1991 Ryder Cup: The War by the Shore
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The surf tumbled and crashed along the South Carolina coastline. The white froth lapped the tan beaches of the Kiawah Island resort community and receded into the choppy waves.
Overhead, the shrill cry of seagulls pierced the roar, as the birds circled above the wind-swept dunes that overlooked the ocean.
In the distance was the low hum of bulldozers, molding new contours along this stretch of coast that would eventually become “The Ocean Course”.
To date, during the summer of 1989, layout of the fairway links existed only on blue carbon drafting paper, and the lush greenery of the future golf course in the minds of the architects.
Yet there was something special about this site that convinced the organizers of the Ryder Cup to award the 1991 matches to Kiawah Island – even though the course did not exist. The ensuing events in the coming months would it one of the most memorable in the long, venerable history of the biennial competition.
Meanwhile, overseas, U.S. Team captain Ray Floyd was creating a stir at the pre-match banquet by introducing his squad as “the twelve greatest players in the world.” (European Team member Nick Faldo suggested to captain Tony Jacklin that he should introduce Seve Ballesteros as “the thirteenth best player in the world.”)
Aside from immodesty, the declaration rang hollow because the Americans had been trounced in the two previous competitions.
The ensuing 1989 matches at The Belfry in Coldfield, England, were closely contested. The home team swept the Friday afternoon four-ball matches to take a 5-3 lead. On Saturday, the sides split the eight matches, leaving Europe still leading by two, 9-7, with singles play to follow.
The U.S. Team briefly jumped out to a 10-9 lead after the singles third match when Paul Azinger defeated Ballesteros. The atmosphere was highly charged with both players openly accusing each other of rules violations.
By the end, Ballesteros and Azinger were barely able to muster enough civility to shake hands after the final hole. The ill will would last long after the 1989 Ryder Cup.
Traditionally, the Americans dominated the man-to-man duels of singles play, but the Europeans had finally turned the tables. Mark James, Jose Maria Olazabal, Ronan Rafferty, Christy O’Connor Jr., and Jose Maria Canizares rattled off five consecutive wins to give Europe a commanding 14-10 lead.
On the verge of being blown out, the Americans fought to salvage pride. Rookie Mark McCumber and veteran Lanny Wadkins managed to hold on for 1-up victories, while Tom Watson defeated Sam Torrance 3 and 1. Curtis Strange rallied with birdies on the last four holes to beat Ian Woosnam 2-up.
The resulting 14-14 draw was enough to guarantee a successful Cup defense for Europe. The U.S. Team took a 7-5 edge in singles, but the overall result was a moral defeat.
In the wake of the post-match celebrations, Jacklin stepped down from his post as team captain with much acclaim for a successful 3-1 tenure. Bernard Gallacher, a seasoned Ryder Cup veteran who had played in eight consecutive competitions (1969 through 1983) and served as an informal assistant captain, succeeded him. As a player, Gallacher held his own, compiling a 13-13-5 record.
Team Europe began gearing up for Kiawah Island in 1991. Gallacher assembled a balanced lineup that included a solid nucleus of six returning players: Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Mark James, Bernhard Langer, Sam Torrance, and Ian Woosnam. Four talented rookies also qualified for the team: Paul Broadhurst, David Ferherty, David Gilford, and Steven Richardson.
For his two captain’s picks, Gallacher bolstered the lineup with the addition of Jose Maria Olazabal, who had played a key role in 1989, and Colin Montgomerie, one of the top rising players on the European Tour.
The United States started to regroup. Dave Stockton Sr. was selected to replace Ray Floyd as captain. A member of the 1971 and 1977 teams, he had compiled a respectable 3-1-1 playing record. His immediate concern was to restore the confidence of a team whose members had largely known nothing but defeat.
“When I was on the four previous U.S. teams, our approach had been, ‘Hey, we’re going to win. Who wants to clinch the winning point?’” Hale Irwin noted in an interview with author Robin McMillan. “Now it was, ‘Hey, these guys are good and we have to play well to win.’”
