The real winner was golf. If you heard that once, you heard it 50 times Sunday afternoon at the Ryder Cup awards ceremony as speaker after speaker tried to explain the significance of the 14-14 tie between the American and European teams. And, in a literal sense, it was true: The Ryder Cup matches have become an occasion of major significance, and golf is the better for it. But face it, the real winner at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England, was Europe—for the third straight time. Led by captain Tony Jacklin and inspired by the incomparable Seve Ballesteros, the Europeans, unlike the Americans, accomplished what they had set out to do. They retained the Cup, which must be won outright before it changes hands, and more important, they put to rest, once and for all, any notion that their preceding two Ryder Cup victories were flukes—blips on the graph made possible by American overconfidence.
On this occasion American confidence was dealt a lethal blow. Had Mark Calcavecchia, Payne Stewart, Ken Green or Fred Couples managed as little as one halved match among them in Sunday's singles, the Cup would have returned to the States—not an extraordinary expectation, given the fact that all four, the cream of American professional golf, were even up on the 18th tee. But when the pressure was on, these winners of $2¼ million in prize money so far this year crumpled. Calcavecchia and Stewart drove into the water, Green three-putted, and Couples hit a nine-iron wide of the green.
So when Curtis Strange put together a miraculous four-birdies-in-a-row finish that carried him past Ian Woosnam in the last singles match of the day, the 28 matches played over three days were all square. The U.S. team was saved from flying home on the Concorde as the outright loser, but beyond question, American dominance in golf was over.
If an era had to end, this Ryder Cup was a wonderful way to begin another. It was three days of riveting theater. The pressure was as apparent on Friday as it was when the back side was played on Sunday, early points being as valuable as late ones. National pride was at stake. And because it is a team event, the glory of winning was a shared glory, which is a better thing to watch than the individual kind.
The Ryder Cup, which dates back to 1927, produces incidents not common to PGA Tour events. There was Tom Watson, volunteering to sit out two matches on Saturday. There was Ballesteros, patting the cheek of his young playing partner, Jose-Maria Olazabal, after Olazabal holed a key putt. And, poignantly, there was Couples, bursting into tears at greenside on Sunday, sobbing uncontrollably on the shoulder of his wife, Debbie, when the realization hit that had he not missed a five-foot putt on 17 and a six-footer for par on 18, the U.S. would have won the Cup.
In the months leading up to the competition, the emotions were of a decidedly different tenor: You would have thought the players were promoting a prizefight. All season long Calcavecchia had said he would rather win the Cup than a major. After a practice round on Sept. 19, he upped the ante by slighting the European tour. "It doesn't come close to our Tour in any department," he said. He then poured oil on the fire by suggesting that struggling U.S. pros would do well to join the European tour to get their confidence back.
It was left to Ballesteros, the unofficial leader of the European team, to fire the homeside salvo. "It's no secret that I always love to hammer the Americans, and that's what I intend to do," he said. "The U.S. team hasn't improved at all from last time, because they have five new guys."
The five Americans playing in their first Ryder Cup were Green, Couples, Mark McCumber, Chip Beck and Paul Azinger. U.S. captain Raymond Floyd didn't bother with the formality of naming names during Wednesday's Ryder Cup dinner, however, opting instead to introduce his charges as "the 12 best golfers in the world." It was an introduction first used by Ben Hogan before the 1967 Ryder Cup, when it was almost literally true (the U.S. won that year 23½-8½). But in 1989, coming from the captain of two-time losers, the remark was yet another example of American golfing arrogance.
Still, the London bookmakers had made the U.S. team an 8-13 favorite going into Friday's matches. Aside from Ballesteros, Woosnam, Nick Faldo and Olazabal, none of the Europeans commanded much respect from the Americans. The bulk of the European squad was made up of guys—Sam Torrance, Mark James, Howard Clark, Gordon Brand Jr., Ronan Rafferty, Jose-Maria Canizares and Christy O'Connor Jr.—who spend all their time on the European tour, the place where Calcavecchia would have struggling Americans go to beef up their confidence. Well, the money may not be quite as mountainous in Europe as it is on the PGA Tour, but the European tour turns out to be a pretty good place to learn how to win. Among them, the 12 Europeans had won 195 tournaments worldwide. The Americans had won 121.
