Rory Jiwani continues his look back at some of the greatest Ryder Cup matches of the past. This time, it’s the turn of the United States’ incredible comeback at Brookline in 1999.
By most standards, golf is a genteel game. But the Ryder Cup became something of a raucous affair after Europe’s emergence as a threat, and more, to the United States’ dominance in the 1980s.
Seve Ballesteros once said about his pre-match Ryder Cup handshake, “I wish them luck but I am thinking, ‘I am going to bury you’. In 1991, the infamous ‘War on the Shore’ at Kiawah Island, the Spaniard referred to the opposition as “11 gentlemen and Paul Azinger”. Azinger once called Ballesteros “the king of gamesmanship” amid several accusations of him coughing during opposition putts. After their Ryder Cup playing days ended, the pair actually became good friends.
Of course, the intensity is what makes the Ryder Cup one of sport’s truly great events. Every two years, the best golfers from each side of the pond come together to battle over three days in matchplay and team formats. But every so often, the contents of the pan spill over.
One such occasion was in 1999, now known as ‘The Battle of Brookline’. The setting was The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, less than 5km from the home of the Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park. Unfortunately, some of the fans’ antics – and beer consumption – were more in keeping with a ballpark than a golf course.
Europe’s captain was Mark James whose Ryder Cup history was something of a chequered one, certainly at the start. As discussed previously, he was fined for his antics at the 1979 contest with his partner-in-crime Ken Brown also fined and banned from international team golf for a year. But he became a regular feature of the team, appearing in a total of seven renewals.
Five-time Ryder Cup veteran Brown, by then a familiar face as a Sky Sports summariser, was one of James’ vice-captains. The other was Sam Torrance, the man who scored the winning point at The Belfry in 1985.
There was a huge gulf in experience with six rookies qualifying as of right for Europe against one – world number two David Duval – for Team USA. With world number 15, US-based Jesper Parnevik, assured of one of the two captain’s picks, James had to choose between two men who had just missed out on automatic selection – Andrew Coltart and Robert Karlsson – and German stalwart Bernhard Langer.
James sprung a surprise by going for Coltart – a seventh rookie – based on recent form and claimed that experience was “over-rated”. With a total of just 12 Ryder Cup appearances between them – and Jose Maria Olazabal (five) and Colin Montgomerie (four) responsible for nine of those – this was the most inexperienced European team for many a year.
But the Americans had a problem with four of their number – Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Mark O’Meara and Duval – making their feelings known about not being paid to play. Captain Ben Crenshaw was furious, but the PGA of America decided on a compromise with the 12 players being given money which would go to charity.
Despite this, the entire American team’s presence in the top-30 of the world rankings made them hot favourites to wrest back the Ryder Cup after two consecutive Europe wins. Jeff Maggert was bullish in the pre-match press conference saying, “Let’s face it, we’ve got the world’s 12 best players.” Reigning US Open champion Payne Stewart said of the visitors, “On paper, they should be caddying for us.”
But world rankings count for nothing once the first ball is struck and the European underdogs showed plenty of bite in the opening foursomes. Open champion Paul Lawrie and Montgomerie made the perfect start with a 3 and 2 win over Phil Mickelson and David Duval. And then rookie Sergio Garcia teamed up with Parnevik to defeat Tom Lehman and Tiger Woods 2 and 1.
Maggert and Hal Sutton got the better of Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, but Miguel Angel Jimenez and Padraig Harrington earned a half against Davis Love III and Stewart to give Europe a 2 ½ – 1 ½ lead.
Europe then proceeded to dominate an afternoon of closely-contested fourballs. Montgomerie and Lawrie looked set for their second point of the day as they led at the final hole, but Love sank a 25-footer to earn him and Justin Leonard a half. It was to be the Americans’ last impression on the scoreboard that day.
