U.S. stuns Europe in Ryder Cup

Emotions run high as unprecedented rally produces 14 1/2-13 1/2 win

4-point deficit overcome

Down 4 holes, Leonard halves on 50-foot putt

September 27, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

BROOKLINE, Mass. -- Everywhere you looked yesterday at The Country Club, there was a collective defiance among the members of the U.S. team in the 33rd Ryder Cup. From jut-jawed Hal Sutton's pumping fist as he walked down the first fairway to Payne Stewart's blazing blue eyes as he walked up to the 18th green more than five hours later, the Americans never blinked.

Certainly, Justin Leonard didn't.

Faced with a four-hole deficit after 10 holes of his singles match with reigning Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, Leonard made one long putt after another.

The final one, a 50-foot birdie up a ridge on the 17th green, clinched what turned out to be the last half-point in his team's 14 1/2-13 1/2 victory that proved dramatic in its outcome and historic in the Americans' huge comeback.

By winning their first six matches and seven of their first eight, all but one of them decisively, the Americans completed the biggest final-day comeback in the event's 72-year history.

No team had ever overturned more than a two-point deficit going into the singles competition. The U.S. team had trailed by four points, 10-6, meaning that the European team had to win only four matches to clinch a tie and take home the trophy for a record third straight time.

"We had to see something forceful the first four or five matches to go out in a good fashion to breed a chain reaction for the rest of the team," said U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw. "We had to get support in the air from the people here. And it happened like a dream. It was like a force was pulling us together."

Crenshaw thought it might have been a higher force from the golfing gods, one in particular. Given the setting, he figured that the legendary Francis Ouimet might have had something to do with it.

It was here 86 years ago that Ouimet, a 20-year-old amateur and former caddie whose family's house still stands across the street from the club, beat Englishmen Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff to win the U.S. Open.

"The Country Club has always been good to Americans," Crenshaw said of a club that also hosted the 1988 Open, when Curtis Strange beat Nick Faldo.

"We all know about Francis Ouimet. That's a little bit spooky. The 17th hole is where Francis Ouimet made two 20-foot putts, the first to get into a playoff and the second to win. If you don't believe in fate. I could feel it last night, but I couldn't describe it. Darned if we didn't pull it off."

The putt by Leonard set off a wild celebration among some of the American players, as well as their caddies and wives, who rushed the green.

Tom Lehman lifted Leonard in the air, much to the disgust as well as distraction of Olazabal, who still had to putt. Leonard helped clear the green, if not the air, and the celebration continued when Olazabal's 25-footer narrowly missed. Crenshaw kissed the green three times.

The image of the U.S. players going onto the green left more of a sour taste with the Europeans than the defeat itself.

"If you have seen it on TV, or just watched it, I think that kind of behavior is not the one anybody expects, especially when you're playing a match and you know that the whole match is going to go down [to that putt]," said Olazabal, who would birdie the par-4 18th to halve the match.

"I think it was very sad to see. I think we all want to congratulate the American team. We are not trying to find any excuse. Next time I think it will be to the benefit of the game of golf if we manage to behave just a little better, every one of us."

Said European captain Mark James: "I don't think Ben was responsible for that behavior, so I wouldn't expect an apology from Ben."

Crenshaw, who has carved a reputation as a firm believer in the game's traditions, was clearly embarrassed by the outburst.

"It really was not something that we need to be proud of and we've apologized," he said. "And for that, we're truly sorry."

If anything, the decision by James to keep three of his seven Ryder Cup rookies out of the competition until yesterday had more of an effect on the outcome. Not only did all three lose rather convincingly, but some of his players who had performed magically over the first two days and four matches seemed to tire.

"The [U.S.] momentum was definitely building," said Jesper Parnevik of Sweden, who lost six of the first eight holes in a 5-and-4 defeat by David Duval.

Said Duval, who as a result of his fast start and the roaring fans became more animated than usual: "It made a big difference. When I got to the 11th hole, everybody was at least three up."

It was there that Hal Sutton later found Leonard, who was trailing Olazabal by four holes.

"I went up to Justin on the 11th tee and told him, `You can do it. I've seen it,' "` said Sutton, who had dispatched Darren Clarke of Northen Ireland, 4-and-2.

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