This article first appeared in the October 07, 2002, issue of Sports Illustrated.
When it was over, and Europeans were diving into a pond near the 18th green—one by one, rapid-fire, as at the start of an Esther Williams number—the U.S. had surrendered the Ryder Cup with two bullets still in their chambers. Thirty-five thousand spectators were going bats in the Belfry, while Davis Love III and Tiger Woods had yet to post scores. U.S. captain Curtis Strange may forever feel the weight of those unfinished rounds, like the phantom legs of an amputee.
The pity is not that the U.S. died, but that it died with green bananas on the counter. Love was the 10th American to tee off on Sunday, too late to help his teammates. Woods—who’s been known to get $2 million and the use of a Maserati simply for showing up at a tournament in Europe—went off 12th and last. You wouldn’t bat DiMaggio 10th, or have Yo-Yo Ma play third-chair cello. But the world’s best golfer was marooned, mid-round, on the 17th hole when Europe won the 34th Ryder Cup in Sutton Coldfield, England. Said Woods, cruelly, of what he did next: “I hit one of my best 7-irons ever.” Sigh. But then Schubert, too, left an unfinished symphony.
The week began with a rare English earthquake: 4.2 on the Richter scale, it sent Jesper Parnevik fleeing naked into the night onto the balcony of the Belfry Hotel. The week ended with one, too. As Paul McGinley of Ireland—a genial man with the stature, and perma-smile, of a ventriloquist’s dummy—stood over a 10-foot par putt on 18 on Sunday, he needed only to sink it to halve his match with Jim Furyk and give Europe 14 1/2 points and victory. The gallery stood a dozen deep around the green, thousands of people pogoing up and down in an effort to see, so that the golf course looked like one prodigious Whack-a-Mole game.
When the putt fell, the gallery immediately burst into song. “I realized then,” said Woods, who was standing on the 17th tee, “that we weren’t going to win.”
No indeed, for McGinley was immediately dwarf-tossed into the pond, and Europe captain Sam Torrance exhaled joyous walrus tusks of cigarette smoke through his nostrils. “Hurry up with your questions,” the Scotsman urged reporters much later that evening in an interview tent, long after his team’s 15 1/2 – 12 1/2 win, as the post-victory singing outside entered its third consecutive hour without pause. “It sounds like a hell of a party out there.”
It was. All week spectators were “biased and respectful in the same breath,” as David Duval put it. For this was, as all the signage served to remind everyone, the 2001 RYDER CUP, postponed a year because of Sept. 11. After the debacle outside Boston in ’99—when celebrating U.S. players and wives, wearing hideous shirts of woven vomit, were accused of epitomizing ugly Americanism—spectators were urged to behave at the Belfry. They bought into the program, Brookline and sinker.
It helped that security was tighter than an Englishman’s arteries. Among the items specifically proscribed at the Belfry were folding chairs and stepladders, in evident anticipation of an attack by Ric Flair. Police with submachine guns patrolled the course’s perimeter, and alcohol was barred from the galleries. “Didn’t see one drunk,” Torrance said after Friday’s better-ball and alternate-shot play, during which his side, keyed by two victories from the team of Sergio Garcia and the reborn Lee Westwood, eked out a 4 1/2 – 3 1/2 lead. “Might see a couple later though. And I might be one of ’em.”
Sure enough, by sundown Sunday, Torrance—a joyous man whose mustache appears to have been Magic Markered on—was chugging from an oversized bottle of Moet, the kind used to launch ships. Which, in a manner of speaking, he had just done. Torrance raised the sunken Phillip Price, the last man to qualify for team Europe. “I’ve been in the depths,” Price said on Sunday night, “and this team has pulled me up.”
The 35-year-old Welshman’s paragraph-long bio in the European Tour guide is so slight that it actually has room for the notation “Pontypridd Man of the Year, 1994,” an honor bestowed by his hometown. Yet on Sunday, Phil Mickelson (World Ranking: 2) was torpedoed by Price (World Ranking: 119) in match play, 3 and 2. “I didn’t think I had it in me,” said Price, “but it was nice to find out that I did.”
Mickelson, for his part, is known in Europe as the Nearly Man for his frequent close calls in majors, and Sunday’s round may cryonically preserve that reputation for eternity. (Mickelson had acquitted himself valiantly in the better-ball and alternate-shot competitions on Friday and Saturday, teaming up with David Toms to go 2-1-1.) Of course, Scotland has its own Very Nearly Man in Colin Montgomerie, who also has famously wilted in majors and is now—to hear him tell it—literally wilting, a chiropractic catastrophe. But Monty played unbowed and unbeaten at the Belfry, winning three of his better-ball and alternate-shot matches, halving another and whipping Scott Hoch in Sunday’s match-play opener, 5 and 4. “Bad heart, bad back, and tomorrow he’ll have a bad head,” said Torrance, watching Monty giddily swig Budweiser on Sunday night.
