War on the Shore
An oral history of the 1991 Ryder Cup | By Mike Lopresti
Photos from PGA of America archives, Getty Images
War on the shore.
Twenty-five years later, the nickname still caroms through golf history, like a towering drive bouncing down a fairway. It was the weekend the Ryder Cup became something different. On a new and merciless links course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, the United States and Europe engaged for three days in a competition that broke new ground in fire and pressure, in intensity and emotion – and, some would say, excess.
There would be no decision until the final putt on the final hole, a missed 6-footer by Bernhard Langer on an autumn Sunday afternoon that gave the Americans a cherished Cup, after six years of maddening frustration. They had once owned this event, but not anymore. The Europeans had already shown they were no longer the junior partners in the Ryder Cup, having possessed it since 1985, through three competitions.
By the time Langer’s putt slid past the right edge, halving his match with Hale Irwin and giving the U.S. the victory 14 1/2-13 1/2, there had been tension and controversy and hard feelings and tears. And a sense the Ryder Cup would never, ever be the same.
“I think the entire scope of the Ryder Cup changed,” said Dave Stockton, who captained that U.S. team. “I think Kiawah Island, because of the location, it was a classic venue, because of the television, because of the closeness of the match completely jump-started the Ryder Cup.”
Added Paul Azinger, “In America it changed it for sure. People got interested. This is the one that did it.”
What follows are the recollections of many who were there. An oral history of the week that was for the Ryder Cup.
The intrigue began with the stage itself, a Pete Dye course by the seaside that had to be rushed to completion in time for the competition, with no bunkers but marshy no-man’s-lands bordering the fairways. Tabletop greens to cause considerable anguish. Lots of mounds for the gallery, giving the effect of gladiators doing combat down below, which in a way is what it turned out to be. Plus a freak wind to make it all that much tougher.
PETE DYE: “We designed it with the idea the Ryder Cup was going to be there. We finished the golf course in time for the tee off. It worked out all right. It was a great event for Kiawah, and it’s still there.”
MARK CALCAVECCHIA: “I went there to play a practice round a couple months before the tournament and I couldn’t even find how to get to the first tee. It was just nothing but a bunch of sand dunes, there weren’t even any roads. I was like ‘I can’t believe they are having a Ryder Cup here in two months.’”
COLIN MONTGOMERIE: “It was very hard, very firm, very breezy and damn near impossible. It wasn’t quite ready, to be honest. Our team rooms, which are very grand nowadays, was a caravan. It was like a Winnebago-type deal, we were in. And the locker room was something similar.”
STOCKTON: “Just basically chaotic would be the first word that came to mind. You’re just never prepared for that much pressure and all the different things that you need to do. You say three days, a full year led up to it, but the three days there went by like a blur.
BUDDY DARBY, then CEO of Kiawah Development Partners: “That time of the year you hardly ever get a northeast wind. It blew the opposite direction of prevailing winds for three days straight. That’s why, like on 17, if you look back, Hale Irwin’s got a 3-wood hitting off of there. Today that’d be a 6-iron. It was uncanny. The wind never stopped from morning to night.”
CHIP BECK: “It was the densest wind I’ve ever played in. The greens were hard and fast, and you couldn’t get the ball close. And so we’re putting 30-footers all week.”
LANNY WADKINS: “I think the venue added a lot to the gallery’s partisanship. They were on mounds yelling at each other across fairways. To have the enthusiasm from the galleries involved in the Ryder Cup is incredible. Sometimes you just step back and take it all in. And Kiawah was maybe the best at that.”
There was also the pre-Ryder Cup banquet, when the plot began to thicken. That’s the night American player Steve Pate suffered injured ribs in a limo crash on the way to the event.
STOCKTON: “He was playing better than anybody. I don’t think he had a practice round over 67. He was ready to go and then he had the stupid limo wreck and it just really made a mess of my pairings. I was trying to make up pairings I hadn’t even considered before.”
STEVE PATE: “I had come close to making the ’89 team, so it was a really big deal for me to make that team. It was the first time that I had more than a handful of people that really cared an awful lot about what I did.
“At first, I didn’t really know how serious it was. I went to the hospital and they gave me a CT scan. They were concerned about internal injuries, and I didn’t have any. But they said bruises showed up, which is unusual, and they said `You’re going to be really sore for a while.’ The next day my whole side was black.
