It was the best Ryder Cup ever. Don't argue. The 1991 War by the
Shore on Kiawah Island, S.C., earned four stars as a
psychological horror show, and the matches were probably
riveting in 1957, when Dai Rees and the British upset the
Americans 7 1/2-4 1/2 for their only victory in a 21-year span.
But no previous Ryder Cup ended like this 1999 edition--with an
explosion instead of a rattle at the bottom of the cup.
To be sure, not all of the excited witnesses in Brookline,
Mass., recognized Justin Leonard's U.S. victory-clinching putt
for what it was--a 45-foot fuse. The Europeans grumbled about
the unfortunate heckling directed at Colin Montgomerie by
spectators and pouted over the American players' alleged lack of
sportsmanship for celebrating their victory prematurely. But
does anybody really believe the events of last weekend were bad
for the biennial matches? A few weeks ago critics were worried
that the series was losing its fizz. Now that cloying '70s lyric
"skyrockets in flight" describes the trajectory the Ryder Cup
will take into the new millennium.
For a start, there will be no player boycotts of future Ryder
Cups, as vaguely threatened in July by David Duval and Tiger
Woods. Before Sunday's comeback win, most of the U.S. players
knew only defeat at the hands of the Europeans. Understandably,
they couldn't muster much enthusiasm for an event that required
them to play their hearts out for flag and country, only to be
reviled as chokers when they fell a point short. But Sunday
changed everything. The young U.S. stars partied with the
throngs outside the clubhouse at sunset, drunk on victory and
newly aware that there are certain rewards that money can't buy.
"They now know what the Ryder Cup spirit is all about," said
U.S. assistant captain Bruce Lietzke. "You could offer them a
million dollars and it wouldn't matter."
Second, this year's boffo ending guarantees even greater
enthusiasm for the Cup from already giddy advertisers and
corporate sponsors. Sunday's play on NBC received a Ryder Cup
record rating, while more Europeans watched their team get
handed their ears than watched bullfights in Ernest Hemingway's
lifetime, and as we all know, when you make good television, you
make good money. The PGA of America expected to clear $68
million by the time the last hot dog wrapper was picked up at
the Country Club. Their European counterparts could take in $100
million at the Belfry in 2001.
Granted, the matches themselves veer ever further away from the
original notion of the Ryder Cup as a friendly competition. The
new century will bring more taunting and heckling of players by
fans, similar to the abuse heaped on Montgomerie at Brookline.
This is bad. But there will also be more wild displays of
exuberance like the Americans' victory dance at the 17th green
on Sunday (resented by the Europeans) and the jack-in-the-box
vault off a cart by Spain's Sergio Garcia on Saturday (enjoyed
by everyone). This is good.
Here's another mixed blessing: There will be no more worrying
about the feelings of the so-called bench players. Mark James
held back three of his rookies until Sunday, and Ben Crenshaw
played 1998 Masters and British Open champ Mark O'Meara in only
one of four partner matches. Duval was asked why the European
team always seems to excel in the pairs. "It's because the
European captains are not afraid to tell somebody he's not
playing," he said.
That approach may not warm many hearts, but Duval's got it
right: The leaner and meaner the competition, the greater the
drama. That's why this year's Ryder Cup--joyful one minute,
nasty the next--set a five-star standard. Years from now people
will say that the American victory in '99 was the one that
confirmed the Ryder Cup's position as the biggest event in golf.
Nothing beats a good grudge match.
Golf Plus will next appear in the Oct. 25 issue of SPORTS
there are certain rewards money can't buy.