Ryder Cup 1995: Wrong Man, Wrong Time

August 19, 2011

This artlce first appeared in the October 2, 1995, issue of Sports Illustrated.

America lost the Ryder Cup Sunday to a two-putt bogey.

America lost the Ryder Cup Sunday when a simple par on the last hole by Curtis Strange, Brad Faxon or Jay Haas would have kept it.

America lost the Ryder Cup Sunday when a simple par by Strange on any of the last three holes would have kept it. America lost the Cup in a week in which Nick Faldo made two birdies, Seve Ballesteros hit three fairways and the European captain forgot that Ian Woosnam existed. And America lost the Cup with the No. 1 U.S. player on the PGA Tour money list, Lee Janzen, sitting on his couch at home in Kissimmee, Fla.

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It wasn’t easy. It took a team effort. It bucked all the odds. But somehow, someway, America lost the Ryder Cup Sunday at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., in the greatest come-from-ahead pratfall since DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

Officially America lost the Cup when Ireland’s Philip Walton, a man many of the U.S. players had never even heard of, picked up his ball on the 18th green, his six-inch putt having been conceded by Haas, who, needing a 4 to win the hole and square the match, still had a six-footer left for 5. That backed the Cup into the laps of the Europeans, who won 14 1/2 – 13 1/2, for their first victory in this biennial event since 1989.

Unofficially America may have lost the Cup six weeks ago, when its Sta-Puf team was determined. Working with a group that accumulated points based on Top 10 finishes on the PGA Tour and in majors over the past 20 months, U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins was stuck with a lot of guys who were wonderful at finishing a strong fifth or grinding out a heroic ninth. Yet none of his players had won a tournament since June, and four of them—Faxon, Haas, Jeff Maggert and Strange—hadn’t won a tournament since at least 1993.

“I probably deserve what I’m gonna get now [from the press],” said Strange, the more controversial of Wadkins’s two captain’s picks (Fred Couples was the other). “No matter how bad you beat me up, it’s not gonna hurt as much as what I’m gonna do to myself.”

Perhaps not, but here goes: When Strange got to the hardest miles—the last three holes against Europe’s finest, Faldo, with the Cup on the line-he staged his own Heimlich festival, making three straight bogeys when one measly par would’ve been enough. It was Bill Buckner letting three straight balls go through his legs. It was Jackie Smith dropping three straight in the end zone. It was unthinkable, not possible. And yet, it happened.

This was supposed to be an American anthem a walkover, mostly because Europe brought a cast that looked like it had been starring in the West Enc about five years too long. It came with its usual Fat Four—Ballesteros, Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Woosnam—and a Volvo full of other guys named Mark and Per-Ulrik. But somewhere along the way, the Fab Four had lost some of the Fab. Ballesteros hadn’t hit a fairway since the Berlin Wall fell. Faldo hadn’t had a top-20 finish in a major in ’95. And Woosie wasn’t even on the team until Jose Maria Olazabal withdrew in deference to his famous toe.

Better yet, America had rigged the whole thing. It had picked one of its hardest courses, grown the rough higher than June corn, cut a little footpath for fairways and dried out the greens. The teams would play a U.S. Open and a Ryder Cup at the same time. Let’s see the Euros handle that.

For the first two days it went every bit as planned. The Americans took to a rainy Friday and jumped to a 5-3 lead, mostly by beating Europe’s King and Kong, Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, in the morning foursomes and the afternoon four ball.

Even after Costantino Rocca recorded the third ace in Ryder Cup history, a 5-iron at the 6th that ignited a Saturday morning European rally that knotted the score at 6-6, the U.S. rebounded to win three of the four afternoon matches, the last on Corey Pavin’s electrifying chip-in from above the slick 18th green, which sank Langer and Faldo and turned a one-point U.S. lead into two, 9-7.

Lord, the bleachers were still trembling from the “Cor-ey! Cor-ey! Cor-ey!” that rained down from the throng that remained around the 18th green as European captain Bernard Gallacher entered the mostly empty lunchroom at Oak Hill. The world was writing Gallacher off, and with good reason. No European team since the Eisenhower Administration had come from behind on the last day to win. Yet here was Gallacher pitching his dream again.

“We’re still going to win,” he was telling a Sky television reporter. It was the same thing he had been saying for a month. Sure. This from a guy who was 0-9 as a player and captain in these things.

The Sky man wrapped up his cables, and NBC was asked if it wanted to speak to Gallacher. It politely declined, and he headed out into the freezing night, alone.

Even in the morning, even upon studying the Sunday singles pairings, it seemed that Wadkins had won. Gallacher had put his shlubs off first and last in hopes that Wadkins would waste a Pavin or a Davis Love III on them. Instead, Wadkins did the same as Gallacher, loading up his middle with his best players.