“I was playing probably as well as I ever had. Dave Stockton had the option to pull in the next guy on the point list and he didn’t do it. That made me feel really good. At that point we didn’t know if I was going to be able to play.”
It was also the night a film of past Ryder Cup highlights was shown at the dinner. That didn’t exactly charm the visiting team.
BERNHARD LANGER: “The American PGA shows the highlights of the Ryder Cup and it was all American players, and we had just won the last three Ryder Cups. No European players, none at all. And we were just furious. We’re just ticked off and saying ‘Yea, America has won it 27 times, but what about the last three times?’”
There were other forces at work as Friday’s start neared. This Ryder Cup was being played in the aftermath of the Gulf War, and a few of the U.S. entourage showed up that week in camouflage hats. And in the background, a media-friendly tagline had become in vogue: War by the Shore. Or War on the Shore. Looking back, both versions were used.
WADKINS: “I think the thing that added to it and inflamed it that I didn’t like, and I didn’t wear, was the camouflage hats and stuff. I didn’t get a hold of that.”
HALE IRWIN: “Playing golf is not a war. The guys that were fighting in the Gulf, that was a war. I thought it was just a little bit disrespectful, but at the same time I understood the analogy. I just don’t think any of the players on either side looked on it as a war. It was just another Ryder Cup that happened to be emotional and fulfilling on both sides.”
AZINGER: “That was all media, when some of the tabloids guys saw the camouflage hats. Dave Stockton loves to hunt (hence, the camouflage) and that was pretty cool, but it just backfired. The tabloids took that and made it into something that it completely wasn’t.”
STOCKTON: “I liked the hats. Everybody took exception to it and in hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the hats. I was surprised they called it the War by the Shore. I certainly didn’t feel like it was that, because there were a lot of friends on both sides. In fact my highlight of the entire week was Tuesday night; we had a cookout, and didn’t invite any officials. It was just the two teams and our families. That moment, to me, is what the Ryder Cup was about, because we were all in flip-flops, shorts and everything. A relaxed time. I enjoyed that.”
EUROPE CAPTAIN BERNARD GALLACHER: “We knew America would be very anxious to win it back. The American press in Charleston said, `Let the War on the Shore begin.’ That was our first inkling on the first day that it was going to be very competitive. And then when Corey Pavin came out with a battle fatigue hat on, we thought it’s obviously going to take it to another level of competitiveness.
“The Charleston people and the Kiawah supporters really got behind the team. It’s the first time I had noticed players got booed for holing a putt and clapped for when they missed a putt. It was a bit of a shock. But looking back, we’re all a bit older now, and probably it was really good for the Ryder Cup, I suppose.”
JOHN GARRITY, covering for Sports Illustrated: “It was emotionally fraught. It was the period when the Ryder Cup had really ramped up in intensity, and it had become a great biennial triumph for the European squad and kind of a scary psychological trial for the U.S. players, who realized that if they failed to come through, they were going to be branded as chokers and losers.
“And then wrapped up in all that was this bizarre and inappropriate super-patriotism that seemed to have overwhelmed the event itself.”
Whatever its causes, the tension was palpable. It always is at the Ryder Cup, but between the American hunger to retrieve the Cup, the charged setting, the times, the media always eager to fan a fire, this seemed another level.
PAUL BROADHURST: “The Americans wanted to win badly, no question, and I can understand that. Things went on at that Ryder Cup that perhaps shouldn’t have gone on, from a European perspective anyway. We had radio stations ringing us at five in the morning to wake us up, and stuff like that, but we were already awake. It was a 7:30 start and we were having breakfast at 5:30 to be ready for a 7:30 tee-off, so we were up anyway.”
AZINGER: “We had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder after they won it in ’85, and were dancing on the greens in ’87. That pissed us off.”
Plus, there were raucous galleries, for both sides.
STOCKTON: “What I learned, No. 1, is the Americans can’t sing worth a lick like the Europeans can. It was like a soccer game has broken out at a golf tournament.”
WADKINS: “I think that’s the one thing that makes the Ryder Cup so special. Everybody always complains, they want it to be civil. Well, it’s not good when it’s civil. It’s good when the Americans and Europeans really want to beat the crap out of each other. We wanted to win that week, badly. We wanted to get the Cup back and there was a sense of urgency on our part to try to get that done.
