my legs, my body and my swing were all going at different speeds."

James's game plan left three of his untested rookies—Andrew Coltart, Jarmo Sandelin and Jean Van de Velde—idle until Sunday, virtually guaranteeing that they would lose their matches, owing to rust and, more significant, the lack of confidence shown by their captain. James was left with a quandary as to where to place the three bench warmers in his lineup, and he chose to lump them into the third, fourth and fifth matches. It was a dubious move, given that everyone knew the Americans' only chance was to win the early matches, get the crowd revved up and ride the momentum. "We were shocked when we saw the pairings, and then we became excited," said Lietzke. "We thought they would throw their knockout punch early, sending at least four of their really strong players out. We were lucky we misjudged their pairings." In the three, four and five slots the U.S sent out three big guns—Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III and Woods. "Automatic points," said Lietzke.

The tone-setting opening match was, on paper, a mismatch in favor of the Europeans. Lee Westwood came into the Cup No. 5 in the World Ranking, while his opponent, Tom Lehman, was winless on the PGA Tour since 1996. (Westwood had won 14 tournaments in that span.) But Lehman, the emotional core of his team, was hell-bent on playing on a winning team after two narrow losses in the Ryder Cup, and he came out like a man possessed. After his third consecutive birdie, on the 6th hole, he was 2 up and never let Westwood back into the match, hitting all 16 fairways and greens before slamming the door, 3 and 2. "Tom didn't miss a shot today," said Westwood.

Ditto Sutton, who shrugged off a chip-in birdie by Clarke that won the 1st hole by taking four of the next five holes, forging a 3-up lead through six. Sutton held on for a 4 and 2 victory, and as with Lehman, his outward emotion inspired the crowd and his teammates. When the U.S. came through with the expected victories in the following three matches—including rousing blowouts by Love over Van de Velde and by Mickelson against Sandelin—the Americans were suddenly in the lead.

A crucial matchup came in the sixth slot, Jesper Parnevik versus David Duval. No doubt anticipating losses in the three previous matches, James was using Parnevik as a midday anchor. The engaging Swede had been heroic in going 3-0-1 over the first two days, but by Sunday he had run out of magic. Even at his best Parnevik probably would have lost to Duval, who finally found his game. On Friday, Duval had looked as if he were still trying to make up his mind whether he approved of the whole notion of the Ryder Cup. His icy detachment was sorely out of place amid the jubilant Europeans, and he was smoked in both of his matches. "I just didn't feel comfortable," Duval said. "I felt a little tight."

By Saturday, Duval had begun to come around, in both his play and his enthusiasm, and against Parnevik he let it all hang out, including his shirt tail. Duval had even more fist pumps than birdies (two) over the first eight holes, during which he built an eye-popping 6-up lead. He showed no mercy in closing out Parnevik 5 and 4. "That was something we tried to emphasize: When you get a guy down, pour it on," said Lietzke. "Before Sunday there hadn't been a lot of big numbers on the board. Those can be devastating when a guy's teammates have to stare at them all day."

As the second half of the matches began to heat up, the scoreboards were bleeding red—the color used to denote American leads and victories. In a team meeting on Saturday night the Europeans had made a pact that each would keep tabs only on his own match, but as the Country Club was enveloped in one roar after another, they became more and more aware of their tenuous situation. "I had a wee sneak at the board on the 3rd tee, and the news was frightful," said Paul Lawrie, the rookie who was entrusted with the anchor match, against Jeff Maggert. "It made me grip the club a bit tighter, that's for sure."

With the first six matches in the books, the U.S. now led 12-10 and needed only 2 1/2 points to win the Cup for the first time since 1993. Three of the late matches were all but over early on the back nine—Lawrie was 4 up at the turn, Steve Pate was 3 up on Miguel Angel Jimenez after 14, and Jim Furyk was 4 up on Sergio Garcia through 12. That brought the de facto score to 14-11. The crucial blow among the three was Furyk's dismantling of Garcia. The whiz kid from Spain had been sensational in teaming with Parnevik for four matches, but lost amid their spectacular recovery shots and seamless ham-and-egging was the fact that Garcia was not striking the ball well. "Sergio was depending on Jesper at times," Furyk said after his 4-and-3 victory. "He was missing a lot of fairways. I felt like I needed to keep the ball in play. I hit every fairway, missed maybe one green and just kept the pressure on him." Said Garcia, "All I can tell you is, it was different playing without Jesper."

Needing but one more halve, the U.S. suffered a blow when Mark O'Meara collapsed on the 18th hole and lost one up to Irish rookie Padraig Harrington. Now only two matches remained—Jose Maria Olazabal versus Justin Leonard and Colin Montgomerie versus Payne Stewart—and the whole course seemed to tilt in the direction of the 17th hole, where both groups were playing at all square. We know what happened from there, but it was the aftermath of what turned out to be Leonard's Cup-clinching 45-foot birdie putt that dominated the postround discussion.

By banging in the oceangoer, a jubilant Leonard touched off a madcap celebration that saw U.S. players, caddies and wives cavorting on the green. This was highly unusual, given that Olazabal, one of the game's best putters, still had a 25-footer remaining to halve the hole and keep Europe in the hunt.

Well, it wouldn't be a Ryder Cup Sunday without a few bruised feelings, especially in the wake of such an extraordinary turn of events. At least some on the European side kept their senses of humor. As the American players celebrated their victory outside the clubhouse, a handful of sodden European caddies gathered on the back side of the locker room building and serenaded passersby. Their song of choice? Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, culled from the closing crucifixion scene in Monty Python's The Life of Brian.

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