Seve Ballesteros had just led Europe to its second straight Ryder Cup victory over the United States on Sunday, and as roars resounded from the amphitheater surrounding the 18th green at the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, he grabbed a magnum of champagne and wildly sprayed any teammate in sight. This simple celebration, right in Jack Nicklaus's backyard, marked the end of America's 60-year domination of international golf.
For the first time since the biennial competition began in 1927, America had lost on its home soil, its 12 best players falling 15-13, smack in the middle of Heartland U.S.A. And while for three days the Americans fought snap hooks, snapped nerves and, finally, Ben Crenshaw's snapped putter shaft, the European side displayed international homogeneity. Anchored by big guns Ballesteros of Spain—who, at his passionate best, won four of his five matches—Bernhard Langer of West Germany, Sandy Lyle of Scotland, Nick Faldo of England and Ian Woosnam of Wales, Europe built a 10½-5½ lead over the two days of four-ball (better ball) and foursomes (alternate shot) competition and then hung on against the U.S. team in Sunday's climactic singles.
The United States team might have pulled off the greatest comeback in the event's history if it could have handled the special pressure of the 18th hole in match play. The U.S. had to win nine of the 12 singles matches for a victory, but of the eight matches that were decided on the final hole, the U.S. lost three and halved five. With his match even going to the 18th, Dan Pohl skulled a sand shot to make 6 and lose to Howard Clark of England, one down. Then Larry Mize, one up through 17 on Sam Torrance of Scotland, hooked his tee shot into the creek that runs along the left side of the fairway and made 5 to gain only a half. Crenshaw, who had broken his putter after three-putting the 6th and had to make do with an iron the rest of the round, bogeyed the 17th and found the same water that Mize had on 18 to lose one down to Eamonn Darcy of Ireland. It was left to Ballesteros to shoot three under par to close out Curtis Strange 2 and 1 in the third-to-last pairing to retain the Cup that the Americans have lost only five times in 27 competitions.
"The 18th was the difference," said Nicklaus, the nonplaying captain vanquished near his hometown of Columbus on a course he had designed. "That's where I would have expected to win. But our guys weren't quite as tough as the Europeans."
Such a statement would have been blasphemy 10 years ago. If nothing else, American golfers used to feel they had more guts than a bunch of artsy-craftsy Europeans. But this Ryder Cup, more than any other, gave credence to the cries that the lucre and comfort of the PGA Tour, which exempts 125 players from qualifying, have created a breed of American pros who think winning a tournament should occur with roughly the same frequency as hitting the lottery. All but one player on the American team came into the Ryder Cup with more than $300,000 in 1987 winnings, but as a unit the team had a disturbing inability to finish off opponents.
Meanwhile the rivals from across the pond have got the lean and hungry look down pat. Europe proved that its 16½-11½ victory in 1985 at The Belfry outside Birmingham, England, its first Cup win in 28 years, was no fluke. That loss had embarrassed the U.S. golfers, in part because a seemingly inferior team had outplayed them. The defeat had also engendered the persistent taunt that Ballesteros and Langer are better than any American pro. Put it all together and U.S. players had more motivation to win back the Ryder Cup than they could have mustered for three weeks' worth of million-dollar purses.
"This has nothing to do with money," said Tom Kite, a member of five consecutive U.S. teams. "It's bigger than that. This is playing for Uncle Sam, and Sam expects a lot."
The Europeans were quieter, but their resolve perhaps runs deeper than an American golfer can know when it comes to the Cup. "We don't need any motivation," said Faldo, the '87 British Open champion who helped win 3½ points for Europe. "We are playing for history. It's like playing for your life."
Sensing American vulnerability and still on a two-year victory high, nearly 1,500 European golf fans made the trip to the U.S. They cheered lustily for their side, at times even louder than the 20,000 Americans who were on hand. Captain Nicklaus knew why the Europeans could smell blood. A few months ago he had described his team as a "bunch of guys who get the most out of their games, but we just don't have the kind of player with the game that can be dominant. And I don't see him emerging right away."