“I think when they danced on the 18th green at Muirfield Village in ’87, we looked at that like, `OK, this is a different ballgame.’ That was kind of the awakening for us. From then on, it was game on.”
GARRITY: “The thing that sticks out in my mind was the fact the Ryder Cup had been held up as this exemplar of team spirit and unity on both sides. That is what made the Ryder Cup different from other golf tournaments; that it was about the teams. But ironically, the level of pressure that had been generated by all this Ryder Cup hysteria and partisanship actually turned it into a pressure cooker for the individuals. It was really testing the metal of each individual golfer on either side, and failure came at a very, very high price. There were players on both sides who were tight beyond belief.”
Imagine being a Ryder Cup rookie in such a situation. Strange things could happen.
MONTGOMERIE: “I happened to share a locker with Faldo. We all at the time had the same shoe manufacturer. So I put these shoes on in the locker and they were slightly tight, but because you had just flown the day before, sometimes your feet swell because you have been up 60,000 feet in the Concorde. So out on the range, I’m swinging away, thinking they are a bit tight, but they look OK.
“And he comes out on the range and he’s holding these shoes, knowing that they’re mine and I’m wearing his. I was like, ‘Good start Monty, well done.’’
Amid the noise and the wind and the pressure and the mixed-up shoes, the first day gave the U.S. a 4 ½-3 1/2 lead. But it had not been easy. None of it.
STOCKTON: “Let’s put it this way. I stood on the first tee and I was never so happy to be a captain that didn’t have to hit a shot on the first hole. That first hole terrified me.”
WADKINS: “A lot of things happen in the Ryder Cup that say pressure. To me, the all-timer was the very first match the first morning. It’s Hale Irwin and I playing Montgomerie and (David) Gilford. We’re on the first tee and we’d already decided that Hale was going to hit on the odd holes and I’m going to hit on the even holes. So I’m sitting on the tee and I’m waiting for them to announce Hale and the team and the whole deal. I’m kind of relaxed because I haven’t got to hit this inaugural shot for us. About 30 seconds before they introduce us, Hale looks at me and says, `You’ve got to hit this shot.’ I said `Excuse me?’ He said `You’ve got to hit this shot. I don’t like the way the wind’s blowing, it’s coming from the left, I can’t get it in the fairway, you can hit your ol’ hook and get it in the fairway.’
“My three-time Open partner is telling me he can’t put it in the fairway. But we go out and with that change we lit it up. We played the first nine holes in five-under par and we’re 5-up on Montgomerie and Gilford. It ended up being one of the great calls of all time that he did it. But I always say if my three-time Open champion partner has pressure bothering him a little bit, we’ve got some serious pressure out here.”
The day also was enlivened considerably by a fiery alternate shot match with Azinger and Beck against the late Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. There were disputes over a lost ball, a provisional ball, a referee change, and then a real dust-up when Azinger and Beck were switching balls, saying later they misunderstood the rule. The Europeans noticed it on the seventh hole, and brought it up after they finished play at No. 9. The discussion at the No. 10 tee grew rather testy.
WADKINS: “Seve, rest in peace, was always going to do something to try to piss somebody off. He was going to play the gamesmanship card every single match. Beck and Azinger made a simple but really dumb mistake, not paying attention to what ball they were playing. The thing that nobody ever really understood was Seve, he saw it three or four holes before he called it on the 10th tee. So he’s trying to call four holes on them. Typical Seve, he didn’t know the rules, he made them up as he went along. And that really kind of inflamed it more than anything else.”
IRWIN: “Seve tended to raise the emotional level of any match he was playing. I respected him greatly for what he had done in the game and the tournaments he had won and some of his leadership capabilities. But he always was one to put a burr under the saddle. And Paul was always one to take another burr and put it back in his saddle. So that wasn’t surprising.”
LANGER: “There was Seve and Azinger arguing on the golf course on opposing teams, an accusing each other sort-of-thing. You don’t see that very often in the game of golf.”
AZINGER: “Everything was intensely patriotic, on both sides. Seve was patriotic, and I was, and we bumped heads.”
GALLACHER: “It was toxic. I was trying to keep out of it, just let the referee deal with it. The funny thing was it wasn’t Seve, it was Olazabal who called it.