Of six returning players, five (Paul Azinger, Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples, Mark O’Meara, Payne Stewart) had never played for a Cup-winning squad. The only veterans with Cups under their belt were Lanny Wadkins (1977-79, 83) who was back from 1989, and Hale Irwin (1975-81) who was rejoining the team after a 10-year absence.
By virtue of Ryder Cup point standings, three solid rookies were admitted to the team: Wayne Levi, Steve Pate, and Corey Pavin. For his captain’s picks, Stockton retained two other players from the 1989 outfit: Ray Floyd for his experience, and Chip Beck, a steady performer who had posted a 3-0 record at The Belfry and played well with Azinger.
Beck’s selection surprised many golf writers, who thought the long-hitting John Daly should have been given some consideration. A month earlier, Daly had gone from an unknown ninth alternate to 1991 PGA Championship winner.
For the first 50 years of Ryder Cup competition, the United States dominated with relative ease. In the 22 matches held between 1927 and 1977, the Americans had won 19. Their last defeat had been in 1957 at Yorkshire, England. This one-sidedness threatened the continued existence of the competition.
Steps were taken to level the playing field. In 1973, the British PGA added Irish players to the roster, but this had no effect on the outcome. Prior to the 1979 White Sulphur Springs matches, the British and American PGAs agreed that European Tour players would be eligible to compete. Thus was born Team Europe.
The United State continued to win, but the tide was slowly turning. After an 18 ½ – 9 ½ thrashing of Europe in Surrey, England, in 1981 (a nine-point margin Team Europe would inflict on the United States in 2004), the United States barely retained the Cup in 1983 with a one-point victory.
But in 1985, the talent of European members Ballesteros and Olazabal of Spain, and Langer of Germany ended America’s hold on the Cup with a 16 ½ – 11 ½ triumph at The Belfry.
If this loss was considered a fluke, the results of the 1987 competition shattered that perception. Jack Nicklaus, doubling as both team captain and host at his Memorial Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, failed to recapture the Cup in a 15-13 nail-biter. That the loss occurred on American soil for the first time made its impact even greater.
Thus in 1991, the American drought stood at eight years, the longest since the matches started. While decades of success had scarcely rated more than a passing glance by sports fans and reporters outside the golf community, continued defeat thrust the Ryder Cup into the sporting limelight.
General interest in the upcoming matches on the island resort off the South Carolina coast grew rapidly. Even American sports fans that did not follow golf found a rooting interest. The U.S. Team was viewed as an underdog for the first time. Meanwhile, current political events would ultimately leave their mark on the competition.
On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi forces invaded and occupied Kuwait. The United States responded by forming a coalition and sending troops to Saudi Arabia. Over the following months, the military buildup steadily grew and diplomacy reached an impasse.
On Jan. 16, 1991, Operation Desert Storm began with six weeks of air strikes. On Feb. 23, a four-day ground campaign began as American-led forces swept through Kuwait and Iraq as Iraqi resistance crumbled. Finally, on Feb. 27, a cease-fire was signed and Kuwait was liberated. The United States gained its first decisive military victory since World War II.
A wave of patriotism had swept over the United States in the weeks before the conflict, embodied by a sea of red-white-and-blue and yellow ribbons that blanketed every corner of the nation from bustling cities to quiet rural towns. Emotions were still high, even several months after the Gulf War ended.
American spectators carried a fierce national passion as they descended upon Kiawah Island. The upcoming competition was no longer viewed as a friendly golf competition but as a reconquest.
Field Of Battle
The Ryder Cup organizers had originally planned to host the 1991 matches at the PGA West golf complex in Arizona, one of the sites in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic rotation. It was decided by early 1989 to relocate the matches because the time difference would hurt TV viewership in Europe.