Parnevik was on fire, holing his approach at the 8th to put him and Garcia one up on Mickelson and Jim Furyk. In a match of ridiculously high quality, the Swede played the front nine in six-under – with Garcia making it seven-under – but they were only one up at the turn.
Furyk and Garcia chipped in on consecutive holes as Europe stayed one up but Mickelson’s cold putter proved decisive. ‘Lefty’ had birdie putts inside six feet to win holes 16 and 18, but missed them both as Europe edged home thanks to a combined round of 61.
Having been left out of the foursomes due to some errant driving, Olazabal partnered Jimenez in the fourballs on his sixth Ryder Cup appearance. The Spanish pair beat Sutton and Maggert 2 and 1 despite a couple of monster putts from the former.
And a dream European afternoon was complete when Clarke and Westwood won the marquee match on day one, beating Duval and Woods 2 and 1 to match their world rankings. Woods missed a couple of chances to put the American pair ahead on the back nine, and it was Clarke who made birdie at 17 to take the lead. As darkness descended, Westwood’s wonderful chip to the side of the hole secured a 6-2 advantage at the end of day one.
Perhaps it was too good a day for Europe. With his big names playing so well, James told his three rookies – Jean van de Velde, Jarmo Sandelin and Coltart – that they would probably not play before the singles. Sandelin joked, “That’s OK, but if you don’t play me Sunday, I’ll be really pissed.”
Montgomerie and Lawrie were first out again in Saturday morning’s foursomes but went down on the last hole to Sutton and Maggert. Clarke and Westwood, and Parnevik and Garcia, picked up where they left off on Friday with 3 and 2 victories, but Woods secured his first point of the week as he and Steve Pate defeated Jimenez and Harrington on the 18th. Session shared with Europe up 8-4.
One aspect which crept in on Saturday was the rowdiness from the galleries. Montgomerie, cruelly nicknamed ‘Mrs Doubtfire’ in America, remonstrated with spectators on at least a couple of occasions, and Lawrie also had to put up with noise while putting. It was a sign of things to come.
After two defeats on Friday and sitting out the morning, Phil Mickelson was back for the afternoon fourballs. And he and Tom Lehman produced, beating Clarke and Westwood 2 and 1. Garcia birdied the last to salvage a half against Love and Duval as he and Parnevik took 3 ½ points out of four.
Jimenez and Olazabal also halved with Sutton and Leonard, while Montgomerie and Lawrie returned to winning ways, beating Woods and Pate 2 and 1. Another shared session to leave Europe with a healthy 10-6 advantage, and the USA staring at a hat-trick of defeats for the first time.
Pretty much everyone had written the American team off apart from Crenshaw. His faith in his men appeared to border on the delusional in his Saturday evening press conference, not least when he signed off with, “I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this, that’s all I’m going to tell you.”
The captain had big plans for that night with the players, wives and caddies meeting in the team room. As recalled in Golf Digest’s 2011 collated interviews with key people from the weekend, there was a video tape filled with words of encouragement from people close to the individuals, and what turned out to be a bogus note from Colin Montgomerie saying the competition was over.
Next up was then-Texas Governor George W Bush coming in to read the famous letter sent by Colonel William Travis refusing to surrender before the Battle of the Alamo. After he left, each person in the room shared something close to them, whether that be pride in their partner, sorrow at a lost loved one being unable to watch them play, or a wisecrack from Steve Pate.
By the end of it, after tears and laughter aplenty, the Americans were well and truly pumped up for Sunday. Both sides had weary players with Parnevik, in particular, feeling the strain. And when he saw the order for the singles, he told his caddie he wasn’t sure where the four points Europe needed to retain the trophy were going to come from.
While Crenshaw sent his big guns to the top of the order to try and haul USA back into it, James held his strongest players back for late on thinking they would be needed at the end to see Europe home. Sandelin, van de Velde and Coltart went in at three, four and five and faced… Mickelson, Love and Woods.
