Two decades later, the rawness remains, immune from the normal softening of the calendar’s steady march. It requires a single utterance, two syllables, and the white-hot sentiments from a long gone September Sunday come roiling back. The bitterness of insults hurled in anger rise again like a festering boil.
No one there will forget the spectacle of that 1999 Ryder Cup, the one with the Sunday Team USA shirts that Davis Love III would describe later as looking “like the AIDS quilt” from a distance; the one where a 19-year-old Sergio García bounced around The Country Club like a kid at recess; the one where then Texas Gov. George W. Bush read William Travis’ “victory or death” letter from the Alamo to the U.S. team on Saturday night after captain Ben Crenshaw wagged a finger at the media and said, “I’ve got a good feeling about this. That’s all I’m going to tell you.”
But more than anything, it’s remembered for the rancor and hard feelings that persist to this day. In the wake of a Solheim Cup that was a model of unity and sportsmanship, a watershed moment for women’s sports, as well as the 50th anniversary of “the concession,” the famous gesture during the 1969 Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale in which Jack Nicklaus conceded Tony Jacklin’s 2-footer to halve the match and halve the Ryder Cup, it is a perfect time to reflect on the 20th anniversary of an event that sharpened our sporting divide and paved the way for policies, protocols and polemics that define the biannual matches.
In returning to this time – a period when a mere 32 percent of the U.S. population had cellphones and the invention of social media was half a decade away – it’s important to recall that the 1999 Ryder Cup began with controversy long before the first shots were struck. Months prior, a group of players had registered complaints about the lack of financial transparency and compensation, even to charities, that went with this week-long extravaganza.
In early August 1999, David Duval, who was the No. 1 ranked player in the world at the time (a crown he would cede back to Tiger Woods within a week), said, “If the figures are correct, (the PGA of America is) supposed to gross anywhere from $20 million to $30 million (on the Ryder Cup). Where’s it all going? At least at the Presidents Cup last December they sent $2.9 million toward charity. Not a lot, but something. Now, we can sit here all day and argue whether players should be paid for a Ryder Cup but that’s not really the point. Speaking for myself, that’s not the solution. That’s not what I’m after.”
Duval didn’t stop there. He went on to suggest that there might come a time when the players simply said, “No thanks,” to a Ryder Cup berth, an unthinkable consideration today. But it was very much on the minds of players two decades ago when the chasm between the PGA of America and PGA Tour players, who were the dogs in one of the game’s most profitable dog-and-pony shows, had grown to considerable width.
“If you have 12 players on a Ryder Cup saying, ‘We need to talk,’ what are the alternatives?” Duval asked at the time. “Does the PGA of America go to the next 12 guys on the list and ask them to play?
“Without the players they’re not going to have a Ryder Cup, but all the other people who go to the Ryder Cup to work or whatever, are they still drawing their salaries for the week? Mark O’Meara got blasted for bringing up the compensation issue during the last Ryder Cup (in 1997 at Valderrama) and he was absolutely right. Meanwhile, the people criticizing him were paid that week. They aren’t donating their services to the cause. Why don’t they work for free, too? Better yet, let’s take some of that big Ryder Cup pot and cut it up and give it away to charity. That’s supposed to be what we’re all about, isn’t it?
“Something has to happen here and the best solution will be if something’s done and nobody knows about it. We do our talking privately and it all gets done quietly.”
Duval was barbecued for his comments. Even a few of his teammates chimed in. Payne Stewart wondered out loud if Duval (a Ryder Cup rookie at the time) shouldn’t at least go through an opening ceremony before spouting off about the event.
Of course, that’s exactly what happened. The PGA of America worked with the players to make charitable contributions in their names from the Ryder Cup proceeds. But in 1999, this was more than a shot across the bow; it was a warning blast of near nuclear proportions.
And Duval’s Ryder Cup revenue estimate was on the low end. In its September 1999 issue, Golf Digest projected that the Brookline event would gross $63 million. By 2018 in Paris, the total economic activity generated from the Ryder Cup was estimated at €235 million (or $259 million). Each U.S. player in 2018 had $200,000 donated to charity in his name, half going to a school and the other half a charity of his choice, while additional charitable contributions in the millions were made locally.
None of that was available before 1999. So, you would think that Duval and others who called for this would have been hailed as agents of change.
You would be dead wrong.
