Putting for Planetary Power

Updated: April 28, 2005, 3:57 PM ET
By Jim Schultz | Special to ESPN.com

"I'll just tell you one thing that Tiger said, 'I cannot tell you what it means to come downstairs and be around people who love me.' That's a pretty outpouring thing to say," recalls U.S. team captain Ben Crenshaw on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

The perfect storm. That's what the Europeans thought had hit them on the final day of the 1999 Ryder Cup competition at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

Not only did the United States rally to defeat the Europeans, it also defeated history. Until that day, no winning team had ever come back from more than two points down entering the last day. And only five times in the 32 previous Ryder Cups had the team leading been caught.

Down 10-6 after two days of foursomes and four-ball competition, the Americans began Sunday, September 26, needing 8 points from the 12 singles matches to reclaim the cup (a 14-14 tie and the Europeans would keep the trophy as defending champions). The U.S. responded to the challenge by charging past Europe to gain a 14-13 victory for one of the most memorable comebacks in American sports history.

In returning the Ryder Cup trophy to the U.S. for the first time since 1993, the Americans won 56 holes to 33 by the Europeans in singles. The most significant of those victorious holes was on the 17th in the match between Justin Leonard and Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal.

The Americans led 14-12 with two matches remaining, needing a half-point to clinch the victory. With his match tied on 17, Leonard made an unlikely 45-foot uphill birdie putt that ignited a controversial celebration before Olazabal could attempt his 25-foot putt. Were Olazabal to make it, he would halve the hole and still have a chance to win the match and Europe retain the Cup.

After American golfers, caddies, wives, girlfriends and spectators had finished their jumping, hugging and shouting on the green, Olazabal, the 1999 Masters champion, lined up his birdie try. When he missed, U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw kissed the green.

Europeans dubbed the celebration inappropriate at best; Americans called it spontaneous. The partying continued onto a clubhouse balcony and elsewhere after the match officially ended.

The inspiration for the Americans' Sunday play stemmed from their team meeting the previous night. All the players, their wives, girlfriends and team officials attended. Before the competition, Crenshaw and his wife, Julie, had assembled a video featuring highlights from each player's career, a personalized message from a cheerleader from each player's college and celebrities from entertainment, politics and other pro sports. The video included scenes from the movies "Patton," "Animal House" and "Caddyshack."

Crenshaw invited an old friend, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, to the meeting and asked him to read a letter that Col. William Travis wrote at the Alamo, saying that he would never surrender. Afterwards, each golfer and most of the women spoke. Robin Love, the wife of Davis Love III, quoted Harvey Penick, the famed teaching pro: "Take dead aim."

And, if that weren't enough, the Americans already had received another boost after Saturday's play when they learned the Sunday pairings, when all 12 team members had to compete in the singles matches. Because European captain Mark James had elected to go with his veterans the first two days, three Cup rookies - Jarmo Sandelin, Andrew Coltart and Jean Van de Velde - went into singles play cold. What's more, in a blind draw, James placed the newcomers in consecutive slots early. Meanwhile, Crenshaw - after much indecision - chose to use his best players at the top of his lineup. Advantage, U.S.

America won the first six matches to take a 12-10 lead, starting with Love routing Van de Velde, Tom Lehman beating Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson defeating Sandelin and Hal Sutton, who led the U.S. in scoring with 3 points, downing Darren Clarke.

As the day progressed and U.S. momentum continued to build, louder and more frequent cheers erupted from the crowd of 30,000, which could follow more than one match at a time on the seven JumboTron television screens placed around the course. David Duval, who earlier had referred to the Cup as an "exhibition," crushed Jesper Parvenik and exhorted the fans to become even louder. Tiger Woods, who had contributed only one point total in four matches Friday and Saturday, pulled away to a 3-and-2 win over Coltart.

The Americans needed only 2 points from the last six matches to reclaim the cup, but just Steve Pate (over Miguel Angel Jimenez) and Jim Furyk (over Sergio Garcia) appeared certain of winning. Olazabal was up by four over Leonard after 11 holes; Paul Lawrie, the 1999 British Open champion, held a substantial lead over Jeff Maggert; and Colin Montgomerie, a target of fan abuse, was in front of Payne Stewart.

The Mark O'Meara-Padraig Harrington match was too close to call. O'Meara only needed to halve the 18th to gain a half-point and give the U.S. the Cup. However, his bogey gave Harrington a one-up victory. The outcome remained in doubt.

With Olazabal in a bogey rut starting at 12, Leonard, who was winless in his seven previous Cup matches, won four consecutive holes, sinking a 35-foot putt on 15 to even the match. They halved 16 to set the stage for the drama on 17.

In the 1913 U.S. Open, 20-year-old Francis Ouimet birdied No. 17 to tie for the lead and birdied it again in the next day's playoffs on his way to upsetting two top British professionals, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, to become the first amateur to win the title. Ouimet's performance did much to popularize golf in the U.S. Eighty-six years later, Leonard's putt again focused national attention on the sport.

After the U.S. clinched the victory, Olazabal won the last hole to halve his match and Stewart, in a display of sportsmanship, conceded 18 and his match to Montgomerie.

When the competition started on September 24, the Americans were heavy favorites. They had 10 of the top 20 players in the world rankings compared with Europe's three, eight veterans from the 1997 Cup compared with Europe's four, and the home-course advantage.

However, all was not serene. Some of the players - notably Woods, Duval, O'Meara and Mickelson - had complained about not being paid to participate. The players' attitude upset Crenshaw, a golf traditionalist, and hurt the team's image. The PGA of America eventually agreed to donate $200,000 - half to charities designated by the players and half to college golf development programs.

Poor putting, as much as any factor, cost the U.S. during the first two days. The relatively quiet crowds around The Country Club on Friday, when Europe jumped out to a 6-2 lead, didn't portend the raucousness to come Sunday. Sutton's and Maggert's morning foursome decision over Clarke and Westwood was the Americans' only win in the day's eight matches.

The most disheartening results were the 0-2 records of Woods and Duval. Paired together in the afternoon's four-ball competition, the world's top two ranked players fell to Clarke and Westwood. In the morning, Parvenik and the flamboyant Garcia, at 19 the youngest player in Ryder Cup history, had beaten Woods and Lehman, and Lawrie and Montgomery had defeated Duval and Mickelson, who missed three putts of eight feet or closer.

In the afternoon, Mickelson missed a four-foot birdie attempt that would have won the 16th hole and a six-foot putt for par on 18 that would have halved the match. When Parvenik and Garcia edged Mickelson and Furyk one-up, Crenshaw fell to his knees beside the green.

Crenshaw changed some of the pairings for Saturday. Again the matches were close, but the Americans couldn't shrink their four-point deficit. As they had on Friday, every match went at least 16 holes. With each team winning three times and two matches halved, each gained four points.

A disconsolate Crenshaw rambled in the press conference after Saturday's play, but said he still had a good feeling. Sunday's play vindicated his optimism.

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