Montgomery led off singles play, which began with the teams tied at eight points apiece, only because Torrance front-loaded his 12-man lineup, putting his best golfers first in an effort to create momentum. Strange, to the contrary, back-loaded his list, placing his best golfers—Love, Mickelson and Woods—last. “Any superstar,” explained Strange, “wants to take the last shot.” But what if Jordan never got to touch the ball?
Torrance claimed to have no clue what Strange’s lineup would look like and how his own list might match up. But Scottsbluff ain’t just a town in Nebraska, and Torrance is—as Parnevik put it—”not as dumb as he looks.” And so, after an almost preposterously good day of golf on Saturday that included 106 birdies, the Cup would come down to 12 singles matches on Sunday.
In the wood-paneled sanctuary of the Belfry Hotel on Saturday night—its lobby filled with enough smoke to cure a thousand hams—the U.S. team gathered for one final meeting, at which Strange’s 20-year-old son, Thomas, heretofore mute, asked to say a few words. “I’ll never forget what my dad said at the opening ceremony,” began Thomas, alluding to a French political cartoon, published shortly after Sept. 11, that his father had cited in his speech on Thursday. The cartoon’s caption, which the senior Strange had found so moving, said simply, WE ARE ALL AMERICANS.
We are all Americans. Thomas Strange repeated the words somberly, and then said, “Boys, that sâ€”- ain’t gonna fly tomorrow.” And the room exploded with laughter.
“That apple,” said Paul Azinger, “didn’t fall far from the tree.”
In the same hotel, on Sunday morning, Europe’s Ryder Cup rookies—among them Price, McGinley and Niclas Fasth of Sweden—ate breakfast together and relished the idea of playing last, head-to-head against golf’s giants, with the Ryder Cup at stake. “[One of us] may get to do the honors,” Fasth said to McGinley , of stroking the decisive putt. “If the stars behave.”
Later in the day, of course, Niclas and Price would play like (Jack) Nicklaus and (Nick) Price. But the cosmos began behaving long before they teed off, when Eurostars like Monty and Bernhard Langer and Padraig Harrington were beating the charcoal-gray uniform pants off Hoch, Hal Sutton, and Mark Calcavecchia, respectively. None of those matches made it past the 15th hole. Lonely spectators in the grandstand around the 18th green were beginning to wonder if the Cup had been canceled. By the time Stewart Cink was sunk, 2 and 1, by Thomas Bjorn of Denmark, Europe had won four of Sunday’s first six matches and had the crowd whipped into what The Clash once called a White Riot.
But the Yanks had two Tigers in their tank, and one of them—Toms, of Louisiana State—rallied to beat Garcia one up. Then Toms’s fellow U.S. Ryder rookie, Scott Verplank, defeated Westwood. Suddenly the Cup was harder to call than the Florida election, with the matches in progress (Azinger/Fasth, Furyk/McGinley, Love/Pierre Fulke) too close to project. But every time the U.S. went up in one, they’d fall down in another, and getting traction proved nearly impossible, like herding squirrels.
Still the Yanks hung on with their teeth, even as their Poli-Grip was slipping. Zinger, in an epic against Fasth, chipped to the lip of the 5th hole, where the ball hung for an eternity. It was finally knocked in by a shadow cutting across the green. On 18, needing—absurdly—to hole out from a bunker for a birdie that would keep his team alive, Azinger blasted his shot in. With that the U.S. was still breathing, until the next twosome, Furyk and McGinley, who were all square, hit their shots into the 18th green. It was, for one of them anyway, a fairway to heaven.
“What can I say?” asked McGinley of what happened next. “Unbelievable.” Unbelievable that the stars behaved, and his putt dropped, and 35,000 people began to sing as one. Unbelievable, too, that Love and Woods were left on the course, impotent (in spite of the on-site, Viagra-pushing Pfizer Men’s Health tent).
Until the instant McGinley’s putt fell, Woods’s match with Parnevik was all square, and about all that could have hung in the balance were an intercontinental sports championship carried on live television in four dozen countries and—more important—the affection of Elin Nordegren, Tiger’s girlfriend and Jesper’s ex-nanny. Said Parnevik, “She better have been rooting for me.” We’ll never know. Tiger was left on 17, holding his perfect 7-iron. Said Woods, with characteristic understatement, “It was frustrating.”
Frustrating? It was watching Steve Lawrence open for Sinatra, and then not getting Sinatra.
Still, Woods—like a decapitated chicken—kept playing to the 18th green, where he conceded a putt to Parnevik, agreeing in essence to halve their match. Likewise Love and Fulke, who agreed to halve their match after the Swede first graciously offered to concede the U.S. a full, if meaningless, point, instead of the half point Love accepted. It is that spirit of hands-across-the-water that makes the Ryder Cup so indelible. A year ago we were all American. Last week, it turned out, we were all European.
“I am from Norway,” a reporter blurted to Torrance on Sunday night, “and I think this victory will unite Europe in a way that the Euro never will.”
The Scotsman waited for the man’s ensuing question, and when one never came, Torrance sought to rescue the nervous journo from the awkward silence that now engulfed him. “We are all European here,” the captain announced, to the roomful of Americans, Japanese, British and Continentals. “And that includes Norway too, if you’re feeling a wee bit left out.”