The way that Justin Leonard reckons it, there were 30,000 people around the 17th green at The Country Club two decades ago when he holed out his long putt to win the Ryder Cup for the Americans.
“At some point in the last 20 years I’ve met everybody who was on that green — or said they were,” Leonard says.
It may not have been the “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid in 1980, but by any measure, what the US golfers accomplished on that exuberant Sunday afternoon in 1999 was extraordinary. Down by 4 points after the first two days, the Americans won eight of the 12 singles matches and halved the clincher to pull off a 14½-13½ triumph that marked the greatest comeback in the event since Samuel Ryder put up his golden chalice in 1927.
The “Battle of Brookline” was not without controversy. The European players, especially Colin Montgomerie, were heckled by partisan spectators, and US team members ran onto that 17th green to celebrate before Jose Maria Olazabal had a chance to attempt the putt that would have kept his side alive.
“It was very sad to see,” Olazabal said then. “It was very ugly to see.”
What may have been forgotten is that the Americans were decided favorites that weekend. Although they’d lost five of the previous seven biennial competitions, including home defeats at Oak Hill in 1995 and Muirfield Village in 1987, they fielded a powerhouse squad in 1999.
Ten of the world’s best 16 players were on the US roster, including three of the top four in Tiger Woods, David Duval, and Davis Love III. Europe had only three ranked that highly, most notably Montgomerie and Lee Westwood.
“On paper, they should be caddying for us,” Payne Stewart had observed.
The question was whether the Americans would play with and for each other, given a disagreement over whether they should be paid to compete. Woods, Duval, and Mark O’Meara thought so.
“It was a philosophical split within the team,” recalls captain Ben Crenshaw. “Players had never been paid before for Ryder Cup. It was the old guard against the new guard. It was a little troublesome, but we got through it and it got resolved before the matches.”
For their rivals, playing in the Cup for cash was unthinkable.
“The Europeans would actually pay to put on the European sweater,” says Andrew Coltart. “We all fought for places and wanted to represent the continent. That showed up as a glaringly obvious difference between the two teams.”
The Europeans, who’d held off the Yanks by a point two years earlier at Valderrama, returned only five players to the Americans’ eight and sported seven Ryder rookies to their opponents’ one (Duval). So they knew that camaraderie would be essential to their being competitive.
“Playing America at home is always going to be very challenging, but we were 100 percent committed to giving it our all,” says Coltart. “We felt that, sticking together as a team, we gave ourselves a better chance of coming out with a victory.”
Critics said that had Mark James used his two captain’s picks on Bernhard Langer, a two-time Masters victor, and Nick Faldo, who’d won six majors, Europe would have had a stronger lineup. But Langer had been playing poorly for weeks and Faldo wasn’t close in the rankings.
“I’ve always been a believer that someone who’s good is better than someone who’s experienced,” says James, who chose Coltart and Jesper Parnevik instead.
Up against it
Knowing that his squad faced an uphill task, James put out his best lineup Friday and watched them take a shocking 6-2 lead. The Europeans stunned the hosts straight away in the morning foursomes as Montgomerie and Paul Lawrie beat Phil Mickelson and Duval, 3 and 2, and Sergio Garcia and Parnevik took down Tom Lehman and Woods, 2 and 1. Had Love not made a birdie putt on the final hole to halve the opening four-ball match, the Yanks would have been blanked in the afternoon.
“Obviously, that’s not what we were looking for,” says Crenshaw, whose two best players — Woods and Duval — each lost twice. “The Europeans showed their mettle. They were playing beautifully. Our backs were against the wall.”
James stood pat Saturday, a decision that later drew criticism after he used three men in his Sunday lineup who hadn’t played. Had the spectators been less rambunctious Friday, the captain says, he probably would have plugged in Jarmo Sandelin, Jean van de Velde, and Coltart earlier.
“I thought the way the crowd were going, it might be better just to get points on the board,” he says.
The Europeans pulled off a second-day split that had them up, 10-6, going into Sunday and left the Americans frustrated but resolute.
“We were more disappointed than anything at the performance that we’d put forward,” says Leonard. “But we also had enough belief in the room to think that it wasn’t finished.”
That was Crenshaw’s pitch to his players Saturday night, when he had Texas Gov. George W. Bush read them Colonel William Travis’s defiant “Victory or Death” letter from the Alamo in 1836.
“They were in a tight spot there as well,” Crenshaw says.
The Country Club would be his team’s Alamo. He had had a sentimental attachment to the premises since he’d first played there at 16, and was aware of the history of American victories on Clyde Street.
“I just had this feeling that that place was going to take care of us,” Crenshaw says. “I said, ‘Look, we cannot lose in Boston. We just can’t do that. You guys can do this. We need to bank on the emotions flipping the matches. It’s not insurmountable.’ ”
The US had won eight of the 12 singles matches in 1997 after falling 5 points behind. So Crenshaw and his assistants drew up a lineup that would put out stable experience early in Lehman and Hal Sutton, followed by the iron: Mickelson, Love, Woods, and Duval. The Americans assumed that James would do likewise, so they were baffled when he went with Sandelin, van de Velde, and Coltart all in a row after Westwood and Darren Clarke.
Had the Europeans won the first two Sunday outings, the gambit might have worked. But when Lehman beat Westwood, 3 and 2, and Sutton (who had a hand in 3½ points on the weekend) squelched Clarke, 4 and 2, the impetus had shifted to the Americans, seven of whose opponents were playing their fifth match.
“[The rookies] got thrown out there when there was just an avalanche of red, and they’re expected to hold their own and they’re playing against Mickelson and Tiger and Duval,” muses Lehman. “I don’t care who you are, you’re an underdog. And if you’re in the Ryder Cup in Boston with an absolute massacre going on, you have almost no chance.”