Still, Nicklaus said he was confident. He felt that the dry and fast September conditions on his home course would favor the Americans. Woosnam, the 5'4" power plug who is the leading money winner in Europe this year, disagreed. "We can handle the shots Jack is trying to put up for us," said Woosnam.
But when play began on Friday, Strange and Kite, both of whom embody the steady and usually unspectacular American Tour game, came out and parred Torrance and Clark silly to take their morning foursomes match, 4 and 2. Pohl and Hal Sutton followed by beating Langer and Ken Brown, 2 and 1. Mize and Lanny Wadkins, the biggest career point-getter on the U.S. team, were 4 up after nine against Woosnam and Lyle. It looked like an ambush at Muirfield. But then Woosnam and Lyle won the 10th and 12th, and on the short, par-4 14th, Wadkins snap-hooked an awful three-iron into a creek. When Wadkins and Mize bogeyed the last two holes, they had lost, 2 down.
In the group behind, Payne Stewart and Larry Nelson squandered a golden opportunity against Ballesteros and his countryman, 21-year-old putting wizard Josè-Maria Olazabal. They were one down to the Spaniards on the par-4 17th when Ballesteros fluffed the team's third shot short of the green. Olazabal then wedged to 12 feet. The Americans needed only two putts from 25 feet to win the hole, but Stewart left his putt four feet short. Ballesteros then holed, and Nelson missed, and the Spaniards remained one up. On 18, Ballesteros hit a superb six-iron 180 yards from a fairway bunker to 30 feet and made a five-footer for par to win the match one up. Instead of leading 4-0, America was tied 2-2.
In the afternoon four-ball matches, Europe again gladly accepted an American gift. Andy Bean and Mark Calcavecchia bogeyed the last two holes to lose one down to Lyle and Langer. The Europeans won the next two matches, and in the last match of the day, Ballesteros chipped in for birdie on the first hole as he and Olazabal went on to steamroller Kite and Strange, finishing eight under par and winning 2 and 1. The Americans went to bed trailing 6-2, their biggest first-day deficit ever.
A couple of things were clear. The top Europeans, like Ballesteros, Lyle and Woosnam, had an extra gear of power in reserve to attack the long holes, while the Americans seemed to lack the explosiveness for birdie runs. The most intriguing of the big hitters was Woosnam, nicknamed Little Woosie by European captain Tony Jacklin; Woosnam, 29, was a kid pugilist 20 years ago in the Welsh resort of Pwllheli.
Ballesteros seemed to revel in his patriarchal role with Olazabal, and the duty to his team seemed to lift him above the dark worries that have haunted him since the Masters. It showed in his play, as he repeatedly made key shots, including two holed chips and a bunker shot. "When you play for so many, it makes you strong," he said.
Nicklaus, searching for answers, wondered if the decadent American system had affected even our best players' ability to compete.
"The problem is really with the American golf system," said Nicklaus. "Because it's so difficult to win, our guys rarely get in position to contend down the stretch. Instead of being aggressive, they develop a percentage type of style. On the European tour, there is less competition, which puts players in contention more often and makes them better, more aggressive finishers."
The U.S. came out bolder on Saturday morning, with Strange and Kite beating Gordon Brand Jr. and Josè Rivero, 3 and 1. Still, Europe emerged from the morning foursomes with its lead increased by 2½ points.
The afternoon provided the best golf of the Cup. First Bean and Stewart shot 29 on the front nine and held on to blow out Darcy and Brand, 3 and 2. But Woosnam and Faldo countered, throwing their own 29 at Kite and Strange to win 5 and 4. Mize and Sutton finally beat Ballesteros and Olazabal, 2 and 1. With the score 9½-5½, the stage was set for the last match of the day, Lyle and Langer against Wadkins and Nelson, a team unbeaten in two Ryder Cups.