“It was always pretty combustible between Seve and Paul Azinger. Paul Azinger puts the U.S. flag on, he’s like a different guy, and Seve puts the Spanish flag on, they’re like bulls going at each other. It’s like matadors. The disappointing thing for me about that particular dispute was we had gone to such lengths the day before at the rules meeting about that particular issue. It was really explained to all the players what they can and can’t do. So they had no reason not to know the rule. But as it turned out, it really got Seve’s back up and Olzabal’s back up and they took their game to another level and won that match.”
Azinger and Beck lost to Ballesteros and Olazabal twice that Friday, both 2 and 1. Ballesteros and Olazabal won one more match and halved another on Saturday. After two days, they had accounted for 3 ½ of Europe’s eight points.
GALLACHER: “Seve and Olazabal really kept us in it. I just think people were trying to get on the Spaniards a little bit. There were people complaining they were playing too slowly. This is what really annoyed me. I was thinking, what are we in a rush for? This is a great match, they’re putting their heart and soul into this, they don’t want to make a wrong call on the clubs, they don’t want to make a wrong read on the greens. They’re not doing it to put off the American side.”
But clearly, Ballesteros was a master at getting under U.S. skins.
BECK: “I’ll never forget Raymond (Floyd) jumping up on that tee with Seve. Seve had a bad cough that week. You would get to the top of your swing and he’d just (clear his throat) a little bit. And Raymond jumped up on that tee and said, `Seve, we’re not going to play like that today.’’’
The Europeans pulled even the second day 8-8, which included Stockton giving the hobbled Pate a chance to play in the four-ball. Pate and Pavin lost to Langer and Montgomery, 2 and 1.
STOCKTON: “Saturday night when we were dead tied, that was the first time in my thought process that we might lose. I thought before there was no chance of us losing. It was a very long three days of our lives. I lost a lot of weight. You just didn’t feel like you were in control.”
So everything came down to Sunday’s singles matches. Pate was slated to go against Ballesteros, but his condition after Saturday play was so bad, he was scratched. That meant by rule his match would be halved, with whoever’s name the Europeans had put in the envelope for such cases, which turned out to be Gilford. Since Ballesteros had been scheduled to go against Pate, he then moved to Gilford’s spot on the pairings, and beat Wayne Levi.
GALLACHER: “For me, the singles swung on the fact that Steve Pate got pulled out. It meant their weakest player, Wayne Levi, played Seve. I’m looking for Seve to play a strong player.
“I didn’t know about it until I was sitting in the clubhouse having breakfast. The bruising must have got worse overnight. I wasn’t told about it. That’s the thing that – I wouldn’t say annoyed me – but I was disappointed. The reason I was disappointed was I had to go tell my player that he was in the envelope. David Gilford was dying to get on the golf course in singles because he had lost heavily the day before and he was a really good player. I knew he was anxious to get on the course and make amends.”
PATE: “I had played the one match and something happened in the middle of the round. I took a step on one of those mounds during the match and everything seized up. It was rough. I had the situation I wanted. Somebody asked me before the thing started, `Who would you like to play in singles?’ I said Seve Ballesteros, and I actually drew him. Then I went to the range and after 20 minutes I couldn’t hit a ball more than 40 yards.
“I never understood it being a controversy at the time. What was the controversy? I don’t understand it now. I don’t know how it could have been handled any differently. I didn’t know I wasn’t going to be able to play until Sunday morning. I didn’t think I was, but I hadn’t given up on it.”
STOCKTON: “I played him Saturday because I thought he could go. He woke up Sunday morning and was so sore he couldn’t play, so there was no decision to be made, other than the fact to inform them. Everybody thought there was some kind of controversy, but there was no controversy. If we hadn’t had the limo wreck they would have seen a hell of a lot more of Pate than they wanted to see, I guarantee you.”
WADKINS: “Probably the mistake made was that he tried to play on Saturday afternoon with Corey Pavin and couldn’t really play well and lost the match. You think that one’s a bad one, go to Sam Torrance’s septic toe in ’93 when he didn’t play. I think at least Steve Pate’s injury was legitimate from a car wreck. What the hell is a septic toe?”
Sunday started ominously for the U.S., with Floyd losing to Faldo and Payne Stewart beaten by David Feherty. Europe had seized the momentum.
STOCKTON: “It shocked the hell out of me to have the start we had with both Payne Stewart and Raymond Floyd being put down fairly early.”
