Ed. note: This remembrance is the fourth in a series to highlight noteworthy Ryder Cup matches, during the week the biennial event was to be played at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin.
Even the name caused tension.
The 1991 Ryder Cup had the framework to be an explosive spectacle before a single shot was hit. It had been eight years since the last American victory, a fact that helped establish a newfound underdog mentality for a team that long viewed the event as an automatic win. That passion was only heightened by a time of beaming patriotism as the United States was just seven months removed from the Gulf War, its first decisive military victory since World War II — several American players showed up to their first match with camouflage hats, while the opening ceremony was focused almost entirely on honoring the home country’s military. A few days before the competition, Payne Stewart had opened the windows to the Americans’ Kiawah Island condo, which was directly above the Europeans, and blasted Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. as loud as the volume could go.
If that was the competition’s soundtrack, the name married it nicely. At the Wednesday gala prior to play, the PGA of America presented a video of solely American golf highlights set against a red, white and blue backdrop in the style of a video made to recruit soldiers. Its title caught everyone’s attention: “The War By the Shore.”
The Americans were fired up to wave the flag.
The Europeans were not as impressed with the rowdy arena their foes had enabled.
A friendly competition had the feeling of a true battle – one being waged just 11 miles as the crow flies from where the first shot of the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
“It was the Gulf War year and there was a lot of American pride, and I wanted to feed on the American pride,” U.S. captain Dave Stockton said. “And I wanted people to be proud of America and what we stand for. Some of the people took it the wrong way.”
That fed an intensity the Ryder Cup had never witnessed to that point. Not only were all three days of competition televised live for the first time, but the crowds on site became far more involved than in past editions. A local radio station got ahold of the European team’s phone numbers and pestered players with middle-of-the-night calls. Poor shots by the visiting squad were cheered ferociously, and there were several accusations that wayward tee balls by the Americans were being thrown back into play by the swarming galleries. Bernhard Langer compared it to playing a soccer match in the unkindest of confines.
More than any Ryder Cup in history, the 1991 version was super-charged pandemonium. With the competition laced with controversy and blown sideways by blustery winds on a grueling Pete Dye golf course, the outcome was decided in the final match on the final green, all coming down to a 6-foot putt nobody wanted to hit.
The unchecked chaos came in all forms, on and off the course.
Steve Pate suffered a hip injury during a car crash two days prior to the first round, a moment that would oddly aid the Americans in victory. It didn’t matter much on Friday and Saturday when Pate only played once and lost, but when Stockton decided to sit an injured Pate for the Sunday singles, they had taken keen advantage of the rules. By the pre-tournament captain’s agreement, Pate’s withdrawal meant both teams would earn a half-point and there would only be 11 singles matches to play on the final day. Pate had been scheduled to play Seve Ballesteros, Europe’s best player, while a struggling Wayne Levi, the only other American who failed to register a point, was set to go up against Europe’s David Gilford. Europe was heavily favored in both matches, but Pate sitting out automatically pushed Ballesteros to play Levi and placed an incredulous Gilford on the sidelines. Two likely U.S. losses became one.
European players argued that if Pate could have played Saturday, he could have made it through another round on Sunday. Pate said he was in no condition to compete, barely being able to advance the ball 60 yards during his Sunday morning practice.
The his-word-against-their-word game extended into on-course play as well. Around the turn of the Friday morning foursomes match featuring Ballesteros and José María Olazábal, Paul Azinger and Chip Beck were accused of switching between 100-compression and 90-compression balls based on the wind conditions, an apparent breach of the one-ball rule. Ballesteros and Olazábal became incredulous when they were informed that violations on past holes could not be enforced retroactively — in their eyes, the Americans had gotten away with breaking the rules.
Ballesteros and Olazábal flipped the momentum of the match from that point forward, winning by a 2-and-1 margin when Ballesteros made a 40-foot putt on the par-3 17th.
“The American team has 11 nice guys and Paul Azinger,” Ballesteros famously commented.
The chippy, back-and-forth nature of this Ryder Cup played out on the scoreboard as well. Buoyed by the team of Fred Couples and 49-year-old Raymond Floyd, the Americans raced out to a 7½-4½ lead with only the Saturday afternoon four-ball and Sunday singles remaining. Europe dominated the last four-ball session, however, punching back with three narrow victories and a halve to secure an 8-8 tie heading into Sunday.
