Through the years, I’ve been asked to list the most memorable sports events that I’ve covered. I’ve been fortunate in that regard to write about some significant moments in New England sports history that have included the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
The high that immediately comes to mind is the Red Sox comeback from 3-0 against the New York Yankees in 2004 and their subsequent World Series win over the St. Louis Cardinals that ended an 86-year curse. There was also the chance to cover the Celtics winning the 1986 and 2008 NBA titles.
The low? Easy. Game 6, 1986 World Series, Shea Stadium, New York. Bill Buckner. Enough said.
When it comes to golf, there is no hesitation on what event tops my personal list. It was the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches, played at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Those not of a certain age might not realize that the Ryder Cup was a sleepy little event between the United States and Great Britain for many years. It debuted in 1927 at Worcester (Massachusetts) Country Club and was captured by the Americans in a seven-point rout. For the first 50 years of the bi-annual event, blowouts were more the norm than the exception. The Brits won only three of the first 22 Cups, and after the Americans captured it for the 10th straight time in 1977, Jack Nicklaus suggested that future matches include all of Europe as opponents to the U.S.
The Ryder Cup was never the same. Europe won three straight Cups from 1985 to 1987, before the Americans snatched it back in the infamous “War by the Shore” at Kiawah Island, South Carolina in 1991 when Bernhard Langer missed the deciding putt on the 18th hole. By the time the matches came to Brookline eight years later, it was a true (and bitter) competition.
It was also controversial. Before the opening tee shot was struck, tempers were running high on the American side as the U.S.’s top players, led by Tiger Woods and David Duval, asked why they weren’t being compensated to compete when the PGA of America was raking in an estimated $65 million to hold the event. Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw expressed outrage, essentially questioning the players’ loyalty to their country, to golf and to the stars of the past who made the big money purses possible.
There didn’t appear to be a whole lot of bonding on the American team. And then Europe jumped to a 6-2 lead after the first day and held a seemingly insurmountable 10-6 cushion heading into the final day of singles play. The general consensus was that the U.S. had no chance.
But in one of the weirdest, and ultimately most prophetic press conferences I’ve ever seen, Crenshaw stepped to the podium on Saturday night, stared down astonished reporters, pointed his finger at them and said, “I believe in fate, and I have a good feeling about tomorrow.”
He then walked into a team meeting and made believers of his team. With that, the stage was set for perhaps the wildest, most raucous day in golf history. The Americans jumped to enormous leads in the first six matches, setting in motion a chain reaction that the Europeans could not match.
The roars echoed across the course. It was eight hours of electric mayhem, with one American after another confidently striding the fairway, fist held high as thunderous roars rang down around him. Duval, who had called the matches “an exhibition,” joyously circled the green, furiously pumping both fists after his victory. Suddenly, he got it.
The Americans clinched the Cup in legendary fashion when Justin Leonard drained a 45-foot bomb for birdie on the 17th hole to beat Jose-Maria Olazabal, setting off a celebration of players and their wives dancing across the green while the Spaniard still faced a 25-foot putt that would have extended the match.
Afterward, the Euros were livid, while the Americans were pretty much unapologetic. As the press shuttle took me back to my car in the darkness on that Sunday night, I thought, “Who knew golf could be like this.”