But there was Calcavecchia 4-up on Montgomerie with four holes to play. He had become a beacon for his wobbly team to follow.
STOCKTON: “I’m on the 8th tee for all 11 matches going through, and they’re saying, `Look what Calc’s doing. If he can do it, I can do it.’ That was the mindset.”
Except Calcavecchia lost the 15th hole, then the 16th, then the 17th when he skulled into the water, just after Montgomerie had hit into the water. A moment later, the No. 17 nightmare ended for Calcavecchia when he missed a two-foot putt.
CALCAVECCHIA: “The worst part was not really the shot that I kind of smothered into the water, it was probably the two-footer that I missed. I should have made that one, and I didn’t even touch the hole.”
A bogey on No. 18 made the collapse complete, gave Montgomerie a half point, and left Calcavecchia sobbing by himself on the beach, his heart tore by the shore. He was the quintessential picture of the toll the Ryder Cup could take.
GARRITY: “He was just devastated by it. I’ll never forget the way he looked. He was pale. He really wanted to go away and hide. Recollections tell me his wife had to persuade him to come back for the end. But he wasn’t alone. Half the players in that Ryder Cup underperformed or hit shots that could be described as chokes.”
CALCAVECCHIA: “I’ll be the first to admit I overreacted but I just felt like that half a point was going to make a big difference, and as it turned out, it nearly did. The emotions of the whole event just overtook me there and I didn’t handle it very good for a while. Two of the last holes I played well, and to lose all three of them was such an accumulation of something that I couldn’t handle at the time.
“I needed to get away from everybody. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Roger Maltbie wanted to talk to me (for TV) and Peter Kostas, my teacher, just said, `Not now, Roger.’ I needed to regroup. I did to some extent, but even after it was all over, I was still kind of in a state of shock. When we were standing out there in our blue jackets at the edge of the ocean out there, I don’t even remember doing that. I was clearly still a little bit stunned by everything that happened.
“I can’t think of any other time that golf has affected me like that.”
STOCKTON: “Last time I checked, we won by a half. I credit him with a lot for doing that.”
The U.S. needed good news in a hurry, and got it, with Azinger beating Olazabal 2 up, a back-and-forth grinder that went to No. 18.
AZINGER: “My match was huge, because I was the fourth match out and I remember it was all blue on the board. It was stimulating. I can remember a feeling I had on the 16th hole in the fairway bunker, hitting a third shot, it was a 4-iron, and everything about my body relaxed before I hit the shot. And I hit it on the green. I remember from that point I didn’t miss a shot, right to the house.
“I was absolutely drained. You look around and it’s like, `That was supposed to be fun, huh?’’’
More U.S points came from Pavin, Beck, Fred Couples and Wadkins, who put the Americans on the brink with a victory over Mark James, 3 and 2.
WADKINS: “The one thing I was trying to do was close out my match before I got to 17. I did not want any part of 17 and 18, because I knew things could happen. I had played all five matches and it was a tough place to walk. I was in my 40s then and I was whipped mentally and physically by that time.”
And so it was left to the last two men playing at Kiawah Island, each chosen by his captain to be in the final pairing for his utter unflappability.
IRWIN: “Dave had come to me the night before and asked me if I had any desire one way or another play first, last or in between and I told him it didn’t matter, wherever he felt I would be best positioned. He didn’t tell me I would be last, but when I saw the pairings come out, I remember very clearly being with my wife and looking through the pairings and guessing this match might go this way, and that match may go that way, and all of a sudden I’m adding up the points and it’s dead even, and I remember making the remark to her `I have a feeling it’s going to come down to our match.’ Little did I know that would ring true.
“For me, it was a vote of confidence from Dave, and at the same time it’s a responsibility that you have to handle, and you hold yourself to that responsibility. And I took it seriously.”
As the other matches raged in front of them, they tried to keep their heads down and focus on their own match. That was hard to do.
IRWIN: “Dave came out at some point on the back nine and informed me what was happening. It was very clear over the course of the last five or six holes what was coming down. I think both Bernhard and I knew it was coming down to this result.”
By No. 17, with Irwin 1-up, the pressure was blowing in the golfers’ faces like a chill wind. Ballesteros was there to stir up anything he could.