Duval was barbecued for his comments. Even a few of his teammates chimed in. Payne Stewart wondered out loud if Duval (a Ryder Cup rookie at the time) shouldn’t at least go through an opening ceremony before spouting off about the event. And the captain, Crenshaw, said, “Boston, Boston, Boston, that’s all our players should be thinking of now. All the other stuff, like talk about money, can wait.”
At the PGA Championship at Medinah that August, Crenshaw and a crop of players met with then PGA CEO Jim Awtrey in the newly refurbished clubhouse to hash matters out. Love was profoundly critical of players’ seeming greediness, while Tom Lehman said, “We should all be ashamed of ourselves for bringing this up now.” But Phil Mickelson didn’t waste the opportunity to dive deep into the PGA of America’s numbers. Afterward, Crenshaw came out for a news conference and said, “I want to say one thing: I’m personally disappointed in a couple of people in that meeting. I mean that. They know who they are. And whether some players like it or not, there are some people who came before them who mean a hell of a lot to this game. It burns the hell out of me to listen to some of their viewpoints. The meeting was good because it cleared the air. Those players knew how I stood before I went in there. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
But that wasn’t all he had to say. Afterward, Crenshaw called out Duval, Mickelson, O’Meara and Woods by name as being among those with whom he was “personally disappointed.” He went on to condemn Woods for calling the Ryder Cup an “exhibition,” and he showed particular contempt for Duval, saying, with no small measure of incredulity, “He hasn’t even played in one yet.”
It was against that backdrop that U.S. players arrived in Brookline, a 15-minute drive from downtown Boston, for the matches. There was an edge in the air. Talk radio flamed the controversy of what had been labeled the “pay for play” scandal (a name that ignored the fact that players were asking for accountability and charitable giving – which, in hindsight, were not unreasonable requests). One caller from Quincy, a suburban city just south of Boston, said on the air, “Duval should take his millions and buy a personality. I don’t care. I’m pulling for the Europeans. I hope they beat those crybabies like a drum.”
Massachusetts had lost its only PGA Tour event, the CVS Charity Classic, the year before and September was the end of baseball’s regular season for the playoff-bound Red Sox and the beginning of Patriots football. Golf wasn’t in the mix for the average Boston sports fan. Perhaps the most telling example of the edge in the air came from the Boston Herald, a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid that ran a special Ryder Cup section every day of the week. In one issue, the editors called Colin Montgomerie a “Bill Parcells lookalike.” But in another, they ran a section called “Things You Are Likely to Hear at the Ryder Cup.” The No. 1 item on the Herald’s list: “Oh, look Muffy, a Negro. It must be Tiger Woods.”
Even in more politically incorrect days, it was one of those things that made the reader spew coffee on the table and say “Oh my God!” out loud. The internet was a fledgling afterthought at the time. Newspapers were still the keepers of quality journalism Not only had a writer written that line, a team of editors had approved it, a typesetter had set it, and millions of eyes saw it. Beyond the race and class issues, that single line in a tabloid paper established a turning point, not just for the way the 33rd Ryder Cup matches would play out, but for an uncomfortable trend in golf. People who laughed at racial jokes, who shouted obscenities at baseball games with young children nearby, had made their way into golf galleries by 1999. By 2019, those numbers have swollen beyond a small minority. By 2024, when the Ryder Cup heads to Bethpage Black on Long Island, N.Y., how the rabble who heckled players there at this year’s PGA Championship will affect the long-term outlook for the century-old matches is both unanswerable and concerning.
In Brookline, the galleries that remained loyal to the Americans didn’t have much to cheer in the first two days of play. So they drank. Looking back, the PGA made two blunders: They sold far too many tickets for an event that never would have more than 12 matches on the course, and would, for most of the time, have only four matches out. And they sold alcohol way too early in the day. Both mistakes have been rectified, not just in subsequent Ryder Cups, but at most tour events. That week in Brookline, however, the brews flowed freely and the same crowd that had not forgiven Bill Buckner for letting a ground ball go through his legs brought their abrasiveness to the genteel grounds of one of America’s premier country clubs, the course where Francis Ouimet had defeated Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open and thus ushered in the era of American golf.
Europe led 10-6 by the end of Saturday’s play, a lead that had captain Mark James’ squad brimming with confidence. No lead that large had been overcome in Ryder Cup history. Los Angeles Times correspondent Thomas Bonk wrote of it, “The situation for the U.S. is, well, just what it is exactly? Hopeless? Encouraging? Embarrassing? Familiar?”