The Ryder Cup schedule called for foursomes—with the two players on each team taking alternate shots on the same ball—to be played Friday and Saturday mornings, and fourball (or best ball, as it's commonly known in the U.S.) matches to be played during the afternoons on those days. On Sunday, 12 singles matches would decide the Cup.
The U.S. took a 3-1 lead Friday morning after the alternate-shot matches, a format that most assumed would be the Americans' worst event. At lunch-time Floyd, who had promised to give all 12 of his players a game every day, made the tactical error of splitting up all four of his morning pairings. The result was a 4-0 sweep in the afternoon by the Europeans. Ballesteros and Olazabal initiated the blitz by annihilating Watson and Mark O'Meara 6 and 5. Ballesteros personally put an end to the proceedings by going eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie on the back side. Said the 23-year-old Olazabal, "When Seve gets his Porsche going, not even San Pedro in heaven could stop him."
The final indignity of the first afternoon came on the 474-yard par-4 18th. With their match against Brand and Torrance even, first Azinger and then Strange played his second shot short of the lake that guards the green. Strange, who had had a good lie in the fairway and a fair chance of carrying the hazard, had held a fairway wood in his hand for a full three minutes before deciding to lay up. Smart move in medal play; gutless in match. Both he and Azinger made bogeys, and they lost the match one down when Brand saved par from a greenside bunker.
The spellbinder of the second afternoon was the match of the cleanup hitters—Strange and Tom Kite versus Ballesteros and Olazabal. On the first tee Kite, who is from Austin, Texas, drove his ball and then said to Ballesteros, "Remember the Alamo." It was Kite who should have remembered that bit of Texas history, for the Spanish-speakers won there, too. To win at The Belfry, Olazabal and Ballesteros had to save par from greenside bunkers on both 17 and 18, with Ballesteros sinking five-and seven-footers.
The rookies, Azinger and Beck, came through with two wins on Saturday. In their afternoon match they birdied 11 of the 17 holes in beating Faldo and Woosnam 2 and 1. "Cruel," said Faldo, whose side had nine birdies of its own. "From 50 yards in we started believing we had to hole every shot. Sometimes for a half."
The Azinger-Beck win was a big boost for American morale. Though the unbeatable duo of Ballesteros and Olazabal blew away Green and Calcavecchia 4 and 2, McCumber and Kite closed out Bernhard Langer and Canizares 2 and 1. When Stewart, the PGA champion, and Strange, the U.S. Open champion, led the obscure British duo Clark and James one up after 15 holes, the afternoon seemed destined to end in an 8-8 tie.
But it didn't. Clark, whose 11 career victories are six more than Stewart's, holed a 12-foot birdie on 16 to even the match. Then, on 17, a reachable 575-yard par-5 with a big green, first Stewart and then Strange took turns pushing fairway woods into a grove of small pines to the right of the green, making their third shots virtually unplayable. James won the hole with a birdie and parred the difficult 18th to win the match and give Europe a 9-7 lead going into Sunday's singles. It was the third time Strange, who now had won only one-half point of a possible four, had lost a match one down. Asked to explain how two of America's best players could play such dreadful shots, Floyd said, "Pressure will affect the greatest player in the world at times. Sometimes it has a good effect, sometimes a bad one. They were very poor shots. What more can you say?"
But going into the single down 9-7 was far better than the 10½-5½ deficit the Americans faced in 1987. Said Azinger, whose opening singles pairing against Ballesteros was crucial to U.S. hopes, "We're going for a clean sweep."