The Ocean Course at Kiawah, awarded the Ryder Cup before it was even constructed, took a significant toll on what was already an emotional event. The last day, players were winning matches with scores around 76 and 77 as lost balls continued to be collected on the copious sand dunes. Nothing quite described the scene like the par-3 17th where players were hitting long irons and 3-woods to a small target surrounded by water and dunes.
Europe made an early push in singles as Nick Faldo edged Floyd and rookie David Feherty defeated Stewart in the first two matches. Within all of the tension, Stewart and Feherty had a humorous moment late in the match when Stewart, upon seeing Feherty being stopped by a marshal outside the ropes and struggling to get to the tee box, suddenly put his arm around his opponent.
“Ma’am, I’d love you to hold him right here, but he’s playing against me,” Stewart quipped as he helped Feherty make his way through the throng of fans.
Azinger defeated Olazábal and Corey Pavin edged Steven Richardson to knot the score back at 10-10. Ballesteros easily handled Levi, but Beck upset then-world No. 1 Ian Woosnam.
The result couldn’t have been more in question as the day went forward. Ultimately, the 1991 Ryder Cup was defined by two matches that were famously halved.
“It all came together. It changed the dynamics of the Ryder Cup, the competition of it and what people thought of it.” – Dave Stockton
The first was the match between Mark Calcavecchia and Colin Montgomerie, the third one out on the day. Calcavecchia took a commanding lead, going 4 up through 14 holes, a lead his teammates later said was an inspiring one. However, Calcavecchia came undone. It started on No. 15 when he pushed his tee shot into the ocean and lost the hole. On the 16th, he airmailed the green and struggled to a double bogey, losing to Montgomerie’s bogey.
What came next on the 17th is a part of Ryder Cup lore. Montgomerie went first and hit his ball in the water, essentially meaning that any shot on dry land would give Calcavecchia the victory.
Instead, his 2-iron barely got off the ground, ending in the middle of the lake. Johnny Miller called it the worst shot a professional golfer has ever hit. Announcer Charlie Jones stepped in immediately with the call of the event: “Are you kidding me?”
Calcavecchia still just needed to halve the hole to win the match, but he was a broken man at that point and missed a 2-foot bogey putt to send the players to the 18th hole. Montgomerie won again, claiming a half-point that could have easily been a fatal blow for the Americans. Roger Maltbie was sent to get a comment from Calcavecchia, but he found him in the television compound crying hysterically.
The other defining – and ultimately decisive – match came between Langer and Hale Irwin. After Langer double bogeyed the 14th hole to fall 2 down, he won the 15th with a par and then watched Irwin three-putt the 17th.
If Langer won the last hole, the 14-14 tie would have retained the cup for Europe as it had two years before at The Belfry. It looked to be heading that way when Irwin snap-hooked his tee shot well left of the fairway, but Irwin found his ball and was able to play a 3-wood up short of the green. He failed to get up and down, leaving Langer the opportunity for a par.
Langer ran his first putt 6 feet past, setting up the decisive moment. The putt, a slight left-to-right breaker, had a spike mark about 10 inches in front of the ball directly on the line he hoped to go over, so he played it straight and firm.
Although Langer struggled with the yips in his career, this wasn’t an example of a poor putt under pressure. The putt just went by the low side of the hole, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
“I misread the putt, because of those spike marks,” Langer later said. “If I had stood there shaking and yipped it either way, it would have been a different story, but it was not a bad putt.”
Ballesteros didn’t blame Langer one bit.
“Nobody in the world would have made that putt under that pressure,” he said. “Not even Jack Nicklaus in his prime. I certainly wouldn’t have holed it. It was too much for anyone.”
The aftermath had tears of pain and tears of relief. Stockton was thrown into the ocean during the celebration, creating the famous image of O’Meara, Stewart and Pavin surfing their captain and his soaked blue blazer.
Maybe “The War by the Shore” had gone too far in some respects, a battle too bloody for a good-natured game like golf. But there was no doubting that the event meant something new, that it had become a sporting spectacle beyond anything seen previously.
“It all came together,” Stockton said. “It changed the dynamics of the Ryder Cup, the competition of it and what people thought of it.”
Mark O’Meara and Payne Stewart look on as team captain Dave Stockton pushes Corey Pavin into the water to celebrate their Ryder Cup victory. Photo: Simon Bruty, Getty Images
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