Two decades later, remembering the ‘War’ and the fear it wrought

The 1991 Ryder Cup ended with Bernhard Langer's missed six-footer, which capped a tense week.
Jacqueline Duvoisin / SI

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Twenty-one years have passed since I last typed that dateline. I covered the 1991 Ryder Cup for Sports Illustrated, and before that I toured the Ocean Course with architect Pete Dye while it was under construction, hanging on for dear life as he raced his Land Rover over the dunes. My head would bang against the roof every time we breached a sandy ridge, and then my coccyx would crash against the seat when the wheels slammed down again. Pete, meanwhile, kept up a cheery monologue about the design challenges and time constraints of his Ryder Cup assignment, neither of which seemed to be causing him a moment's distress.

Anyway, I checked in at the media center this morning intending to go right out and see what two decades had done to the Ocean Course — or, as some former Ryder Cuppers remember it, the "nightmare course." Unfortunately, thunderstorms swept across the island, interrupting practice rounds and delaying my reunion with Dye's most diabolical design.

Which leads me to this confession: I don't remember the course.

Oh, some impressions linger. I remember golden marsh grasses, sandy waste areas and certain Spaniards up to their hips in trouble on the outward slog of a first-day foursomes victory. I remember Mark Calcavecchia blading that catastrophic iron into the water on the infamous par-3 17th without actually seeing the hole in my mind. I remember the wind on Sunday, gusting to 30 miles per hour and stirring up the surf. But it's vague.

Understand, this was the last Ryder Cup that Sports Illustrated covered in the traditional way. Today we swoop down on a venue with five senior writers, four staff photographers, several reporters, an editor or two, and a fully-equipped video crew. But in '91 you could have transported the entire SI team — myself and staff photographer Jacqueline Duvoisin — on a motor scooter. It was wonderful, working solo, because you had total freedom as a reporter and writer. But it was daunting, too. You had no direct access to the players until the end of play on Sunday, and then it was an interviewing free-for-all; you tried to grab the strongest quotes as two-dozen players and a pair of captains wandered off in 26 directions.

But here's what I remember clearly: being appalled. Billed as the "War by the Shore," the '91 Ryder Cup stoked the competitive fervor of the U.S. and European sides well beyond the norms for athletic rivalry. Everyone remembers that a couple of American pros showed up in Gulf War camouflage hats, but that was nothing. The opening ceremonies were a paean to the American war machine, complete with fighter-jet flyovers, Marine honor guards and a drill team from the Citadel that spun rifles and stomped feet for a good 15 minutes. The European golfers, watching from the stage, looked like Soviet dissidents forced to witness a Mayday parade of weaponry in Red Square.

That's a historical footnote. Once play got underway, the two sides went at each other with uncharacteristic fury. Europe's leader, Seve Ballesteros, lost no time in baiting Paul Azinger, the most dedicated culture warrior on the American side. (Hogan author Curt Sampson provides a fine account of their gamesmanship and rules jiggering in his just-published book, The War by the Shore: The Incomparable Drama of the 1991 Ryder Cup.) The churlishness spread to other matches and to the more-partisan spectators, who waved flags and bombarded each other with sarcastic cheers, jeers and rude musicality. (Soccer anthems! Take that, Yanks!)

But mostly I remember the fear. I had seen nervous golfers before, but nothing like the boys of Kiawah Island. European dominance of the Cup had turned the matches into a test of national character, and it was a test that even the best players approached with resentment and anxiety. Nobody wanted to be the goat. Nobody wanted to be the "choker" who lost the Ryder Cup. Nobody wanted to be Bernhard Langer, who would miss a six-foot putt on the final hole of the final match to let the U.S. regain the Cup with a 14 1/2-to-13 1/2 triumph.

"What to make of so much fear and trembling?" I asked in my story. And I'm still asking that, two decades later. I've never been able to reconcile my appreciation for the heightened drama of recent Ryder Cups with my equally-strong conviction that the matches have become a trial for the players and a goad for the unsporting among us.

Dave Stockton, the U.S. captain at Kiawah, wrote to Sports Illustrated to complain about my game story. Garrity was too negative. Garrity had focused on the flubbed shots and missed an opportunity to celebrate a great American victory. Even Duvoisin's photographs, if you examined them, were lacking in the Stars and Stripes department.

Stockton's sentiments were probably shared by my friends at the PGA of America, who can't have liked the last line of my story: Sam Ryder's homely little trophy is turning into a blood prize.

Well, I'm sure they've forgotten that, the way I've forgotten the holes on the Ocean Course. Twenty-one years is a long time.

Hold on, the rain has stopped. Time to wrap this up and get out on the course for a walk-around. Maybe I'll run into Pete Dye, and we can reminisce about the day he drove me around these ungrassed dunes with the holes still taking shape in his mind and nothing but nature and the EPA standing in his way.

Assuming, of course, that he remembers.