Landmark Golf, the real estate development company who had designed PGA West, was given the task of building The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. Tasked for the project was the head of its design and construction committee, Johnny Pott, who had played for the U.S. Ryder Cup Team in 1963 and 1967.
Pott was in a tight situation. He had less than a year to design and build the course and only one year for maturing it prior to the matches. He enlisted the assistance of architect Pete Dye, infamous in golf circles for his “punitive” style of course design.
Construction was completed on schedule and the developers got The Ocean Course into the best shape that time permitted. The fairways were a bit rough and newly planted vegetation was still taking root. There was not enough time to complete a clubhouse or other facilities.
Trailers were set up as makeshift locker rooms and a series of neighboring tents serve as dining areas and pressrooms.
At the time, only one hotel existed on Kiawah Island and it was quickly booked. Spectators and attending media would have to stay in Charleston. To reach the course, they would have to take a bus to a car park, then switch to a shuttle for a 25-minute ride.
The Island Course resembled a British seaside links course both in appearance and play. Carved out of the sand dunes, the fairways were broken terrain and the greens elevated. The full force of elements came into play – shifting winds, driving rain. The course played extremely long from the back tees and conditions make reaching the fairways difficult.
With the wind seemingly in their faces all the time, players would have to strike low shots through the fairways, and high ones to hold the greens. Stockton believed the conditions would favor the Europeans, who typically had to do more shot-making than their American counterparts.
The shoulder of the road leading to Charleston International Airport was littered with cars. Their occupants had stepped out and were gazing up at the sky. Overhead, a Concorde jet roared as it passed the spectators and slowly circled the airport.
The European team was arriving. Unbeknownst to the onlookers, the pilot was having difficulty activating his landing gear and had to circle while he manually cranked the wheels down.
Ryder Cup rookie David Feherty felt a surge of excitement as he looked down at the swarms of people.
“This must be a big event,” he commented to his friend, Sam Torrance.
“They’re here to see the Concorde, you f—ing prick”, the veteran growled in his Scottish brogue.
On Thursday night, after the teams had completed their practice rounds, the players departed the hotel in a limousine caravan for the traditional Ryder Cup pre-match banquet in Charleston. A steady rain had made the roads slick.
The limo carrying Faldo and Feherty came to a red light. The driver failed to see a policeman who was in the middle of the road waving it through and slammed on his brakes. The two limos behind also squealed to a halt, narrowly avoiding a collision.
The driver of the third vehicle also hit his breaks but had been trailing too close. As the front end of the limo smashed into the rear of the other, passenger Ray Floyd was shaken in his seat like a rag doll, suffering some minor scrapes and bruises.
Unfortunately, his companion, Steve Pate, was hurled five feet forward and crashed into the metal drinks bar. He sustained a deep cut across his stomach and bruised ribs.
It was not until the players and their entourages were seated for dinner that they learned Pate had been hospitalized. The incident put a damper on the occasion.
After the dinner was served, the PGA of America presented a video called The War by the Shore, a title that alluded to the recent Gulf War. It amounted to a highlight movie of past American Ryder Cup Team successes set against a patriotic backdrop, reminiscent of World War II recruiting films.
No mention was made of any European players.
Stockton, who was the unofficial host, had not known about the video’s tone and was upset with the discomfort it was causing his guests. The Europeans were visibly upset; Faldo was ready to walkout.
The evening ended abruptly after the video and the players returned to their hotels. The Europeans, however, would be denied a restful evening. A local DJ had obtained the room numbers of the players and invited callers to wake up “the enemy” in the middle of the night. More than a few listeners were happy to do so.
The matches hadn’t even started, but the Ryder Cup was rapidly becoming a conflict that had little to do with golf.
On the following morning, the Americans gathered near the first hole for official team photos. Some were sporting military camouflage hats or fatigue jackets. The appearance wound up the partisan gallery.
“The Americans were desperate to win it back because they hadn’t won it since 1983,” Gallacher later remembered. “And some of the players I think got carried away in the euphoria of the Gulf War and they sort of pretended the Ryder Cup was like Gulf War II.”
