Golf Channel revisits the ‘War by the Shore’ in entertaining documentary

Members of the U.S. team celebrated their victory at the '91 Ryder Cup with a dip in the ocean.
Simon Bruty/Getty Images

The first Ryder Cup was in 1927, but the modern Ryder Cup — the intense, "let's go kill them," "properly hate" Ryder Cup — was born at Kiawah Island in 1991, at the legendary War By the Shore, in what Johnny Miller calls "the greatest golf event I've ever seen."

With the 2012 Ryder Cup starting Friday, the Golf Channel's new "War By The Shore" documentary (Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 9 p.m. Eastern) is a tasty appetizer for the main event and also a reminder that even after 21 years the Ryder Cup hasn't escaped the shadow of its dramatic and controversial 1991 version.

The drama of the 1991 Ryder Cup was so spectacular that the producers of the documentary wisely stay out of the way and tell the story mostly through extensive NBC Sports footage of the event and interviews with the participants. Musical accents and "voice of God" narration are kept to a respectful minimum (though I'm not sure I needed to hear Spanish guitar during the Seve Ballesteros/Jose Maria Olazabal segment).

The filmmakers make excellent use of interviews with U.S. captain Dave Stockton; U.S. players Paul Azinger, Chip Beck, Lanny Wadkins, Mark Calcavecchia and Corey Pavin; and European players Tony Jacklin, Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo and Olazabal. Special acknowledgement to David Feherty, who made his solo Ryder Cup appearance at Kiawah. Feherty's recollections of the 1991 Ryder Cup are funny and moving; he says Ballesteros looked smaller to him at the Ryder Cup because "he made you feel bigger." In case you forgot, Feherty was a pretty fair player in his day as well; he beat Payne Stewart in Sunday singles at Kiawah.

The documentary also touches on the controversy of the 1991 Ryder Cup — where the United States' recent victory in the Gulf War added a militaristic tenor to the U.S. side, and where gamesmanship had gotten out of control. Beck talks about how Ballesteros would clear his throat when Beck was at the top of his swing, and NBC Sports' Roger Maltbie recalls thinking that Paul Azinger and Ballesteros might throw punches during one argument. For more on the uneasiness of the 1991 Cup, read Sports Illustrated senior writer John Garrity's recent column about covering the event: "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."

Golf Channel's "War By The Shore" doesn't dwell on the less attractive elements of the 1991 Ryder Cup. Instead, the documentary recreates it, isolating the one match that some say changed the Ryder Cup forever: the last match on Saturday, featuring Ballesteros and Olazabal against Ray Floyd and a younger Freddie Couples, who had Jim Carrey's hair from Dumb and Dumber. Against a setting South Carolina sun, the stylish, swashbuckling Spaniards were matched shot-for-shot by the wily Floyd and the natural Couples. The match was halved, but for American sports fans, the Ryder Cup had arrived.

Interestingly, for an event imbued with so such triumphalism, the most gripping parts of this documentary are the interviews with the men who were heartbroken by it. Mark Calcavecchia talks about his nightmare finish in singles against Colin Montgomerie. Leading Montgomerie by four holes with four to play, Calcavecchia ended up halving the match after shanking it into the water on 17 (Johnny Miller called it the "worst shot he's ever seen," a rueful Calcavecchia recalls) and then missing a two-foot putt. It's as hard to watch today as it was 21 years ago. And Bernhard Langer, who missed a six-foot putt that would have kept the Cup for Europe, talks about playing that fateful 18th hole against Hale Irwin. To his credit, the first thing Irwin says to NBC after winning the match is: "I feel so sorry for Bernhard."

Toward the end of "War By the Shore," Miller says, "That was as good as it gets." If you were too young to watch the 1991 Ryder Cup, then this documentary will thrill you; if you do remember it, then the film will bring back a lot of memories. Most big sporting events fade in memory once the carnival leaves town; the 1991 Ryder Cup only gets bigger.

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