IRWIN: “We were all pretty nervous going off that tee, and I forget who his fellow Spaniard was, he said something in Spanish to this person. And I kind of went up and put my arm on Seve and said, `Hey, what were you saying? He said, `I said it’s too bad you didn’t knock it in the water.’ It wasn’t necessarily a moment of levity because that’s not the way Seve was. Amongst his teammates yes, but toward us, no. It was probably a serious thing, but just the manner in which he said it did have some relief from the rather tense environment in which we found ourselves.
“That was Seve. That was OK, I expected no less.”
Irwin three-putted No. 17, and Langer pulled even, having made a number of crucial putts down the stretch.
GALLACHER: “Bernhard Langer does what he does. He’s very stubborn, he’s dogmatic. That’s why he’s still going strong on the seniors’ tour today. We felt we had the right guy at the end of the field to play Hale Irwin. Irwin was struggling as the matches were getting more tense at the end, and he couldn’t finish off Bernhard Langer, because he doesn’t go away.”
IRWIN: “You can’t describe the pulse rate. You can’t describe how your breathing has become rapid. You can’t describe the adrenaline rush, and then to try to settle those down and hit a golf shot. Perhaps you could take the amateur and say, `How would you feel if you had Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer looking at you while you’re trying to hit the green on the 17th hole at Sawgrass for a million dollars?’ I would just say to people, think of a time you were the most excited – in a favorable way, I’m not talking about scared -- and multiply that by at least three or four times. And then try to settle yourself down, try to put a thread through the eye of a needle, or hit the golf shot or make your voice not quiver just a little bit or tell your mouth it’s really not dry. Throw them all together in the same bowl and mix them up, and that’s what it was.”
CALCAVECCHIA: “If you go back and look at Hale, he was so nervous he couldn’t hardly swallow on the last hole, and there’s a guy who’s already won three U.S. Opens and one of the best clutch players in history. It just that tough. The pressure is so intense.”
AZINGER: “You just can’t believe you’re in this spot. It’s like, `Why do I like this?’’’
Teammates, families, captains, fans, a mass of humanity, all gathered around par-4 No. 18 to see the last act of an epic.
GARRITY: “It had to have been the biggest crowd on a single golf hole that I had ever seen. It was just an immense throng of people.”
Both men were just off the green with their second shots. Then Irwin’s meek wedge came up way short, opening the door for Langer and Europe.
IRWIN: “Bad pitch. Simply, I didn’t hit it hard enough, which seemed to be my MO for years and years and years.
“My son and I had gone down several days before the event and played some practice rounds. In fact, we were there once and played a practice round with Pete Dye. I had found the last green seemingly had more back-to-front influence in it than any of the other greens, more grain, more slope, more something that was there. Knowing that as I hit my pitch I still didn’t factor in how slow that pitch shot would be.
“You can’t agonize over it. You’ve done your best. That’s what I was telling myself. There wasn’t much I could do about it. It’s now his turn to play.”
GARRITY: “I still remember exactly where I was standing, on the side of the green. The shot I really remember is Hale Irwin, who’s always been one of the most stoic and dependable finishers, a guy who certainly didn’t have the reputation for choking, and he just flat-out chunked his chip. It was less than 10 feet I think and he just laid the sod over the ball and it went halfway there. He was just stricken, you could tell.”
GALLACHER: “Hale Irwin managed to putt up to about 18 inches and Bernhard Langer very generously gave him that putt. I think Irwin was really struggling at that moment. There was a lot of pressure and the crowds were on the green almost.”
Six feet of Bermuda grass was left in the 1991 Ryder Cup. All Langer needed to do was make one last putt, as he had done nearly all day, and the Europeans could forget about the camouflage hats and the Pate injury and take the Cup and go home.
IRWIN: “I’m thinking to myself, I hope he doesn’t know what I think I know, and that putt breaks more than it looks. And as it ends up, he did miss it on the low side, although some years later he told me that it hit a spike mark.
“I know he was just as nervous as me. He doesn’t show it much.”
LANGER: “Because of spike marks, I couldn’t hit it left edge, I had to putt it straight.”
STOCKTON: “You can’t root against a guy. I thought, well, we’re going to end up tied because I was not expecting him to miss the putt.”
The universe of golf held its breath as the ball rolled toward the cup . . . and then past the right lip.