Pate’s injury had hurt the U.S. team in more than one way. Stockton had originally penciled him in with Corey Pavin as the top foursome pairing. Since Pavin hadn’t practiced with any other players, Stockton decided to scratch him from morning play. He elected to pair two of his older veterans, Irwin and Wadkins, instead.
By chance, the drawing for the first match paired the team of Ballesteros/Olazabal versus Azinger/Beck. The bitter dislike between Ballesteros and Azinger dating back to the 1989 Ryder Cup was still fresh and had carried over to the current competition.
The match was tense, and the rivals refused to speak with each other. The friendly custom of conceding gimme putts was abandoned.
On the seventh hole, Ballesteros noticed that Azinger had changed the type of ball his team was using but said nothing. He called over to Torrance, who was a spectator and asked him to summon the team captain. The hole was halved, and play proceeded.
Gallacher, a rules official, and the tournament referee arrived while the match was on the ninth hole. In the ensuing conference, Ballesteros accused the Americans of a rules violation.
Azinger admitted to making the switch on the earlier hole but was outraged because he felt that Ballesteros was hinting at cheating (a charge the Spaniard dismissed).
The officials conferred, then determined that the American team had violated a “condition of play”, i.e. a modified rule, rather than a Rule of Golf. The penalty for this in match play would be loss of hole; however, because Ballesteros had not called the infraction prior to the tee shots on the eight hole, no penalty could be enforced.
Ballesteros was outraged. The Americans were exasperated with the holdup. The delay changed the momentum of the match. The United States was leading 3-up but lost the 10th hole with a three-putt. Olazabal then almost eagled the 12th hole, then drained a six-foot birdie putt to square the match.
His anger had gotten the better of him, Azinger missed a critical three-foot par putt on 15. Meanwhile, Ballesteros and Olazabal managed to salvage par, despite hitting a fairway bunker on the tee shot and a greenside bunker on the approach. Team Europe had taken its first lead of the day.
Two holes later, Olazabal tapped in birdie to close out the match 2 and 1. After the perfunctory handshake, Azinger stormed off the course to vent his frustration.
“The American team has 11 nice guys and Paul Azinger,” Ballesteros commented.
As Lanny Wadkins and Hale Irwin waited to tee off the second match against David Gilford and Colin Montgomerie, Irwin heard a comment about a remark Montgomerie had allegedly made about the Pate accident: “Too bad it didn’t kill him.” Irwin confronted Tony Jacklin, an unofficial captain’s assistance, who denied it.
“[A] sort of cloud hung over it,” Irwin later told author Robin McMillan. “I wanted Monty. And I got him. And I threw in some darts that were pretty spectacular.”
The Americans won the match 4 and 2. For the record, Montgomerie stated “Hale Irwin hit some shots that were godlike.”
The rest of the opening morning went well for the Americans. Couples/Floyd defeated Langer/James 2 and 1, while Stewart/Calcavecchia held off Faldo/Woosnam 1-up.
Emotions were running high on both sides. At one point, Gallacher’s radio malfunctioned, leaving him unable to communicate with his assistants on the course. His first thought was that his counterpart, Stockton, had sabotaged it.
Despite trailing 3-1, the Europeans rallied in the afternoon four-ball matches. Mark James, now paired Steven Richardson, routed Pavin/Calcavecchia 5 and 4 to start the afternoon. In a rematch of the first contest, the Spaniards repeated their 2 and 1 triumph over Azinger/Beck.
In the third match, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam, an experienced duo, seemed uncomfortable with each and barely communicated. They were easily swept aside by Couple/Floyd, 5 and 4.
In the final match of the day, Sam Torrance and David Feherty were trailing when the Irishman left a long putt several feet short and was in jeopardy of losing the hole. As he studied his par putt, Torrance leaned over and intoned: “Pull yourself together, or I’m joining them and you’re playing the three of us.”
