It's one of the most famous putts in golf. Bernhard Langer stands over a six-footer on the 18th hole of Kiawah's Ocean Course at the 1991 Ryder Cup in his Sunday singles match against Hale Irwin. The Cup is in Langer's hand: if he sinks it, he wins the match and Europe keeps the Cup. Miss, and the Cup goes to the United States.
Making the putt even more difficult was that Langer had a child at home with a possibly terminal illness. Or did he?
Langer missed the putt, of course, and the United States won the famous "War by the Shore," but the story of Langer's daughter being ill at the 1991 Ryder Cup continued to be told in country club grill rooms and practice ranges for years afterward. However, Sports Illustrated's Michael Bamberger has discovered that it is completely false.
“That story has been going around for years,” Langer said recently. Going around the pro golf fishbowl but not circulating in public. “Where it comes from I have no idea. I played the week before the Ryder Cup in Japan. I played the week after in Germany. If there had been anything seriously wrong with my daughter, I would not have played in the Ryder Cup. Ryder Cup is important, but family comes first.”
Langer and his wife, Vikki, have two daughters, Jackie, born in ’86, and Christina, born two years after the Kiawah Ryder Cup. Langer cannot remember Jackie having so much as a cold in September 1991.
One of the reasons the story of Langer's daughter's mystery illness gained wide currency was Dave Stockton, the 1991 U.S. Ryder Cup team captain, who told it as recently as the 2012 PGA Championship, also played at Kiawah. Here's what Stockton said then:
“The thing that really ticked me off is that on Tuesday night at our get-together with the other team, I find out that Langer’s daughter, who was then right around 2, had a possible terminal illness. I mean, what do you say to somebody? I’ll tell you one thing you do is you don’t put him off dead last the last day. I was absolutely flabbergasted when I saw that pairing.
“As I’m out there by 18 green, I know he’s going to make the putt because I don’t want him not to make the putt. Which means we’re going to tie. I had given it my best shot. I was so mad, and I felt — I don’t know. Obviously I’m glad we won. I felt terrible that it came down to him. I was mad at [Euro captain Bernard] Gallacher for putting him last.”
After learning recently that Langer's daughter wasn't ill during the 1991 Ryder Cup, Stockton said he couldn't recall where he first head the incorrect story.
When Jackie Langer’s health history was reported to Stockton last week, he said, “Well, isn’t that something? I remember that he won the next week in Germany. I remember hearing about Langer’s daughter that Tuesday night, but I can’t remember who said it. I guess I’ll just have to shut my trap on this whole thing. Whenever I see Bernhard, I always ask him about his daughter’s health, and he always gives me a little look like, ‘Why are you asking?’”
Gallacher, the European captain who played the villain in Stockton's erroneous tale, is not in a forgiving mood.
Four thousand miles away, in London, Bernard Gallacher was at home, following the football and packing for his trip to Chicago, where he’ll work the Ryder Cup as a BBC radio reporter. He doesn’t expect that this week’s Ryder Cup will have anywhere near the level of animosity it did when Seve Ballesteros and Paul Azinger had their tête-à-têtes. He also used the f-word — he said he was “flabbergasted” that Stockton would tell such a misinformed story, the phantom-illness story, so publicly.
“Over the years I’ve heard snippets of it,” Gallacher said on Sunday. “I don’t get it. I don’t think Dave Stockton got this in a dream, did he? He won. I don’t know why he would be so ungracious.”
MORE ON '91 RYDER CUP – Exclusive Excerpt: The War By The Shore, by Curt Sampson – SI's John Garrity recalls covering the 1991 Ryder Cup – SI's original story, by John Garrity – E-book: Golf's Greatest Rivalry: The Five Most Memorable Ryder Cups, by Sports Illustrated