Crenshaw took Ryder team and gave it a winning drive

September 29, 1999|By John Eisenberg

The Ryder Cup miracle? Everyone will tell you it was the United States team's dramatic and unprecedented comeback on the event's final day.

But the comeback never would have occurred without the real Ryder miracle of 1999 -- captain Ben Crenshaw's feat of taking a dozen mostly spoiled, selfish PGA Tour rivals and turning them into a seamless, cohesive team capable of writing such history.

The U.S. comeback not only was one of golf's best, but, at the risk of hyperbole, also one of the best seen in any sport. And although Crenshaw didn't hit a shot, his leadership made it possible.

The inability to come together as a team had been the common thread linking the five U.S. failures in the past seven Cups before this one. The Americans often had more talent, but as longtime European stalwart Seve Ballesteros once said, "the team is everything" in the Ryder Cup, and the Europeans were better at the tricky mental maneuver of turning rivals into teammates for a weekend.

Crenshaw succeeded where prior U.S. captains have failed, somehow bringing together a group that was in complete disarray just six weeks before the Cup, divided over the typical issue of how much they should be paid.

In fact, the Americans became so focused and driven that they lost their heads and went way overboard celebrating Justin Leonard's key putt Sunday, stomping across the green and smashing all standards of good sportsmanship.

They had every right to celebrate, but not on the green during a still-undecided match, with Europe's Jose Maria Olazabal facing a crucial putt of his own.

"Thou shalt not step on an opponent's putting line" is golf's first commandment, and the Americans basically held a rugby scrum in front of Olazabal. You can't get more rude.

Several Americans said they were merely showing the same joy the Europeans had shown after recent Cup wins, but the Europeans never compromised a key putt with the Cup still up for grabs. Fortunately, Crenshaw knew to apologize.

The furor the display has touched off is legitimate, but at least some of the indignation in Europe is just a veneer obscuring the main issue -- being on the wrong side of the biggest collapse in Ryder Cup history.

In the end, the Americans will be remembered more for being on the right side than for being poor sports in victory.

The event never should have been so close in the first place, of course; as usual, the Americans had more talent, including seven of the world's top 10, but as usual, the Europeans were more of a team, winning 10 of the 16 matches involving two players from each side.

Europe captain Mark James got the better of Crenshaw on those two days, ably blending his players' subtly different skills.

At that point, it seemed Crenshaw's greatest success would be getting his team through the Cup without another outbreak of the ugly "I want my money" argument.

But as it turned out, the muting of that issue was just part of an ongoing team-building process that reached a peak Saturday night, just in time.

Put in the hole of having to produce at least eight wins and a tie in the 12 singles matches the next day, the team gathered in a hotel conference room with Crenshaw presiding. A self-confessed emotional softy, Crenshaw shot all of his motivational bullets. He mentioned his father, who passed away last year. He read speeches written by Texans surrounded at the Alamo. He showed personalized videos offering encouragement from, among others, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.

Over the top? No doubt. Campy? No question. But successful? Absolutely. Reacting to each other's triumphs as if they were football teammates, the Americans went out Sunday and built up a sweep of momentum that overwhelmed the Europeans.

For once, they were teammates.

Please understand how difficult it was to get them there. With the PGA Tour booming, successful American golfers are almost mini-corporations more than athletes. They're intensely competitive, they all want the same things and they tend to filter events through the lens of "What does it mean to me?" Asking them to put all that aside and share the same goal would be like asking 12 competing automobile manufacturers to get together and sell the same car. They might do it, but they'd do it grudgingly.

Until Sunday, the Americans also had a grudging approach to the Ryder Cup as a team event. They coveted the honor of making the team and loved participating, but individual agendas still dominated the process. Whether anyone realized it, the team was secondary.

All that melted away as the birdies stacked up Sunday.

Old pros Tom Lehman and Hal Sutton set the tone with early wins, and then came a defining moment: David Duval's crushing defeat of Jesper Parnevik.

The normally low-key Duval, a Ryder rookie, had downplayed the significance of the event, calling it an exhibition. He also had been one of the leaders of the pay-me brigade. But he underwent a transformation Sunday, pumping his fists and exhorting fans and teammates as he blistered the Swede who had led Europe on Friday and Saturday.

Being part of the team had altered him, however briefly.

The U.S. went on to win and the golfers doused each other with champagne, just as major-league teams do after winning the World Series.

It was a stunning comeback, but no more stunning than the reality that Crenshaw had preached to his players about putting aside their own agendas and focusing on winning -- and they had listened.

Pub Date: 9/29/99

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