Bonk left out “insulting” and “injurious.” But if the first two days of play needed more insult or injury, former first lady Barbara Bush got plenty on Saturday afternoon when she tried to get into the media dining area to say hello to her old Texas friend, the writer Dan Jenkins. As Mrs. Bush stuck her head into the media center she was intercepted by a 340-pound Pinkerton security guard affectionately known as “Tiny.”
“Excuse me, ma’am, you don’t have the proper credentials to be in here,” Tiny said.
“Oh,” the former first lady said, somewhat startled. “I … I’m sorry. I was just trying to say hello to Dan Jenkins.”
“No, ma’am,” Tiny said, gaining confidence and bravado by the moment. “This is for media only.”
Mrs. Bush cocked her head for a moment and then said, “But, I’m with the president.”
Writer John Feinstein, who was watching with no small measure of amusement, finally said, “Tiny, that’s the first lady.”
If there was any recognition, Tiny didn’t show it. Fortunately for Mrs. Bush, her husband, wearing a windbreaker with the presidential seal and his name embroidered on the breast, stepped in, shook Tiny’s hand and said, “Hey there, young fella, George Bush. Hope we don’t have any trouble getting in here.” The Bushes and their Secret Service detail entered without further incident.
A few minutes later, Crenshaw sat in front of the same media and gave his now famous lines. “I’m going to leave y’all with one thought and I’m going to leave,” Crenshaw said. “I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this. That’s all I’m going to tell you.”
In retrospect, it was the defining moment of Crenshaw’s captaincy. At the time, everyone thought he’d gone nuts.
Love was eating Chinese food in the team room at the time. He had turned on Golf Channel just in time to hear Crenshaw’s “I have a good feeling” line. Love almost choked on his moo goo gai pan. “I got chills,” Love said later. “I couldn’t eat any more. I said to myself, ‘My God, he actually believes what he’s saying. He’s not just blowing smoke.’ Nobody would have had enough nerve to guess we might win but he went further than that. He wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, they might win, so I’ll say this to fire them up.’ I was the only one at the hotel. He didn’t think we were watching. He didn’t think, ‘They’ll see this and it will fire them up.’ He actually believed that we were going to win.”
It turned out that feeling wasn’t a premonition or a whisper from the golf gods. Crenshaw had seen the pairings. And his childhood friend Tom Kite, who had captained the U.S. team in the previous Ryder Cup at Valderrama, was a numbers-cruncher. Kite knew, for example, that a player who had played in all four matches prior to singles was twice as likely to lose on Sunday. For Europe, Colin Montgomerie, Paul Lawrie, Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Miguel Ángel Jiménez, Jesper Parnevik and Sergio García all had played four matches. For the Americans only Hal Sutton and Tiger Woods had gone all four. But Kite also knew that a player who hadn’t played at all before singles was 80 percent more likely to lose. Jean van de Velde, Andrew Coltart and Sweden’s Jarmo Sandelin sat on the bench Friday and Saturday. It was a mistake no captain on either side would make again.
Crenshaw put his big guns out early in singles. Lehman was out against Westwood, which the captain assumed would be a close one. Sutton, who had been the man of the match in the first four sessions, was out second against Clarke.
The third match made Crenshaw chortle. Mickelson would take on Sandelin, a man whose fishnet shirts had prompted the European Tour to put a “no nipples” rule into the dress code. Sandelin and Mickelson had been paired in a match before, at the Dunhill Cup at the Old Course in St Andrews. On the third day of that event in 1996, Sandelin had made a putt to beat Nick Price. In celebration, the Swede held up his putter like a machine gun and rattled off a few imaginary rounds in Price’s direction. This was six months after the Dunblane elementary school massacre. The next day, Sunday, Sandelin tried the same nonsense on Mickelson after a mid-round birdie. Walking off the green, Mickelson got within a centimeter of Sandelin’s face and explained that this sort of thing was unacceptable.
Most of the rest of the Ryder Cup matches seemed to lean in the USA’s favor as well. Love would face van de Velde and Woods would introduce Coltart to Brookline. Duval drew Parnevik and O’Meara, who had struggled with his game, had Pádraig Harrington. Steve Pate took on Jiménez, which made for one of the best nickname matches in Ryder Cup history: The Volcano vs. The Mechanic. Justin Leonard had José María Olazábal, a match Crenshaw thought could go either way. After that, Payne Stewart had Montgomerie, one that almost certainly leaned in Europe’s favor, while Jim Furyk took on García. Jeff Maggert drew the last spot against Paul Lawrie. Hopefully, in Crenshaw’s thinking, it would all be over before the final two matches.
