The real winner was golf. If you heard that once, you heard it 50 times Sunday afternoon at the Ryder Cup awards ceremony as speaker after speaker tried to explain the significance of the 14-14 tie between the American and European teams. And, in a literal sense, it was true: The Ryder Cup matches have become an occasion of major significance, and golf is the better for it. But face it, the real winner at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England, was Europe—for the third straight time. Led by captain Tony Jacklin and inspired by the incomparable Seve Ballesteros, the Europeans, unlike the Americans, accomplished what they had set out to do. They retained the Cup, which must be won outright before it changes hands, and more important, they put to rest, once and for all, any notion that their preceding two Ryder Cup victories were flukes—blips on the graph made possible by American overconfidence.
On this occasion American confidence was dealt a lethal blow. Had Mark Calcavecchia, Payne Stewart, Ken Green or Fred Couples managed as little as one halved match among them in Sunday's singles, the Cup would have returned to the States—not an extraordinary expectation, given the fact that all four, the cream of American professional golf, were even up on the 18th tee. But when the pressure was on, these winners of $2¼ million in prize money so far this year crumpled. Calcavecchia and Stewart drove into the water, Green three-putted, and Couples hit a nine-iron wide of the green.
So when Curtis Strange put together a miraculous four-birdies-in-a-row finish that carried him past Ian Woosnam in the last singles match of the day, the 28 matches played over three days were all square. The U.S. team was saved from flying home on the Concorde as the outright loser, but beyond question, American dominance in golf was over.
If an era had to end, this Ryder Cup was a wonderful way to begin another. It was three days of riveting theater. The pressure was as apparent on Friday as it was when the back side was played on Sunday, early points being as valuable as late ones. National pride was at stake. And because it is a team event, the glory of winning was a shared glory, which is a better thing to watch than the individual kind.
The Ryder Cup, which dates back to 1927, produces incidents not common to PGA Tour events. There was Tom Watson, volunteering to sit out two matches on Saturday. There was Ballesteros, patting the cheek of his young playing partner, Jose-Maria Olazabal, after Olazabal holed a key putt. And, poignantly, there was Couples, bursting into tears at greenside on Sunday, sobbing uncontrollably on the shoulder of his wife, Debbie, when the realization hit that had he not missed a five-foot putt on 17 and a six-footer for par on 18, the U.S. would have won the Cup.
In the months leading up to the competition, the emotions were of a decidedly different tenor: You would have thought the players were promoting a prizefight. All season long Calcavecchia had said he would rather win the Cup than a major. After a practice round on Sept. 19, he upped the ante by slighting the European tour. "It doesn't come close to our Tour in any department," he said. He then poured oil on the fire by suggesting that struggling U.S. pros would do well to join the European tour to get their confidence back.
It was left to Ballesteros, the unofficial leader of the European team, to fire the homeside salvo. "It's no secret that I always love to hammer the Americans, and that's what I intend to do," he said. "The U.S. team hasn't improved at all from last time, because they have five new guys."
The five Americans playing in their first Ryder Cup were Green, Couples, Mark McCumber, Chip Beck and Paul Azinger. U.S. captain Raymond Floyd didn't bother with the formality of naming names during Wednesday's Ryder Cup dinner, however, opting instead to introduce his charges as "the 12 best golfers in the world." It was an introduction first used by Ben Hogan before the 1967 Ryder Cup, when it was almost literally true (the U.S. won that year 23½-8½). But in 1989, coming from the captain of two-time losers, the remark was yet another example of American golfing arrogance.
Still, the London bookmakers had made the U.S. team an 8-13 favorite going into Friday's matches. Aside from Ballesteros, Woosnam, Nick Faldo and Olazabal, none of the Europeans commanded much respect from the Americans. The bulk of the European squad was made up of guys—Sam Torrance, Mark James, Howard Clark, Gordon Brand Jr., Ronan Rafferty, Jose-Maria Canizares and Christy O'Connor Jr.—who spend all their time on the European tour, the place where Calcavecchia would have struggling Americans go to beef up their confidence. Well, the money may not be quite as mountainous in Europe as it is on the PGA Tour, but the European tour turns out to be a pretty good place to learn how to win. Among them, the 12 Europeans had won 195 tournaments worldwide. The Americans had won 121.
The Ryder Cup schedule called for foursomes—with the two players on each team taking alternate shots on the same ball—to be played Friday and Saturday mornings, and fourball (or best ball, as it's commonly known in the U.S.) matches to be played during the afternoons on those days. On Sunday, 12 singles matches would decide the Cup.