Had James known that his side would lose the first six Sunday matches, he obviously would have devised an alternate plan.
“People ask me if I’d do anything different, and I say, ‘Sure, because we didn’t win,’ ” says James. “I’d try anything different. But I felt I did the best I could and I felt the players were absolutely giving 100 percent. I couldn’t fault them.”
Nor did the players fault their captain.
“You have to bear in mind that this was a team of seven rookies that had taken a 4-point lead ahead of an incredibly strong American team going into the singles,” says Coltart. “At that stage, the captain was playing an absolute blinder. I think he was right to stick with that strategy.”
It wasn’t just that the Americans were winning the first half-dozen matches, they were crushing them. Mickelson beat Sandelin, 5 and 3, Love drubbed van de Velde, 6 and 5, Woods took Coltart, 3 and 2, and Duval rubbed out Parnevik, 5 and 4.
“It wasn’t like the leaderboard was just simply red,” says Lehman. “It was lopsided red. Blowout red.”
Jim Furyk, warming up on the range for his match with Sergio Garcia, caught glimpses of the momentum swing on a big screen nearby and heard the crowd roaring.
“It’s crazy that you can get beat up for two days and go in 4 points down and after the first six matches, we’re 2 points up,” he says.
Yet there still were six more to play, and the Europeans, who needed 4 points to retain the Cup, had backloaded their lineup. Steve Pate took a point from Miguel Angel Jimenez but the Europeans grabbed two as Padraig Harrington bested O’Meara and Paul Lawrie handled Jeff Maggert.
The US was up, 13-12, but the final three matches figured to be tossups. Garcia, the 19-year-old Spanish wonderchild, hadn’t been beaten all weekend, and Montgomerie never lost a singles match in Cup play.
So the pivotal pairing figured to be Leonard and Olazabal, and after he bogied five of the first 11 holes, the American was in deep trouble, down by 4 as they went to the 12th. But Leonard, who’d come from five strokes down to win both the 1997 British Open and the 1998 Players Championship, was known for late charges.
“I knew I needed to get things turned around quickly,” he says, “and fortunately they did.”
Olazabal missed a short putt on 11 and botched his next two tee shots to open the door. After draining a 10-foot birdie putt on 14, Leonard sank a 25-footer for another on 15 to square the match.
“It became almost inevitable,” recalls Lehman. “There was nothing that was going to stop the tide now.”
Meanwhile, Furyk, who hit all but one green in regulation, had ground down an off-target Garcia, 4 and 3, with four birdies, all but clinching the match with a blind approach shot with a 3-wood on 12 that left him a 16-foot birdie putt.
“It was almost like making eagle on that hole for me,” he says.
Everything was breaking for the Yanks, and both sides felt it.
“We still believed, but there was a massive sense that the whole momentum had shifted America’s way halfway through the afternoon,” says Coltart. “That was very palpable.”
So was the antagonistic attitude from the “USA-USA”-chanting galleries, which BBC correspondent Alistair Cooke called “the arrival of the golf hooligan” in his “Letter from America.” Their prime target was Montgomerie, who was all square with Stewart after 15 holes in what had figured to be the decisive match.
“Shank it, you fat pig!,” someone yelled at the Scot.
Stewart, appalled by the abuse that his opponent was taking, made a point of having officials eject hecklers.
“He doesn’t deserve it,” said Stewart. “I don’t know if he’s got a big bull’s-eye on his back, but it is not fair . . . It’s not golf.”
Their match, as it turned out, became moot. Up ahead, Leonard lined up a 45-foot birdie putt, watched it go over the rise, turn right, and drop in, and he thrust his arms in the air and shouted “Yes!” as his teammates mobbed him.
“We wrongly were thinking that if he makes this putt, we win,” says Lehman. “Not really understanding that if Jose Maria were to make it and they tie the hole, they still have a chance at 18. So when the putt went in, it was, ‘Holy crap, we won!’ ”
Crenshaw, who knew that local boy Francis Ouimet had holed a long putt on 17 to set up his winning playoff round in the 1913 US Open, felt Leonard had channeled him.
“It just blew the lid off the whole place,” he says. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
When Olazabal missed his 20-footer, the Americans were assured of halving the match for the winning margin. Stewart, who would die in a plane crash a month later, graciously picked up on the 18th to give Montgomerie a sportsman’s victory. Leonard says that he should have done the same himself on 18 for Olazabal.
“The one thing I wish I could have done differently was to give Jose Maria the 18th hole, which he won anyway,” he says. “I wish when we got on the green that I just would have given him the putt because the Cup had been decided at that point.”
The Americans, who universally liked and respected Olazabal, regretted their premature exuberance.
“He’s a kind-hearted, friendly person who treats everybody well,” says Lehman. “So you feel badly.”
The Spaniard, who said he understood that the Americans were carried away by their emotion, exacted exquisite payback in 2012 when the European team he captained came from 6 points down to win in the “Miracle at Medinah.”
“There was, I suppose, some sort of divine retribution, if you’re inclined to believe that sort of thing,” muses James.
The Europeans have had much the better of the rivalry since the Battle of Brookline, winning seven of the nine meetings, including an 18½-9½ flogging at Oakland Hills in the next encounter on US soil. They haven’t lost on the Continent since 1993, winning the last six. But the competitive fervor surrounding the Ryder Cup, which will be held next year at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, remains undiminished.
“The passion, that’s what makes the whole bloody thing so successful,” says Coltart. “Here are guys that know one another very well on both sides of the pond going at it absolutely hammer and tongs, giving it everything they’ve got. The pressure is enormous and the passion is huge.”
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.