In tactical terms, this should have been a straightforward singles comeback, the kind of fourth-quarter rally that soon would make a quarterback famous in nearby Foxborough. But the 1999 Ryder Cup was not a polite applause and jolly-good-show kind of affair. From the first tee shot, the rowdy crowd had let the Europeans (and some of the Americans) have it. That continued on Sunday. Wearing a shirt Crenshaw designed, which featured photographs of past Ryder Cup teams but looked, from a distance, like something stitched together from gray drapes and burlap, Lehman jumped ahead of Westwood with three early birdies, firing up the crowd.
Two matches later, on the second hole, an uphill, 190-yard par-3 (normally a short par-4 that was shortened for this event), Mickelson hit his tee shot 6 feet below the hole and Sandelin hit a brilliant shot to 3 feet. When they reached the green, Sandelin stood over his ball without moving with his hands in his pockets. Mark Rolfing, who was covering the match for NBC, said, “I think Sandelin is waiting for Mickelson to concede the putt and it doesn’t look like Mickelson is going to do it.”
That wasn’t it at all. Sandelin didn’t realize until he reached the green that he had a hole in his pocket and his ball marker had fallen out. His caddie didn’t have a coin and he sure wasn’t going to ask Mickelson. After fumbling around for about 30 seconds, a man in the gallery with a heavy South Boston accent said, “Hey, Jaaamo, ya need a coin?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Sandelin said. The green was instantly showered with coins from the gallery. Sandelin picked an unlucky one. He missed the birdie putt and Mickelson cruised to a 5-and-3 trouncing.
The winning continued. Love made short work of van de Velde. Woods won. Lehman won decisively. By then, the crowd was in a frenzy, fueled by cool beverages in the concession stands and red flags on the scoreboard. The Country Club had become Boston Garden and the Ryder Cup a Celtics-Lakers game.
When Duval holed an 8-footer at 14 to beat Parnevik, 5 and 4, the player who had been most critical of the Ryder Cup and the PGA became the event’s biggest cheerleader. He ran around the green circling his fists overhead and cupped his hand to his ear – a move Rory McIlroy would later use – to fire up the crowd. For the first time all week, the Americans held the lead.
That’s when things started to go off the rails. Pate beat Jiménez and O’Meara lost to Harrington. Montgomerie had gotten to 3 up on Stewart. And Leonard was 4 down to Olazábal through 11 holes. But the crowd had become part of the competition. On the 11th tee a spectator called Montgomerie “a limey fat f—-.” In addition to being vulgar, the fan was also ignorant since Montgomerie is Scottish.
Stewart stepped in and yelled, “That’s enough! That is eeeenough!”
But there was only so much a man could do. Boisterous became belligerent.
Maggert lost, which was not unexpected, before Furyk earned the Americans’ 14th point by handily beating García. It all came down to Leonard and Olazábal. After clawing his way back to all square, Leonard hit his approach on 17 to 50 feet and Olazábal was 20 feet away. Most of the members of the U.S. team and their wives had gathered around the green at 17. With the rumbles of the crowd – there was no way to keep them quiet at that point – minimized, Leonard hit the 50-footer too hard. If it hadn’t hit the back of the hole, it would have been 10 feet past. But hit the hole it did, diving in. Leonard had won the Ryder Cup. The Americans had manufactured the largest comeback in Ryder Cup history.
Or had they? Olazábal had a 20-footer for birdie to halve the hole and keep Europe’s hopes of retaining the cup alive. But the Americans and their wives got carried away. When Leonard’s putt went in, they charged onto the putting surface, hugging and cheering. Lehman led the way, leaping into the air. Love was close behind. Crenshaw fell to his knees and kissed the ground. Mickelson whirled around and kissed his wife. Everyone seemed to forget that a player was still on the green.
“It was unfortunate but there was certainly no ill will,” Sutton said at the time. “I was in a catch-22. I knew Olazábal had a chance to make that putt and tie that hole. At first I said, ‘I’m not going to run out there.’ But after everybody else got out there, I thought if somebody saw me they would say, ‘What’s wrong with Hal? Why isn’t he celebrating with them?’ I was in a no-win situation.” Sutton and his wife, Ashley, reluctantly joined the celebration. They were last out.
