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Moment of Truth
Michael Bamberger
October 04, 1999
The wildest comeback in Ryder Cup history culminated in one unlikely putt that clinched a stunning victory for the U.S. team
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October 04, 1999

Moment Of Truth

The wildest comeback in Ryder Cup history culminated in one unlikely putt that clinched a stunning victory for the U.S. team

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Mark James, the European captain, had not played Sandelin, Coltart or Van de Velde in any of the team matches on Friday and Saturday. The three Ryder Cup rookies had said all the right things publicly, but they were miffed and hurt. Overanxious, too. Meanwhile, James played Parnevik and Sergio Garcia together four times. They were brilliant, entertaining, effective. They were alive, hugging and talking to each other constantly. They won three matches and halved another. It was a partnership for the ages, one of several among the Europeans. Colin Montgomerie and his fellow Scot, Paul Lawrie, also played together four times over the first two days, winning twice, losing once, halving once, reading greens for each other in their lovely and distinctive brogues.

One of the misfortunes of the Ryder Cup at the Country Club was the verbal abuse from the gallery that Montgomerie endured, but he turned it into motivation. Clarke and Westwood, an Irishman and an Englishman who would look at home hoisting lagers in a tavern in Boston's South End, played together four times, too, winning twice and losing twice. But on Sunday each European had to go his own way. On their own, Garcia and Parnevik, particularly, looked lost. Both men are strong; their bodies are fit. But their brains were mush. They missed each other. Garcia would eventually lose 4 and 3 to Jim Furyk, giving up the 14th point to the U.S. The Americans needed a half point to regain the cup.

Meanwhile, Lawrie, the British Open champion, was in the process of beating Jeff Maggert, 4 and 3, locking up the Europeans' 11th point. Three matches were still close: Padraig Harrington versus Mark O'Meara, Justin Leonard against José María Olazábal, and Montgomerie versus Stewart. The U.S. was looking for a half point. Europe was looking for a miracle.

If Crenshaw's vision of a fated outcome was to hold true, it was unlikely that O'Meara would be the hero. He and Crenshaw are very different men. O'Meara is a pro's pro. He knows everything there is to know about playing golf for a living. Crenshaw is an amateur's pro. His abiding interest is the game. To him the Ryder Cup is the greatest amateur competition in golf, played by men who just happen to be professionals. Crenshaw didn't play O'Meara on Friday morning with Woods, his Florida neighbor and fishing buddy. (Crenshaw paired Woods with Lehman, believing that the Minnesotan's God-country-family code would give Woods a better understanding of the Ryder Cup.) In fact, the captain didn't play O'Meara at all on Friday and played him only once on Saturday. The pro's pro did a slow burn but didn't say a word in public.

Coming to 18 on Sunday all square with Harrington, O'Meara needed only to halve the hole to win the half point that would clinch the U.S. victory. He hooked his drive into a bunker, pulled his second shot into another bunker, made bogey and lost the match, one down.

The game was still on. U.S. players and their wives and caddies started running the wrong way down the 18th fairway, heading for the 17th green, listening to Johnny Miller's deft—and often blunt—NBC commentary on tiny transistor radios. Leonard and Olazábal were on the hole. Leonard, another Texan, had been four holes down to the Masters champion through 10 holes. As he came off the 10th green, he was greeted by his close friend Davis Love, who was sent out by Crenshaw to walk with him. There were tears in Leonard's eyes. The Ryder Cup had been a brutal experience for him. He had played three times on Friday and Saturday but never in a winning twosome. Crenshaw spoke often of hunches, and Miller, playing off that, had said on Saturday, "My hunch is that Leonard needs to go home and watch on TV."

Love's presence seemed to inspire Leonard just as Olazábal went into a funk, making bogeys on four straight holes, 11 through 14. After Leonard rolled in a 35-foot putt on the 15th hole, the match was level. It remained all square when both men made pars on 16. They both reached the green on the 17th, a par-4, in two shots. Leonard faced a 45-foot putt; Olazábal's was half that. You don't expect to make 45-footers. It's just not reasonable. Not even for Leonard, who has one of the world's best short games.

All of golf was around the green: Garcia, at the start of a career that promises to be magical. The electric Woods, 23 years old and well on his way to the Hall of Fame. Olazábal, the dignified Spaniard with beautiful manners. Two more Texans, Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins, winners of majors, both former Ryder Cup captains. Penick, in some manner of speaking. Leonard took dead aim. He was putting on a green where U.S. golf was born. In 1913, Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old former caddie who lived across the street from the 17th, at 246 Clyde Street, won the U.S. Open in a playoff against the two great English players of the day, Ted Ray and Harry Vardon, by holing two putts on 17: a 20-footer in the fourth round to move into a tie for the lead, then another 15-footer in the playoff. Crenshaw knew all about it. Crenshaw knows the story of the game.

Leonard's putt was tracking, and then it disappeared. It was utterly improbable. The U.S. team got lost in the moment. Crenshaw fell to his knees and kissed the green. Garcia sobbed. The American celebration was excessive and inappropriate, when you consider that Olazábal still had a 20-footer to halve the hole. If he could make it—and he has made thousands of 20-footers in his golfing life—the match would still be on. If he missed, Leonard would go to one up, a half point would be guaranteed, and the Americans would win. Once the commotion had subsided, Olazábal took his time. He waited for a grumbling truck to pass by Ouimet's old house. A prop plane puttered overhead. The Spaniard drew the head of his putter back and put a good stroke on the ball, but it did not go in. On Ouimet's green Crenshaw hugged Leonard so hard that it looked as if his piercing blue eyes might pop right out of his head. One of the greatest comebacks in the history of sports had been completed.

When everything was done, the final score was 14½ for the U.S., 13½ for the Europeans. Later, Tom Lehman would yank his shirt off and heave it into the cheering crowd. Olazábal would take a half-dozen drivers and toss them into the gallery, for he had no use for them.

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