By Tim Gavrich
The trouble started 13 years and five days earlier. On the eve of the Sunday singles round—the final one—of the 1999 Ryder Cup, U.S. Captain Ben Crenshaw’s smile, the epitome of wryness, curled into a cool, slanted grin as he said, “I’m a big believer in fate…I have a good feeling about this.”
In the moments after Martin Kaymer’s Cup-sealing five footer sank Steve Stricker and the United States team on the 18th green at Medinah Country Club’s No. 3 course, no American player or fan felt anything remotely “good.”
Golfers love to talk about the “golf gods.” Twenty-four hours after Crenshaw’s emotional declaration, it appeared the two-time Masters champion had appealed successfully to them. Another 13 years later, it seems instead that that night, he made a deal with devils. He traded an immediate triumph for an equally cruel turn of the golf gods’ fancies that would strike on September’s final day, 2012.
Of course, five Ryder Cups came and went between Brookline and Medinah. And in four of them, the United States lost—twice by an embarrassing margin. Perhaps Crenshaw purchased his team’s improbable comeback at the expense of those defeats.
No. The golf gods made this one the one that really hurt. There are simply too many arcs back to that 1999 event to ignore.
In 1999, Europe led 10-6 going into Sunday. So, too, did the Americans in 2012.
In 1999, in order to try to affect the crowd in his team’s favor, Ben Crenshaw loaded up the front of his lineup with his more battle-tested and dynamic players. The Americans won the first six matches on the course that day. In 2012, European Captain José María Olazábal sent stars Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose out first. They and fifth-off Paul Lawrie won their matches.
Lawrie, by the way, played in his first Ryder Cup since 1999. His was a rare European victory on that day.
In 1999, both men who would oppose one another as Captains in 2012 took to the golf course. Davis Love III did his part by drubbing Frenchman Jean Van de Velde. Later that afternoon, Olazábal would be on the receiving end of the shot that came to define that Ryder Cup: Justin Leonard’s long putt on the 17th green at The Country Club, Brookline that assured the United States a victory.
Fittingly, the singular defining shot of the 2012 Ryder Cup took place on the 17th green as well. This time, though, it was a miss, those cruel golf gods exacting their payment from the American side via Steve Stricker. All-square with German Martin Kaymer, who has arguably had the most mediocre year before playing in a Ryder Cup than any player in recent memory, Stricker had a simple downhill chip shot from the rough behind the green of the par three. After blowing it six feet past the hole, he—historically one of the best putters in golf, which is greatly why Davis Love III made him a Captain’s Pick—hit a woeful putt, giving Kaymer the hole.
Kaymer’s par putt on the closing hole was the final gut-check, yes, but the culmination of Stricker’s 0-4 record tipped the momentum to the Europeans for good.
As the Europeans embraced, tears coating their captain’s cheeks, it seemed that the debt Crenshaw unwittingly took on in 1999 was finally repaid.
At the end of a gorgeous early-fall day in 1999, a generation of young American golfers sat in awe of the comeback they had just witnessed. Some of those youngsters went on to build careers that saw them compete on this year’s team—Brandt Snedeker, Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley were all teenagers when their American golf idols showed them the overwhelming thrill of a historic Ryder Cup comeback.
Unfortunately for those young American players, the axiom that one learns more from defeat than victory holds true in golf. For this year’s European team included sixplayers who, as teenagers, felt the way American golf fans of all ages are now feeling. Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Nicolas Colsaerts, Francesco Molinari and Justin Rose would have seen and felt the letdown from their own idols and Sergio Garcia, still 19 in 1999, lived it.
Perhaps some of the generation of young American golfers that bore witness to this year’s stunning defeat will take enough of their heartache forward in their own careers so that in another dozen years or so, they will carry an American Ryder Cup team to a stunning victory over Europe.
If and when that happens, we will all be watching, as transfixed and affected by that event as we were by this one, for better and for worse. And those golf gods who Ben Crenshaw bargained with will still have us millions of golfers to toy with. It is only right.