Feherty made the putt to save the point. He followed it up with another critical putt in the last rays of twilight to secure a half with Wadkins/O’Meara. At the end of the first day, the United States held a 4 ½ – 3 ½ lead.
Stiff ocean breezes swept over the golf course, but the Americans continued their strong play in foursomes on Saturday morning. Azinger/O’Meara routed Faldo/Gilford 7 and 6. Wadkins/Irwin closed out Feherty/Torrance 4 and 2, and Stewart/Calcavecchia topped James/Richardson 1-up.
The only good news for the Europeans was that the Ballesteros/Olazabal duo defeated Couples/Floyd, 3 and 2, in an uneventful match.
Trailing 7 ½ – 4 ½, Gallacher was at a critical juncture of the matches. He tweaked his lineup and kept two of his strongest teams intact for the afternoon four-balls. The strategy paid dividends.
Ian Woosnam and Paul Broadhurst held off Azinger/Irwin 2 and 1 to get Europe back in the standings. Meanwhile, Stockton finally relented and allowed Steve Pate to play with Pavin. Despite the intense pain, Pate played as well as could be expected; but it wasn’t enough as Langer and Montgomerie held on for a 2 and 1 win.
Gallacher felt that Mark James and Steven Richardson had played well enough together, despite losing 1-up in the morning. His faith was justified as the pair defeated Wadkins/Levi 3 and 1.
With the match all square, the Americans found themselves on the verge of being swept as Europe’s strongest team was still on the course. Payne Stewart and Fred Couples were managing to stay close against Ballesteros and Olazabal.
Although the match didn’t have the bitter emotions of Friday’s pairings with Azinger/Beck, the Spaniards nevertheless kept up gamesmanship. They deliberately slowed the pace of play and vigorously debated free drop zones with officials to gain a more favorable location.
Ballesteros had a cold and a bad cough; while he didn’t cough during the opponents’ swings, the Americans were annoyed at having their pre-shot routines disturbed.
With the sides even on 15, Stewart was out of contention and Couples’ approach was in the bunker. From his position below the green, Couples had difficulty finding a line to the cup because of the lengthening shadows in the setting sun.
With the match on the line, he made a firm swing and holed out the blast from the sand to save a half.
It was pitch dark by the time the final putts were holed on 18. The match had taken more than six hours to complete. Couples and Stewart earned a crucial half to keep the score tied 8-8. The Ryder Cup would be up for grabs on Sunday.
Prelude To Sunday
The matches had taken on the feel of a college football rivalry game. By now, the press had adopted the “War by the Shore” slogan and made it the unofficial title of the 1991 competition.
The mostly pro-American galleries were rowdy and did not hesitate to make their presence known to the Europeans, especially their favorite villain, the swashbuckling Seve Ballesteros. The Europeans, for their part, were exasperated.
In the wake of Pate’s injury, when it appeared he might not be able to compete in Sunday’s matches, Gallacher selected the name of one of his players and sealed it in an envelope.
On Sunday morning, Stockton confirmed to his counterpart at the last minute before the draw that Pate would be scratched. For the first time since 1979, the “envelope rule” would be invoked.
In the toughest moment of the week, Gallacher summoned David Gilford to tell him he wouldn’t be playing. Yet the captain was so distraught, he asked Tony Jacklin to break the bad news. The young rookie was on the verge of tears at the announcement.
Stockton would have preferred to let Pate play because by rule the eliminated match was treated as an automatic half point in the standings. With the scores now at 8 ½ each, Europe now needed just 5 ½ points out of 11 singles matches to retain the Cup.
NBC, which was broadcasting the event, was soured with the way the final match on Saturday had dragged on and cut into the news. They moved up the start of the singles coverage by half an hour to prevent another overrun.
David Feherty took at 4-up on the 14th hole against Payne Stewart in the first contested match. He bogeyed 15, then lost 16 to see his lead shrink to 2-up with two holes to play. As the players walked to the 17th tee, a marshal mistook Feherty for a spectator and tried to detain him.
