The following passage is excerpted from The War By The Shore, by Curt Sampson. The book tells the story of the '91 Cup at Kiawah Island, one of the most tense, heated and emotional contests in the history of the game.
We may sometimes try to forget history,
but it does not forget us.
– Alan Schom in Napoleon Bonaparte
The 1991 Ryder Cup began in 1985. Up to then the venerable biennial match between all-star teams of golf professionals was more ceremonial exhibition than real competition, barely more than a periodic ritual to confirm that the axis of golf power had permanently shifted from Europe to the United States. When the first wave of tough young American pros, steeled in the caddie yards, started winning in the late twenties, the game was changed forever. The chivalrous but overwhelmed Brits bore their humiliation with grace but the inevitable outcome had all the drama of afternoon tea. The event's one-sided predictability — the U.S. record from 1935 forward was nineteen wins, one loss, and a tie — kept Cup results buried in the agate amid the bowling scores. The Ryder Cup was never televised live in the States. Reinforcements for the Great Britain/Ireland team had arrived in 1979, when all European pros became eligible, but with no effect on the outcome. The '79 and '81 Cups were the usual snooze.
In 1983, a flicker: NBC deemed the proceedings sufficiently interesting to televise the final two hours. And they got a hell of a show, because the heretofore overmatched Europeans did so well in the team matches that the thing was tied going into the final day, and then Team Europe forsook its usual Sunday swoon for some vigorous competition in the singles. With the cameras on him and the Cup on the line, up stepped Lanny Wadkins. Oozing attitude and taking little extra time, the plucky Yank slashed at a wedge shot from seventy-three yards on the eighteenth at PGA National. Damn near holed it. Captain Jack Nicklaus smooched his divot, a strange sight. After Tom Watson edged Bernard Gallacher 2 and 1 a minute later, the match was won, but barely. Lanny's teammates and Captain Jack hugged and nearly kissed him as they skipped up the fairway. Lightning streaked the south Florida sky and distant thunder rumbled, a portent.
"Everything changed in 1985," says Mark McCumber. "I recall missing the team when Hubert Green won the PGA, which qualified him automatically and bumped me off. Didn't think anything of it — I was disappointed for about ten minutes." Making the Ryder Cup squad was an honor, to be sure, but it wasn't like getting a knighthood or an Academy Award; in 1977, Tom Weiskopf caused rumbles, but not a Congressional investigation, when he declined his spot in favor of growing a beard and going on a hunting trip in the Yukon. McCumber rose early for three days in mid-September to catch his almost-teammates putting their arms around the Cup once again. What he saw amazed him: At an English countryside course called the Belfry, Team Europe throttled the American side.
"We couldn't handle the crowds," explained Captain Lee Trevino, a loser's excuse never heard before. The crowds? Trevino also debuted the use of the word war to describe the competition.
After the final toasts at the post-match dinner, Team Europe threw itself fully clothed and fully drunk into the hotel pool. One of the swimmers — a Scottish lad named Sam Torrance — admitted that he stayed pretty well toasted for the next three and a half days.
Two years later in 1987, with much more interest this time, McCumber sat in his living room with a remote control clicker to observe his colleagues help the world make sense again. In the homiest of home games — at Nicklaus's course in Ohio, Muirfield Village, with Jack returning as captain — Europe won again, and for the first time on American dirt. Incredulity all around.
Captain Jack spoke graciously in the aftermath about the fine play of Seve and Nick and Bernhard and Ian. But privately — in his own living room, in fact — he addressed his team in very blunt terms. On that final day, not a single American won or even tied the final hole. Looking directly at Payne Stewart, Captain Jack stated that the cream of American golf had forgotten how to win or had never really learned. "You guys need to grow a pair," he said.
Raymond Floyd, he of the scary competitor's eyes and the strange prancing walk, would captain the 1989 expedition back to the Belfry. By now the desire among players, aficionados, and the American sports media to win back the Cup had become a fever; no one could act blasé about almost making the team, and turning down a spot à la Weiskopf was unthinkable. After winning the Players Championship in '88 and the Western Open the following summer, McCumber qualified for the '89 team. A hard grinder who hit the ball like a kicking mule, the Jacksonville native got to see for himself what Trevino and Nicklaus had been talking about: "It was unlike anything I'd ever seen. A football atmosphere. The crowds were incredibly pro-Europe, but still…reasonable. I mean, they could appreciate a good shot by an American."
In the afternoon of the second day, McCumber hit a heroic three-wood tee ball to within eight feet of the hole on the par-four tenth, and made the putt for eagle. The gallery applauded as if the American were someone else's kid at a piano recital, which is to say, unenthusiastically, but at least they didn't jeer or call his partner Four Eyes (in that match, McCumber and Tom Kite beat Bernhard Langer and José María Cañizares 2 and 1). But on the same hole in another match, Kite drove his ball to the fringe of the green. A spectator stepped out of the crowd and emphatically stomped on it.
And when Lanny Wadkins was introduced on the first tee, he was booed. "I looked over at my mother," Lanny recalls. "She'd turned white as that napkin."
Before he hit, and while he was being so audibly disapproved of, Wadkins looked over at teammate Peter Jacobsen and mouthed the words "I love it."
Partisanship — for Arnold Palmer or Walter Hagen or whomever — had always been a happy part of watching a golf tournament. But interfering with the play, or cheering someone's mistake, or booing? That had always been beyond the pale in golf. It was simply Not Done.
Now, it was Done — starting in '85 at the Belfry and resuming there in '89. (The home fans in Ohio in '87 were so equitable that Nicklaus had to ask them to quit being so darned polite, and he had little American flags distributed to inspire a bit more enthusiasm for Team USA.) Meanwhile, an American screwing up a shot or a putt Over There had his misery compounded by loud bursts of joy and occasionally a snippet of the songs they sing at football matches at Wembley.
As for the pressure: McCumber found that it was, as advertised, suffocating. Since the first Ryder Cup in 1927, participants had been amazed at how playing for one's country and for teammates dehydrated the mouth. Even in the boring old days of certain U.S. victory, hands attempting to tee a ball on the first hole shook as if palsied. Now the athletic stage fright had been ratcheted up beyond recognition. "I'd never felt anything like it," McCumber says. "Not even being in the lead in a major compared."
The crowd involvement and the intensity of emotion made a dangerous combination for two men already wired so tightly that you could pluck them like a mandolin string. Paul Azinger and Seve Ballesteros bickered shockingly throughout their singles match in '89. During the match, Zinger paid Seve the extreme insult of standing near him for every shot he hit from the rough — the clear message being that without monitoring, Seve might foot-massage his ball into a better lie. Seve replied with — or perhaps he opened the bidding with — what came to be known as his "educated cough," a tickle in his throat that flared up at the top of Azinger's backswing. The American won this round, one-up; the two teams tied, and sportsmanship lost. The battle lines had been drawn.
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.