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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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By Saturday night it was all over, and everybody knew it. The Europeans were a day away from winning the Ryder Cup for the third straight time, and all Ben Crenshaw, the U.S. team captain, could do was ramble on about this and that, not wholly coherent, fighting tears while telling reporters how proud he was of the 12 wonderful men on his team. You half wished that some big-boned Boston cop would come in, gently place a pair of large hands on Crenshaw's slim shoulders and say, "It's over, Mr. Crenshaw. Go home to Austin and see your kids. Go home."

That didn't happen, however, and Crenshaw continued, talking out of a sepia-toned dream. "I'm going to leave y'all with one thought," he said. "I'm a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this." With that he vanished into the night.

Crenshaw left the Country Club in Brook-line, Mass., and headed to the Four Seasons in Boston, the tony headquarters of this not entirely civil war. The Americans, winners of just six points in the first two days of the Ryder Cup, had taken over the sixth floor of the hotel. The Europeans, winners of 10 points, had the fifth. In his back pocket Crenshaw had a pairing sheet with the 12 Sunday tee times for his 12 wonderful men and their European opponents.

If the Americans could win eight of those matches and tie another, they would win back the cup. That's all they needed to do. Of course, no team in 32 previous Ryder Cups had staged a successful comeback from more than two points down, but the U.S. captain couldn't be bothered with that. Crenshaw looked at the matchups. He said, first to himself, later to his team, "We can whitewash 'em." His nickname, Gentle Ben, given to him as a Texas schoolboy, was always sarcastic. Crenshaw wanted his team to be relentless. He wanted to win.

At the Four Seasons the Americans assembled for a team meeting. The captain was accompanied by his wife, Julie. The players were accompanied by their wives or girlfriends. Crenshaw's two assistant captains, Bill Rogers and Bruce Lietzke, both Texans, were there. So was Texas governor George W. Bush. The presidential candidate, scion of two past USGA presidents, read a poem remembering the horrible massacre at the Alamo in 1836, when hopes of Texas independence from Mexico appeared dead, and yet, as every Texan knows, independence came just six weeks later. A video was shown. It included highlights from each player's career and a personalized cheer by a cheerleader from each player's college. (It's amazing what $64 million in Ryder Cup revenues can buy.) The video also included the scene from Animal House in which the Delta fraternity house is about to be closed, and Blutarsky (John Belushi) asks his brethren, "Did the Americans quit when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" Steve Pate, a captain's pick and the loosest guy on the team, laughed uproariously at that one. He's a student of the classics.

Everybody in the room was asked to speak about his Ryder Cup experience. Most said something to inspire the team. Hal Sutton said, "I believe there's more talent or the sixth floor than there is on the fifth, but we've got to play with more emotion. We've got to raise our fists, get the crowd into it." Payne Stewart and David Duval and Davis Love III spoke about winning for Crenshaw.

If a player made the mistake of beginning a sentence with, "Should we win tomorrow," Crenshaw interjected, "When we win tomorrow." When it was the captain's turn to speak, he returned to his press-tent theme that he was a big believer in fate, that he had a feeling. The players had heard his homilies since early in the week, and some had grown tired of listening. On Friday and Saturday, as Europe built its lead, there had been some carping among the American players, naturally. The team was down. The players didn't like some of the pairings didn't like the length of time it took Crenshaw to reach his decisions, hated the laggard pace at which the Europeans played.

On Saturday night everything was different. The captain with a sensibility from another era finally connected with his team His players could see, for the first time Crenshaw's vision, the intersection of talent and fate. They saw a way to win. It wasn't just a dream. The truth was that in each of Sunday's first eight matches, the U.S. player was more accomplished and more talented than his European opponent.

Robin Love, Davis's wife, was the last to speak. She continued the Texas theme. She cited Harvey Penick, the great and ancient Austin Country Club teaching professional who taught Crenshaw the game. Penick was buried on April 5, 1995, a Wednesday, and Crenshaw was a pallbearer. Four days later he won the Masters for the second time, his first victory in more than a year. "I had a 15th club in the bag this week," Crenshaw said then. "And it was Harvey." Love finished second that week. His father had been one of Penick's protégés. Robin Love didn't grow up in golf, the way her husband did, the way Crenshaw did, but she gets it now. She knows that golfers never forget their mentors. She knows that golfers need swing thoughts. She dusted off the purest swing thought ever devised, three words of genius straight from Penick, and scattered them through the room: "Take dead aim."

Penick, who continued to publish new books even after he was dead, also inspired a Ryder Cup team from the grave. Take dead aim, that's what the Americans did on Sunday. The scoring was so fast and furious, it was almost scary. On every scoreboard, all you saw were U.S. flags next to Americans' names. In the first match Tom Lehman won the 4th and 5th holes from Lee Westwood, then the 9th and the 10th and closed out the match three holes up with two to play. A trouncing. In the second match Hal Sutton defeated Darren Clarke, 4 and 2. Another trouncing. In the third match Phil Mickelson dismantled a player he despises, Sweden's Jarmo Sandelin, 4 and 3. Trounce-orama. In the fourth match Love annihilated Jean Van de Velde, taking four straight holes at one point and winning 6 and 5. That's beyond a trouncing. In the fifth match Tiger Woods defeated Andrew Coltart of Scotland, 3 and 2. In the sixth match Duval blitzed Jesper Parnevik, 5 and 4. These are not normal match-play scores. This was not a normal day of golf. When the first six matches were over, the U.S. was leading, 12 points to 10. Then, in the eighth match, Pate, thinking about those Germans at Pearl Harbor, defeated Miguel Angel Jimenez, 2 and 1, and the score was 13-10, with five matches still going on. You couldn't breathe.

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