Momentum is often over-rated in sport but it certainly came into play at Brookline. Love’s 6 and 5 thrashing of van de Velde put the Americans on their way as red dominated the scoreboard. Wins for Lehman over Westwood, Mickelson over Sandelin, and Sutton over Clarke wiped out Europe’s overnight advantage.
The normally undemonstrative Duval worked himself up into a frenzy as he swept aside Parnevik 5 and 4 to put the United States ahead for the first time. And then Woods made it 12-10, securing the home team all six of the opening singles matches, with a 3 and 2 win partly thanks to a superb chip-in at the 8th to go two up.
That match was overshadowed by controversy at the 9th when Coltart’s drive found the thick rough. A handful of marshals, and spectators including Prince Andrew, failed to find his ball within the five-minute time limit meaning he would have to tee off again. Cue high-fives among the marshals and the ball miraculously appearing after the Scot had taken a penalty shot.
After Steve Pate beat Miguel Angel Jimenez to make it 13-10, Padraig Harrington finally put some blue on the board with victory over Mark O’Meara on the final hole. And Europe still had hope with anchorman Paul Lawrie and Jose Maria Olazabal well up in their matches.
It looked like it might come down to Colin Montgomerie’s clash with Payne Stewart which threatened to go all the way. But this contest was marred by crowd interventions with Stewart having a fan chucked out on the fifth hole after yet another abusive shout on Monty’s backswing. Not long after that, Montgomerie’s father – Royal Troon secretary James Montgomerie – left the course having heard enough.
The main drama was taking place in match nine where Olazabal had led Justin Leonard by four after 11 holes. The Spanish veteran played his next three holes in 5-6-5 and suddenly Leonard, whose weekend had been a disappointment up to that point, was one down. The 1997 Open champion then holed a beauty at the next to make it all square with three to play.
Lawrie’s 4 and 3 win over Jeff Maggert moved Europe back to within a point before Furyk beat Garcia by the same margin to take USA to 14 points, just a half-point away from regaining the trophy. Then came one of the most notorious incidents in Ryder Cup history.
With Olazabal closer to the hole on the 17th green, Leonard had first go at birdie from some 45 feet. Winning the hole would guarantee him a half and with it an American victory, but Leonard was just hoping for a solid two-putt. He gave it a fair old rattle and the ball would have gone speeding past but for dropping into the cup.
As it went in, players and wives and Crenshaw invaded the green with joy and disbelief. Which would have been fine had Olazabal not still had a putt to halve the hole. Tom Lehman’s celebrations attracted the ire of Europe vice-captain Sam Torrance who said he and some of the American players “acted like madmen”. He also called it “the most disgraceful and disgusting day in the history of professional golf”. Tell us what you really think, Sam…
Unsurprisingly after all that commotion, Olazabal missed his birdie putt and the trophy was back in American hands. Olazabal actually birdied the last to take a half but it was too little, too late. In the last match out on the course, Montgomerie had two putts on the 18th to win but Stewart conceded the hole after the stick his opponent had received and with the outcome already decided.
The score was 14 ½ to 13 ½ after a remarkable final day fightback with the Europeans left in tears. Some years later, James looked back without regret, or rancour, on events at the 17th saying, “We all do things in our career we shouldn’t do. You hold your hands up and say you’re sorry.”
The end of the match was not the end of the aggro either as Sergio Garcia’s American caddy Gerry Higginbotham spent the night in hospital after being punched in a busy hotel bar. Brookline 1999 was without doubt the nadir as far as fan and player conduct was concerned and future events have been slightly less partisan.
There was one tragic footnote to ‘The Battle of Brookline’. Payne Stewart, whose act of sportsmanship towards Colin Montgomerie on the final green won him new admirers, was killed in a plane crash just one month later. Phil Mickelson still has a picture of Stewart dancing on a piano during the celebrations “with a cigar in his mouth, a beer in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other”. It was the last time he saw him.
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