“Ma’am, I’d love you to hold him right here, but he’s playing against me,” Stewart quipped as he draped an arm around his opponent’s shoulder.
Stewart hit his tee shot on the par 3 into an unplayable lie, then conceded on the green when Feherty left his lag putt short of the hole. The Irishman’s 2 and 1 victory had given Europe its first lead in the standings, 9 ½ – 8 ½.
The Faldo-Floyd pairing in the next match was a replay of the 1990 Master’s sudden-death playoff, which the Englishman won after his opponent missed a short putt. Faldo started strong, going 4-up after 11 holes.
Bad breaks cost him a point on 13, then a second point on 14 when his approach shot plugged in the greenside rough and his third shot remained in the thick tangle.
Faldo continued to struggle and nearly lost the match. He hit the green on 17, but three-putted from 15 feet to lose the hole. Floyd now had an opportunity to salvage a half-point but missed the fairway on his drive.
Shouts of encouragement and even a reminder to “Remember the Master’s” failed to change the outcome of the hole. Floyd bogeyed, and Faldo took a 2-up win. Europe now led 10 ½ – 8 ½.
The next two matches were split. Pavin defeated Richardson 2 and 1, while Ballesteros easily handled Wayne Levi 3 and 2 before mostly hostile galleries. Leading 3-up on 10, the Spaniard had three-foot putt to halve the hole. The putt rimmed the hole before dropping in – to the disgust of the American fans.
“It’s in, it’s in there!” Ballesteros exhorted, defiantly stabbing his forefinger at the hole.
Heartbreak, Part 1
Meanwhile, Mark Calcavecchia and Colin Montgomerie were locked in what would be one of the most dramatic matches of the event. Through 14 holes, the American lead 4-up and appeared to have the contest wrapped up.
On 15, Calcavecchia pushed his tee shot into the ocean and lost the hole with a bogey. His approach shot on 16 came in hot and ended up in a poor lie.
After chipping on the front edge of the green, Calcavecchia still had a chance to halve the hole and win the match after Montgomerie bogeyed; unfortunately, his putting faltered, and he lost the hole after missing the second putt.
The 17th hole was a long par 3 that forced the players to carry their tee shots over 200 yards of ocean to reach the green. Swirling winds made this task even more terrifying. Montgomerie hit a poor shot that splashed short of the green.
Calcavecchia settled into a stance, waggled a 2-iron and tried to calm his raw nerves. Anything on or near the green would almost assuredly guarantee the hole and the match. His swing was an awkward stab; the drive took off low about 100 yards, then dropped like a rock into the water.
“Are you kidding me?” intoned flabbergasted NBC television commentator Charlie Jones.
After both players hit the green from the drop zone, Calcavecchia had his second chance to close out the match if he could get down in two to tie Montgomerie’s double bogey. His first putt went two feet past the hole.
Moments later, a collective groan came up from the gallery as his comeback putt never came close to the hole. The lead was down to 1 point.
Calcavecchia played a good drive on 18, but his approach shot flew over the green and tangled in the rough. Meanwhile, his opponent played a safe to the front of the green, about 50 feet from the cup.
The American played a valiant pitch shot that pulled up within 12 feet of the hole and put some pressure back on Montgomerie. The Englishman studied his line and played an excellent putt that almost dropped for a birdie.
Calcavecchia had one final chance to sew up the match if he could make his par putt, but missed.
Team Europe had stolen a crucial half-point that extended its lead to 12-10. It now needed just two points in the six remaining matches to retain the Cup. A rhythmic soccer chant of “Ole! Ole! Ole!” from the small, but vocal European cheering section filled the air.
Crestfallen, the stunned American lumbered off the green and down to a nearby beach. He thought his loss has cost the team the Cup. His wife and Peter Kostis, his swing coach, found him there on his knees, sobbing uncontrollably and hyperventilating.