Had the American team had 12 Azingers. it might have pulled it off. When Azinger birdied 9 to go 2 up on Ballesteros, the scoreboard showed the American team leading in five matches and trailing in two. The rest were even.
Match play is marvelous for its mind games, and no one plays them more effectively than Ballesteros. Putts he would have conceded earlier in the match he now made Azinger mark. On the 13th tee he asked Azinger's caddie to move back twice, glared at him as only Ballesteros can, then hit a monster drive some 350 yards down the fairway. "That was great," Azinger told his caddie, Billy Poore. "You showed him we're not backing down. But don't do it again, O.K.? I don't want him mad at us." Too late. Ballesteros had been mad since the 2nd hole, when Azinger refused to let him change his ball to putt. Azinger holed a putt from off the green on 15 to go one up, but on 18 he pulled his drive into the water—a portent of things to come. He recovered in time to make a miraculous 5, which was good enough to halve the hole and win the match when Ballesteros—even he—put his second shot into the drink.
At that point the scoreboard showed virtually nothing but red—which was the U.S. color that day. Kite had demolished Clark 8 and 7. Beck vanquished Langer 3 and 1. In all, the Americans had won three matches, led in four, trailed in one and stood even in four. "It looked like our side might overwhelm Europe," said Floyd later.
The competition turned when Olazabal won the last two holes to beat Stewart, the second American to drive into the water on the 18th. Then Calcavecchia stepped onto the tee and dunked two shots into the drink before conceding his match to Rafferty. When O'Meara lost to James 3 and 2, Europe needed just two of the remaining six matches to retain the Cup.
Couples was playing the 41-year-old O'Connor, whose last appearance in the Ryder Cup was in 1975. With the match even, Couples—who has won exactly one Tour event in the past five years but has, nevertheless, won $502,000 so far this year—seemed to be in good shape, but he missed the five-foot birdie putt at 17 that would have given him the lead. So once again it came down to 18. After a monster drive, Couples was left with a nine-iron to the green, while O'Connor faced a two-iron over the water. Jacklin, who walked the last two holes with O'Connor, assessed the situation and said, "If you put this lad under pressure, I guarantee that you'll win the hole."
O'Connor struck his iron to within four feet, and Couples, as Jacklin had foreseen, pushed his nine-iron to the right of the green. From there he chipped on, then missed a six-footer to make bogey. Europe had its fourth point of the day. One to go.
It wasn't long coming. Green and the 42-year-old Canizares—both of whom ended up shooting 33 on the back side—were even as they came to the 18th green. Both left themselves long putts for birdie, but when Green charged his ball five feet past the hole and then missed coming back, Canizares, to his surprise, had a two-footer to win the match. When he sank it, everyone knew the significance: The U.S. now could do no better than tie; the Ryder Cup would stay in Europe.
Funny thing was, the Americans didn't know when they were beaten. Brand lost the 18th—and his match—to McCumber. Faldo did the same to lose to Wadkins. Watson beat Torrance 3 and 1. Strange, trailing by one hole with three to play, finished with a glorious run of three birdies to defeat Woosnam 2 up and tie the team score at 14, only the second tie in Ryder Cup history. The score now stands at 22 wins for the U.S.; six for Great Britain and Europe.
"It was a fair result," said Jacklin. "The Americans are bloody tough. And determined. And so are we. That's the fun of it. It's been a wonderful feast of golf."
With American pride as dessert.
U.S. hopes for triumph and Stewart's hope for a half died at the 18th hole on Sunday (left). Captain Jacklin (above) and O'Connor, Couples's conqueror, celebrated Europe's winning tie, each in his own way.
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On Saturday, Ballesteros and partner won twice; Strange and Stewart were stymied.
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Olazabal, just 23, learned to win on the European tour and was unbeatable at The Belfry.
Azinger beat Ballesteros to lift U.S. morale, but he couldn't defeat the Europeans alone.
Stewart, the American tour's leading money-winner, was no match for Europe's best.