DARBY: “Pete Dye and I got out of the cart. By the time we got to the green there were 12 layers of people. When Langer putted everybody on the front started raising up, and we couldn’t see. You heard this roar. It started and then it got louder and louder. When it started, I couldn’t tell whether Langer made the putt or he didn’t make the putt. There were 10 or 15 seconds where everybody was going crazy.”
GARRITY: “I remember physically that he straightened up and leaned back, like someone had pointed a knife into his back. He saw it as `I just lost the Ryder Cup.’ Of course nothing could be further from the case. He made a number of clutch shots coming down the stretch. But the putt slid by and he took on the entire burden of that.”
LANGER: “I was down for my team. I felt bad for them. I go into where I sign the scorecard and stuff and Seve gives me a hug and starts crying, then that sets me off and man, this is no good, you know? And I just felt bad for all my team. They put so much effort and work into it, and all I had to do was make a six-foot putt.”
IRWIN: “The first word that comes to mind is relief. Now it’s over. I felt some compassion for him because he wanted to win just as badly as I did. I did not look at him as losing that match, nor did I look at it as me winning that match. I had the greatest respect for Bernhard because he handled himself extremely well.”
GALLACHER: “We had been struggling on the greens all week, and he just charged it too far. It looked like he hit a good putt, it bumped a little bit and he missed. What can you do?
“I can see it now very vividly. I see Payne Stewart rushing out to the green. I didn’t really get a chance to speak to Bernhard on the green. After I had been to the press center, I go into the team trailer and Bernhard Langer is sitting in the corner on his own, crying. I went over to him and said, `You’re fine, you did your best.’
“He said, `No, it’s not me. But when I went into the trailer the first person I saw was Seve and he was crying, he couldn’t speak. Seve got me crying. I saw Sam come across and he was crying as well. My teammates made me feel so emotional.’
“Instead of them being strong for him, Seve and Sam Torrance were all weak at the knees. They felt so bad for him, they made him feel bad.”
Meanwhile, the Americans raced for the surf to celebrate. Well, most of them.
AZINGER: “I love Bernhard Langer. I didn’t want to lose, and I didn’t want that to happen to him. I was pretty emotion-less. I didn’t join the party running to the ocean. I just didn’t want to rub Bernhard Langer’s nose in it, he was too good of a friend.”
And that was finally that. Everyone was left to figure out just what had happened on Kiawah Island, and what it all meant.
DARBY: “I think it’s safe to say that most people would say that the Ryder Cup kind of got defined at Kiawah. It took us from a regional resort and put us on an international stage. I think in a lot of ways it legitimized golf at Kiawah. It’s been 25 years so we’re like 12 Ryder Cups removed, and I’ll say no less than four or five times Kiawah is mentioned on Ryder Cup broadcasts. It probably is the biggest sporting event in the state of South Carolina.”
MONTGOMERIE: “When you saw Langer and Seve hugging each other in the locker room afterwards, behind-the-scenes and openly in tears - I realized then that I wanted more of this somehow. Although we lost, and it was terrible thing to do, to lose, after having won in ’85 and ’87 and tying in ’89, I wanted more of it. I think we all did after ’91.”
It says something about the cauldron of that Ryder Cup that the most enduring images from Kiawah Island were two men in agony, left to deal with the aftermath.
CALCAVECCHIA: “I don’t ever think about it except when every Ryder Cup comes around, and then I think about it. It doesn’t bother me. It’s part of my history and it happened. At least I was there. Being a part of four Ryder Cup teams is something a lot of guys never got to be a part of.
“The week after that we played in San Antonio and I think I got 200 letters in my locker from fans who said `Great playing, you were part of the reason we won the Ryder Cup.’ I never got one single bad letter or comment about losing the last four holes. It was all positive, and that helped me a lot.”
LANGER: “It was just a game of golf and I just missed a putt. I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t get hurt – mentally, maybe slightly, but nothing physically happened. And so life goes on. I was able to win the German Masters the following Sunday, making a putt on the last green. I got over it fairly quick, because I had great faith in God, which puts it all in perspective. It helped me, because the media takes it out of perspective very quickly.”
BROADHURST: “He didn’t do anything wrong in my book. He missed a 6-foot putt, downhill, with 2-3 inches of left-to-right break, It’s the putt that everyone hates. But no, it hasn’t affected Bernhard’s career in any way at all. I think he’s thrived on it. Perhaps missing that putt has probably made him a better person and a better player.”