On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Calcavecchia forswore ever playing again in the Ryder Cup, a vow he kept until 2004.
By late morning, the remaining matches were underway. The players were focused in their own contests. Occasionally, they would peer at the leader boards for the ever-changing scores. Unbeknownst to its combatants at the time, the sixth pairing of Azinger-Olazabal would be the pivotal contest of the day.
With the ill will of Friday carrying over, the rivals barely exchanged words. The quality of play was superb as the competitors matched each other shot for shot. Yet Olazabal was putting pressure on himself and his temper flared, bringing hoots of contempt from the gallery.
After falling behind a point to Azinger, the Spaniard battled back to square the match. Azinger was in jeopardy of falling behind on 16 but sank a crucial six-foot par putt to secure a half. He followed it up with a short, breaking putt on 17 to retake the lead.
Olazabal self-destructed on the final two holes, driving into the shoreline on 17 for an eventual bogey, then missing the green on 18 and failing to save par. Europe’s lead was now 12-11.
The Americans briefly tied the overall score at 12 when Beck defeated Woosnam 3 and 1. Minutes later, however, O’Meara, was 2-down against Broadhurst on 17. He hit two tee shots on 17 into the ocean and conceded the hole and the match, 3 and 1, to put Europe within a point of keeping the Cup.
The drama continued to build. Couples built up a lead, then cruised to a 3 and 2 victory over Torrance. Wadkins followed with an identical winning score against James. The United States had regained the lead, 14-13. The final match would determine the winner of the 1991 Ryder Cup.
Heartbreak, Part 2
The gallery for the final match steadily grew as fans that were posted along the fairway of one hole joined the streaming crowds that were seeking positions on the next hole as the Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer advanced toward 18.
A veteran player, Irwin held a 2-up lead with five to go. The remaining holes played directly into the wind, however, a circumstance that favored Langer. The German made up a point on 15 after his competitor’s drive found a fairway bunker.
On 16, a long par 5, the situation was reversed when Langer’s second shot plugged into a fairway bunker just below the lip. Faced with the prospect of losing the point back, he played a miraculous lob that hit the green and rolled within six feet of the hole. Langer sank the putt for a half.
On the watery 17th, both players drove through the green into the first cut, but after Irwin’s shot, an anonymous prankster tossed another ball onto the green, causing momentary confusion. Irwin misjudged the speed of the green and his first putt raced 10 feet past the hole.
After he failed to save par, Langer got up and down to take the point. The match was now all-square with one hole to play.
“All I could hear was the crowd chanting ‘USA, USA!’ I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t swallow, Irwin later remembered as the players approached the 18th tee. Over the din of the gallery, his caddy Jim Strickland tried calm him down, speaking words of encouragement directly into his ear.
“Hale, all we have to do is tie this hole,” he reminded him. “If we tie, we win.”
As the players took their positions in the tee box, Strickland stood off to the side with his counterpart, Pete Coleman. “This is the way it should be,” he remarked to Coleman. “This is the way they wrote it in the book.”
Irwin’s jitters got the better of him as he hooked his drive toward the dunes along the left side of the fairway. The ball struck a woman and deflected back into the fairway, but the lie presented a bad angle to the green for the second shot. His approach shot missed the green off to the far right.
Langer, meanwhile, played a good drive and a safe second shot to the fat part of the green, about 30 feet away.
Faced with the most important shot of the match, Irwin played his sand wedge poorly, just barely getting it on the green and leaving it 25 feet short. Langer turned up the pressure with a bold putt that passed the cup and stopped six feet away.
It appeared that Irwin would have make his lengthy putt, or else the match would go to his opponent and the Cup to Europe. He failed to get a good read and left the putt short. Langer conceded the bogey.
Langer crouched over the putt with his caddy and noticed two spike marks directly in his line. The break appeared to be slightly to the left edge. Coleman advised him to hit it firm.