The U.S. was 2 down through 12 holes when Wadkins, suddenly back on his game, hit a short iron to three feet on the 14th. But Lyle made a clutch 18-footer to match Wadkins's birdie at 14. Then, on the par-5 15th, Lyle crushed a drive and a three-iron to 15 feet and made the eagle to go 3 up and dormie.
Enter Wadkins at his best. A four-foot birdie at 16 and a 10-footer at 17 cut the Europeans' lead to one up and sent American flags waving. As darkness fell, all drove safely at the 18th. Then Nelson hit to 20 feet. Lyle sent his iron shot to five. Wadkins nearly holed out on the fly, his ball stopping 12 feet away. And finally Langer played a perfect eight-iron from 150 yards to within a foot to end the match.
"I never thought I'd live to see golf played like it was today," said Jacklin. "Incredible is not enough to say."
The U.S. now faced the almost impossible task of having to win nine of the 12 Sunday matches. Nicklaus's only hope was that the Europeans might cool off. "Emotion in golf is fantastic when you're playing well, and so far the Europeans have drowned us with it," he said. "But it can work against you, too."
For a moment Sunday it looked as if they might be choking on some of it. Five of the first seven Europeans bogeyed the relatively easy 1st hole. U.S. hopes were raised when the massive Bean played superbly to beat Woosnam one up. "It hurts when a little bitty fellow outdrives you," the 6'4" Bean said. With most of the other matches tight, it seemed the momentum was swinging toward America.
But then came the troubles at 18, and suddenly the Ryder Cup was in the hands of Crenshaw vs. Darcy. Crenshaw had played poorly all week, and the 35-year-old Darcy was generally considered Europe's weakest player, with a loopy swing and a Ryder Cup record of 0-8-2. But he played well against the frustrated Crenshaw, and when Ben three-putted from 50 feet at the 6th to go 2 down, he slammed his putter, "Little Ben," which he has had since he was 15, and the shaft broke in half.
"I just tapped it down on a walnut, and it snapped," said Crenshaw. "It was like somebody shot me. It took me four holes to recover."
On the 10th hole a European fan cried out to Darcy, "If you can't beat him now, laddie, you're never going to beat him." But that's when Crenshaw, putting with an assortment of irons, began a comeback. He made a three-foot par putting with a wedge at the 11th and, with a one-iron, an 18-footer for a birdie on the 13th and a six-footer for birdie at 15. Darcy later showed why he is nicknamed Dozy, when he claimed he didn't even know Crenshaw had broken his putter until after the match. "I figured he was using the irons because he wanted to, to slow the ball down on the fast greens." Seriously, Eamonn. "Aye, seriously." Oh.
Maybe Darcy concentrates better in a fog. One down going into 17 and the whole of Europe on his shoulders, Darcy played perfectly for a par and then split the 18th fairway before Crenshaw hooked his drive into the water. Darcy found a greenside bunker with his second shot, but came out to five feet. When Crenshaw valiantly one-ironed a seven-footer for bogey, Darcy took forever before leaking his putt in the side door. He had his first Ryder Cup win ever, and it couldn't have been a bigger one.
Big because the results of this year's Ryder Cup mean much more than a three-day competition in which 12 elite players beat 12 other elite players. Substantial changes in the structure of world golf may be in the offing. PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, for one, may not like it, but the ripple effect of America's loss could mean that the U.S. Tour will no longer be considered the only legitimate testing ground of a player's ability. Jacklin sees sponsors lining up to support events in Europe. Nicklaus hopes the U.S. Tour will be rearranged into two groups that each offer a player the chance to win more often.
"There are a lot of players who sit on our money list from about 30 to 200 who will say, 'There goes Nicklaus again,' " he said Sunday. "But I'm going to keep on preaching. You've got to have winners, you've got to have heroes, and you've got to have superstars that people look at."
Last week there were precious few on the United States Ryder Cup team.