GARRITY: “Neither of them were scarred for life or destroyed by this, but in the moment, both of them were devastated. It just emphasized what a blood sport the Ryder Cup had become.”
The legacy of 1991? Each dazed participant must decide if he took part in an historically great sporting event, or an overcooked clash of nationalities. Or maybe both.
CALCAVECCHIA: “That was really the start of the rivalry I think, to the point where it was really us against them. I definitely think it made it more of a heated thing. It’s not an exhibition like people think, where you’re just playing for a silly little gold trophy. It’s obviously a lot more than that. I think that Ryder Cup really put the Ryder Cup on the map.”
IRWIN: “At the ceremonies that night I think there was a great deal of respect on both sides. We knew it had been a special moment, and that no one had really lost. I think everyone felt that were a victor in some way.
“After the ceremonies I was walking with Payne Stewart and suddenly Payne just shot up in the air. I said to myself, what in the . . . then I glanced over and Ian Woosnam had snuck up behind him and with his stature and his strength, he had just put his head between Payne’s legs and lifted him up on his shoulders. I remember that as being the spirit of that Ryder Cup. Competitive? Absolutely. But once said and done, we returned to our friendships and our associations as they had been in the past, with maybe a greater degree of respect.”
STOCKTON: “Their team was extremely classy in defeat, I’ve got to give them that. You mention the War by the Shore, but the thing I remember was we had a dinner between the two teams on Sunday night after the thing was over, and we’ve got two buses waiting there and the guys are all filing into one bus. We need two seats more because we had two too many people. And Woosnam says, `Stockton, don’t worry about it.’ He picks up Pavin and carries Pavin on the bus. He says,`We’re so small, we can fit in one seat, no problem.’ That’s kind of the feeling that was there. It wasn’t what a lot of people made it out to be. I don’t think, anyway.”
AZINGER: “Action speaks for itself and that was really great action. It’s not an exhibition anymore. It’s a real grudge match. It’s only golf, so how could it go too far? The only way it goes too far is if the fans don’t behave properly. Then it goes too far.”
“I guess it was a battle. It wasn’t a war.”
GARRITY: “I definitely thought the partisanship and nationalism had gotten way out of control. The Ryder Cup had turned into an event that the players claimed to treasure more than any other, but privately feared and loathed. It had gotten that bad. There were guys who were on the bubble who, if you got an honest answer from them, they didn’t want to be chosen for the Ryder Cup because it was too much. It could define their careers. Bad play in the Ryder Cup could define their careers in a way no other event could.
“I think it’s never gone away completely, but I think they have at least gotten it a little more under control in recent years. I think it was a wake-up call for a lot of people in the golf world. I know for certain that the players wanted to tone it down. By and large I think things have improved, but the red flag Ryder Cup was at Kiawah Island.”
MONTGOMERIE: “Since I first started in ’91, the Ryder Cup has grown dramatically. I mean its 10 times the size it was in a television sense, a marketing sense, a brand awareness of the Ryder Cup.
“I think ’91 was the catalyst to change the way that both sides saw the Ryder Cup. And I hate to say not always for the good, but for the good of the Ryder Cup, because the tension was spectacular.
“It’s like, controversy sells. This was controversial, and it sold. It sold the Ryder Cup.”
LANGER: “It’s a game of golf played between the 12 best players on this side of the Atlantic and the 12 best players on that side of the Atlantic. And there’s going to be a winner and a loser, no matter how you do it, but it’s not a war. It’s not life and death. It’s actually 24 friends playing a competitive match, trying to find out who is the better team on that given weekend.
“It did get out of hand a little bit and I think the captains in the future got together and said ‘alright, let’s not do that again.’”
GALLACHER: “Back in Kiawah there were small incidents that turned the match. It puts a lot of pressure on the players, but if you ask any player, I don’t think they would swap it. They would want to be in that pressure-filled situation. They all want to be there, they all want to test themselves.
“I think in ‘93 and ’95, it was competitive without being nasty. I think ’91 proved how competitive it was between the teams, but it was almost nasty at times. It probably needed Kiawah Island to sort of say, ‘Let’s just be a little careful here.’
“I would say it was a watershed moment. But turn back the clock, you’d say, I want to go through that again.’”
This story was written by Mike Lopresti based on interviews with players, captains, journalists and others who played a part in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Videos were produced by Jeremy Friedman.