The problem was, nobody told the shlubs they were supposed to lose. Howard Clark, who rode the bench for three of the first four sessions, even went so far as to knock a six-iron in the jar at the 11th hole to square his match with Peter Jacobsen. And still a simple par-4 on the 16th would have halved the match for Jacobsen, and the U.S. would have kept the Cup. Jacobsen made a 5, unable to get down in two from some 65 feet.

So somebody else had to make a simple par at the 18th to halve a match and give the U.S. a Cup-retaining 14-14 tie, but nobody would. One by one they found their own banana peel to slip on.

One down to the unlikely British hero, bald and bespectacled David Gilford, Faxon got a break. Gilford slammed a four-wood over the green and off the bleachers and was looking at pure jail. But Faxon hit a five-iron that hung up in the wind and wound up short and in the bunker. Still, Gilford hit a terrible pitch that didn’t go 10 feet and stayed in the long rough behind the green. Then he chipped that eight feet by. Faxon blew his sand shot six feet above the hole, which is where you want to be only if you’re certifiable. Gilford made. Faxon missed. Full point for Europe.

Next came Strange, who in his only previous action had lost a match on both Friday and Saturday. Strange had been wrought to the Cup by his old Wake Forest buddy, Wadkins, because of something he had done six years ago at Oak Hill, which was win the U.S. Open. Unfortunately, that Strange is gone now, and a guy who hasn’t won since then keeps staring at him in the mirror. Maybe it was sentiment that made Wadkins think magic had no expiration date, but what could Strange do? ‘Hey, I haven’t asked for this,” he said on Wednesday. “I didn’t get a vote in it.” He didn’t enlist. He was drafted.

But now, finally, he led Faldo one up with three of those skinny fairways and hard greens left—greens he had specialized in hitting his entire career.

Except that he fanned a 6-iron right of the green at 16, fanned another one right of 17 and left a three-iron short of 18 from the laser-middle of the fairway. And then Faldo, having to punch out of the rough after his drive on 18, hit the most delicate 90-yard wedge to four feet. Strange chipped seven feet short and missed. Faldo stepped up to his four-footer, tried to swallow the sweater his mouth was knitting (“Everything but my putter was moving,” he admitted) and knocked it home. If you’re scoring, Strange is now 6-12-2 in Ryder Cup matches.

Still, as Paul Azinger says of him, “the guy has enough hair on his ass to make a ponytail,” and Strange stepped up to ever) question after the match. Most of them were brutal. “There’s a flaw in my swing,” he said. “And I’m not sure how much longer I’m gonna fight it.”

Now it was up to Haas, but he was losing to Walton, one of Gallacher’s sacrificial lambs who didn’t know his place. Walton is a red-cheeked Dubliner who almost didn’t make it to Rochester. As it became apparent late this summer that two of the Fab Four would not qualify on points, Europe ‘s top players lobbied to increase Gallacher’s number of captain’s picks from two to at least three. Their demands fell on deaf ears, and Walton played his way on as the 10th man.

And then he played his heart out against Haas. He slipped only once, missing a four-footer for par at 17 that would have clinched it. Still, Haas was one down going to the 18th tee. Cue the music and run it again, Sam: Haas pops his drive up into the trees left, punches out, spins a wedge off the front of the green and chips six feet past.

That left Walton to know forever the happiness of needing an uphill two-putt from eight feet for a bogey to win the Ryder Cup.

“Maybe the Americans know me now,” peeped a delirious Walton, draped in an Irish flag and about 50 rabid fans. “Tell ’em I’m related to all those Waltons on that TV show.”

And off he jogged into a drenching European party that nobody expected—nobody except you-know-who.

“I can’t tell you what this means to me,” Gallacher said, his tears spilling into his two glasses of champagne. “It’s just…I can’t.” He had said all along he had the best players, and he may have been right. Every European team member won a point.

It’s funny, but some were saying that if the U.S. had walloped the Euros as predicted, it would be the end of the great era of Ryder Cup matches. With the Fab Four getting closer to their gold-watch parties and not many stars on the way up, U.S. routs were supposed to start piggybacking, and the Ryder Cup would revert to a complicated dinner party with some golf thrown in for effect. But with this result the U.S. leads 5-4 since Europe joined the fray in 1979, and the next installment, in Spain in ’97, looks like it could be epic.

A long time ago a U.S. captain named Walter Hagen, a Rochester native, lost the Ryder Cup on a dicey choice and tried to put it all in perspective. “To lose in a game is not a national calamity,” he said. “This will act as a tonic all around. America will prepare to win the cup back, while Britain …will go from strength to strength.”

That was in 1929. Sixty-six years later the words Wadkins chose as he addressed the huge crowd at the closing ceremonies sounded just like Hagen’s, in a Texan kind of way.

“Enjoy your time with this pretty little thing,” Wadkins said, clutching the Ryder Cup one last time. “‘Cause two years from now, we’re comin’ to get it.”