Tickets for the 1991 Ryder Cup at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, sold out in less than a week. NBC and USA Network planned to televise every shot, twenty-one and a half hours of live coverage, an exponential increase from any previous Cup. (They would end up showing twenty-four hours.)
McCumber tore cartilage in his knee playing touch football the day he returned from England in September of '89, and the injury was one reason he didn't make the '91 team. NBC asked him to be an on-course reporter -- he'd successfully done a bit of TV commentary before -- and he accepted. With a brace on his knee and a heavy backpack of audio gear, McCumber exhausted himself clambering over the sand dunes, but he had a great seat for the melodrama and a unique point of view. "It was a little more personal in '91, a little more teetering on the edge," he recalls. "Some of the comments from the gallery were just over the top. And every day in every match was total pressure.
"The Ryder Cup reached as high an emotional pinnacle as it ever could. After that, we knew how good the Europeans were. But back then, we just didn't know."
They found out. Under a South Carolina sun so bright it hurt to look up, the eyes of the world constricted the swings and clouded the judgment of twenty-four international golfers. The vice president of the United States followed the action in person. His boss, Bush the Elder, recorded his "thousand points of light" speech early Saturday morning, then hustled from Washington, D.C., to a resort eighty miles down the coast from Kiawah, the better to feel the emotion as he watched the afternoon fourball. On the morning of the final two days, the president opened the NBC coverage, with a paean to fair play and a reminder that "the Ryder Cup belongs in the USA." On a set in Spain, Sean Connery eschewed any film work in favor of watching every minute of the Cup on a satellite TV. "Compulsive viewing," he recalled. "I have never seen more nail-biting drama" -- even, presumably, in his own movies. Gamesmanship, subtle and blunt, included a twenty-minute video of Ryder Cup highlights at the prematch banquet that showed only U.S. Ryder Cup highlights. During the competition and afterward, the losing team muttered that they were being cheated; the memoirists among them would document specific charges.
"It was unlike anything I've seen before or since, and I've been going to the Ryder Cup since 1953," says Ben Wright, the longtime golf commentator for CBS TV. "It was the one time it got really ugly, too vicious for words. Corey Pavin in fatigues -- such bullshit. If it had gone on that way, the Ryder Cup would have fallen into disrepute."
But what a show! Character and characters were revealed. Emotions redlined. Choking and grace arm-wrestled. The setting amplified everything. Surf sounds and seabirds floated in the air above an ingenious tumble of a golf course. Witnesses to hurricanes, the lonely trees dotted here and there on the Ocean Course were topped by fright wigs of leaves. Some will aver that the 1960 U.S. Open was the best golf tournament ever, and others will put down their drinks to detail the fascinating turns in the plot at the '77 British, the '86 Masters, or the '54 PGA.
But no one votes for the Ryder Cup, even though we watch it so intently that we almost forget to breathe. Even though we have twelve avatars in the game, not just the one guy whose game or style we like. Even though the cliff-hanger nature of team international match play was once sharpened by personalities and circumstance to an excruciating point.
More than two decades have passed since that unusual weekend in South Carolina. Since then the twenty-four players in the drama have suffered through twelve divorces, a heart attack, two diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder, one of alcoholism, one of depression, two of cancer, and a plane crash. Rheumatoid arthritis nearly crippled one; six spinal surgeries immobilized another. Some lost their hair; a couple of others aren't fooling anyone with comb-overs and dye. They lost distance and gained weight. Their children grew up. The divorcés remarried, one of them twice. Two of the group died.
But for three days of furious concentration and focus in September of '91, the past was mere prologue and the future didn't exist. All that mattered was that little gold Cup.
From The War By The Shore: The Incomparable Drama of the 1991 Ryder Cup, by Curt Sampson. Published by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Curt Sampson, 2012.
More on the War: Photos | Read the original SI story | John Garrity looks back
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