Five minutes later, Olazábal missed the putt and the Ryder Cup was over.
Forgotten amid the melee was the fact that Stewart conceded the 18th hole to Montgomerie, saying afterward, “I was disgusted with some of the actions and some of the name-calling and heckling that goes on with Colin. He doesn’t deserve that. That is not what this event is about. I don’t know if he’s got a big bull’s-eye on his back or what it is but it’s not fair. And when we got to the 18th hole and I got on the green, I looked at my caddie and said, ‘I’m not going to make him putt his putt. He doesn’t deserve to have to stand over that putt.’ We had already won the Ryder Cup. That’s what it’s all about. My individual statistics don’t mean crap out here. I wasn’t going to put him through that.”
(Twenty-nine days later, Stewart perished in a plane crash along with his agents, Van Ardan and Robert Fraley, golf course architect Bruce Borland, and pilots Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue.)
That Sunday night in Brookline, the Europeans made a reasonable and dispassionate argument that the Americans running out onto the 17th green was inappropriate. No one disagreed. But when they got on the plane to head home, their rancor took on a sharper edge.
“This behavior is the most disgusting I have ever seen,” vice captain Sam Torrance said. Jiménez chimed in with, “They wanted to win at all costs, and that cost was their dignity. Thank God we were playing for pride and not money or it might have come to blows.”
James claimed that someone spat at his wife, a claim unsubstantiated by a single eyewitness or single piece of videotape despite every move the captain made being covered worldwide.
“No amount of apologies can make amends for what they did,” said Ian Woosnam, the 1991 Masters champion, who was not part of Europe’s ’99 team. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t there or there would have been a few metal clubheads in some people’s heads.”
A story in TheMirror about the incident read, “Football hooligans act better than the way the Americans have treated the Ryder Cup over the last three days. Their antics whipped the crowd into uncontrollably boorish behavior. Sporting relations between the two nations have now slipped to an all-time low.”
The Americans thought that was over the top. People got knifed at European soccer matches. Barbed wire was erected around stadiums and, more than once, tear gas had to be used. The fans at Brookline were rude and obnoxious by golf standards but riot police had never been called in to restore order at a tournament.
According to TheDaily Mail, “Rednecks show that it may be time to start trading punches, not pleasantries.”
On and on it went. The Telegraph wrote, “The cavalry charge, led by the clear winner of the pass-the-sickbag award, Hal Sutton, was truly appalling, though, it has to be said, no more gross than most forms of American tribalism.”
Sutton was the last player on the green, not the first, and a reluctant participant at that. But just as American fans had let their emotions get the best of them, European fans (and media) let their tempers override facts and judgment. Sutton wore cowboy hats and drove a pickup truck, said, “y’all” and “yes, ma’am.” As American scapegoats went, he didn’t get much better.
At least the writing was good. In the London Evening Standard, Matthew Norman wrote, “Let’s be painfully honest about it. Yes, they are repulsive people, charmless, rude, cocky, mercenary, humorless, unpardonably ugly (the fact that Jim Furyk is playing golf at all; he should be playing Igor, the one who says, ‘earthlings, master’ in a horror movie), full of nauseatingly fake religiosity, and as odious in victory as they are unsporting in defeat. The only thing to be said for the American golfers, in fact, is that, at golf if at nothing else, they are better than the Europeans.”
That last line changed in the subsequent decades. Since 1999, the U.S. has won the Ryder Cup only twice, both times on American soil. And while most of the players from that match at Brookline have let past incidents and insults slide, none of them have forgotten.
It is still, two decades later, the event that, more than any other, shaped the way the Ryder Cup is viewed on both sides of the Atlantic.
ADDITIONAL PHOTO CREDITS Justin Leonard and US team (Rusty Jarrett, Allsport/Getty Images); David Duval (Stuart Franklin, Action Images); US team: Jeff Maggert, Justin Leonard, Mark O’Meara, David Duval, Payne Stewart, Hal Sutton, Steve Pate and Jim Furyk, Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Lehman and Phil Mickelson (Montana Pritchard, PGA of America/Getty Images); Tiger Woods (Stuart Franklin, Action Images); Team Europe fans (Action Images); Ben Crenshaw (Montana Pritchard, PGA of America/ Getty Images); Jubilant supporters (Stuart Franklin, Action Images); Champagne (Stuart Franklin, Action Images)
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