The gallery fell totally silent as Langer tightly gripped his putter and crouched over the ball. In the distance, the crash of the surf was barely audible.
“I was next to [English photographer] Lawrence Levy,” Feherty remembered. “Just before he hit the putt, Lawrence turned to me and said – and I shall never forget this, ‘The last time a German was under this kind of pressure, he shot himself in a bunker.’”
The putt was firm as it started straight – and stayed straight as it slid past the left edge of the hole.
The silence was shattered with the pandemonium of the gallery and the exuberant cries of joy and relief from the American team members. Langer squatted and buried his head in his hands.
“I would never, ever, ever, wish that last hole on anyone,” Irwin later declared.
“Nobody in the world could have made that putt under that pressure,” Ballesteros told reporters. “Not even Jack Nicklaus in his prime. I certainly would not have holed it. It was too much for anyone.”
The halved match gave the United States a 14 ½ – 13 ½ triumph and brought back the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1983.
In the trailer that served as the European team locker room, a dejected Langer sat in a chair, clutched the head of his putter with both hands and rested his forehead on them. And wept.
John O’Leary, the European Tour tournament committee chairman, knocked on the door, and asked Langer to accompany him to Bear Pit Beer Garden, a giant tent that was set up as an English-style pub and served as the unofficial headquarters for the Team Europe fans. Somewhat reluctantly, Langer agreed to go.
Two thousand fans, mostly British, had put aside the defeat and were singing, reveling and drinking at four bars inside the tent. When Langer entered, he was greeted by deafening cheers and applause. He was startled at first, then choked up.
With a grin, Langer climbed atop a wobbly card table to wave at the fans. As he raised his arm, the table collapsed, sending him to the ground in a heap. It had been that kind of day.
Meanwhile, the champagne corks were popping on the American side and the players drenched each other. No sooner had Stockton accepted the Ryder Cup, he was carried by his players down to the ocean and dunked – an act that infuriated the him because it ruined his favorite blazer.
“This country’s pride is back,” Azinger boasted. “We went over and thumped the Eye-raqis. And we are all part of this. It’s just an honor to represent the United States of America.”
Both the Ryder Cup and its 1991 participants would be making headlines again in the future.
David Stockton stepped down as captain in favor of Tom Watson. He joined the Senior Tour several weeks after the Ryder Cup and embarked on a successful career.
“I was worried that I would not do as good a job as Tony Jacklin,” Bernhard Gallacher confessed afterward. “I think I made a few mistakes, but when they make you captain of the Ryder Cup, they do not give you hindsight.”
Gallacher stayed on as captain for two more competitions. In 1995, he brought the Cup back to Europe – at the expense of U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins on American soil at Oak Hill Country Club.
Seve Ballesteros succeeded Gallacher in 1997. One of the most enduring Ryder Cup memories was the sight of the unflappable Spaniard driving all over the Valderrama Golf Club like Gen. Patton in his jeep, exhorting his troops on to victory.
The “War by the Shore” promotion altered the Ryder Cup for the remainder of the decade by infusing nationalism and a soccer/American football attitude into the genteel game.
“The crowd’s cheering for missed putts, its chanting and its general chauvinism were contained within acceptable limits, but it was a close-run thing and it may not turn out so well back at The Belfry two years hence,” BBC reporter Matthew Engel wrote. “This goes for the players too; it was fascinating to see what a fine line there is between the normal dignity of golf and the flaming tempers of soccer or tennis.”
Engel’s words were prophetic as tensions and poor sportsmanship continued to worsen, reaching their nadir at The Country Club in 1999. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States caused the matches to be postponed for a year. The matches resumed with a civility that had been absent for years.
In 2004, the Europeans routed the Americans 18 ½ – 9 ½ at Oakland Hills Country Club. The nine-point margin of victory matched the 1981 U.S. Team’s. The European captain this time was Bernard Langer. His final chapter in the storied history of the Ryder Cup would be as memorable as the disaster of 1991.