Remember When: 1991 Ryder Cup
For some, it’s the single most memorable shot in Ryder Cup history.
Staring down a six-footer to decide the entire outcome of the 1991 Ryder Cup, not before or since has a player faced the stakes that Bernhard Langer did 30 years ago. With a massive gallery and a course that was new to most golf fans, including Langer, the putt came at the end of a wild and emotional week along the South Carolina shores.
Let’s take a look back on the key players and turning points from a tense but memorable week at Kiawah Island – one that ushered in a venue of future major championships and left the American squad swimming (literally) with delight.
How new was the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island? It was awarded the 1991 Ryder Cup before it was even built by Pete and Alice Dye. It proved to be a rugged and windswept venue, one that offered a stern test throughout the week and manufactured plenty of dramatics. The Europeans entered off an unprecedented streak of success in the biennial matches: after the Americans retained the Cup without interruption from 1959-1983, the Euros won it in both ’85 and ’87 and then kept possession with a 14-14 tie in 1989. Bernard Gallacher made the first of three runs as captain for the Europeans in 1991, while two-time major champ Dave Stockton was tasked with leading an American turnaround.
While the U.S. squad had historically enjoyed an advantage on paper, the European squad included each of the top three players in the world: No. 1 and reigning Masters champ Ian Woosnam qualified on merit, while No. 2 Jose Maria Olazabal and No. 3 Nick Faldo were added as two of Gallacher’s three captain’s picks. But it was a top-heavy roster, one that included rookies Paul Broadhurst and David Gilford who were both outside the top 90 in the world.
Payne Stewart (No. 6) was the reigning U.S. Open champ and highest-ranked American, with Fred Couples and Paul Azinger not far behind. Stockton rounded out his roster with two picks, including Ray Floyd, who had captained the Americans in 1989 and became the first former captain to return as a player. The last pick went to Chip Beck, as Stockton opted for experience over a youthful option in John Daly, who had just come out of nowhere to win the PGA Championship.
The Turning Point
The turning point of the matches may have come Wednesday evening. That’s when American rookie Steve Pate was involved in a car accident while en route to a gala dinner, one that left him with a lingering rib injury. While he tried to play Saturday afternoon (and lost), Stockton announced the injuries would prevent Pate from playing in his Sunday’s singles matches. With the score even at 8-8, the decision – which meant the match between Pate and Gilford was deemed a draw as opposed to a potential loss for the injured Pate. But based on the final margin, it also proved pivotal.
The score remained tight throughout the final day, thanks in part to an epic collapse from Mark Calcavecchia who halved his match with Colin Montgomerie despite holding a 4-up lead with four holes to play, with the lowlight coming on No. 17 when he missed a 2-foot putt to win the match. Beck pulled off an upset of world No. 1 Woosnam, while the Euros got early points from the likes of Faldo, Ballesteros and David Feherty.
With the U.S. nursing a slim 14-13 lead, the three-day contest came down to the final hole of the final match between Langer and Hale Irwin. The match was tied, meaning Langer needed to win the 18th to secure a full point and create the second straight 14-14 tie, thereby allowing Europe to keep the trophy for two more years. The stakes seemed to affect both players, as Irwin made a sloppy bogey. Langer’s 6-foot par putt grazed the edge but did not fall, leading to a raucous celebration from the home team as the U.S. captured the Cup for the first time in eight years, with a final score of 14 ½ to 13 ½. Later Ballesteros would say of Langer’s par attempt, “Nobody in the world could have made that putt.”
The 18th green at Kiawah proved to be the site of Irwin’s final strokes as a Ryder Cup participant, while that week marked the debuts of future captains Colin Montgomerie and Corey Pavin. The drama of the tournament also helped the Ocean Course become a major venue, with Rory McIlroy (2012) and Phil Mickelson (2021) both lifting the Wanamaker Trophy along the South Carolina shores. Tom Watson would lead the U.S. to a road victory two years later at The Belfry to successfully retain the trophy, a back-to-back feat the Americans have not repeated in the 30 years since.
But the biggest takeaway from the matches was an increased sense of emotional investment – both from fans and participants. The stakes had seemingly been raised on both sides, and the high-pressure environment had captivated the viewing audience.
The feeling of partisan rooting interest would continue to develop, reaching a crescendo eight years later at Brookline. The deep sense of passion on display in subsequent years, at places like Valhalla, Hazeltine, Gleneagles and Le Golf National, has roots that trace back to the putt from Langer that reverberated through the sport. Or, as Stockton subsequently described those ’91 matches: “It changed the dynamics of the Ryder Cup, the competition of it and what people thought of it.”