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The Greatest Ryder Cups: 1991 - The War on the Shore

In 1979, the Ryder Cup underwent a huge change that would lead to it becoming one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

Prior to that, the competition that had initially started as an exhibition for the USA and Great Britain’s best to come together to engage in some friendly competition had turned into biennial walkovers.

So one-sided were the matches over the years that continental Europeans were invited to join.

Six years later in 1985, Europe won the Ryder Cup, doing so again in 1987 and 1989, with their run coming to an end at the 1991 edition, dubbed the ‘War on the Shore’.

Played at Kiawah Island, things got off to a bad start even before the opening ceremony.

The film shown on Wednesday at a pre-event dinner looked more like an advert for the American team rather than the Ryder Cup itself. Fifteen minutes, ostensibly about the history of the Ryder Cup, featuring only American players and American moments – despite Europe winning the last three editions, incensing the visitors, with some ready to walk out.

This, two years after the 1989 opening ceremony in which then-skipper Ray Floyd introduced his team at the Belfry as the 12 best golfers in the world.

The 1991 Ryder Cup was also set amidst the backdrop of the Gulf War which the United States had recently won, with Corey Pavin stoking tensions further by wearing a Desert Storm cap and even a flak jacket.

On top of that, a local radio station made middle-of-the-night calls to the hotel rooms of the European players.

What had always been seen as a friendly contest was no more.

Let battle commence.

When play finally began on the Friday, things got off to an electric start as the all-Spanish pairing of Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal – who’d won 6.5 points together from a possible 8 – were paired against Paul Azinger and Chip Beck.

There was already previous between Azinger and Ballesteros from the 1989 Ryder Cup, where Azinger refused to let his opponent swap what Ballesteros contested was a damaged ball on the second green, and Ballesteros questioning the drop Azinger received on the 18th.

The Spaniards noticed that – in contravention of a local rule for the Ryder Cup – the Americans were illegally switching balls. 

Azinger flat-out denied any wrongdoing, but when informed that it was too late for any penalty to be applied, admitted they had changed balls, but insisted they weren’t trying to cheat. 

Seve informed his opponent that ‘cheating and breaking the rules is different… we don’t say that’.

As Ballesteros’s caddie Billy Foster later recounted: “I gave Seve a nudge – not that he needed any nudging – and said ‘he just said nice try’. Well, the blood went up through his eyeballs and out through his ears, he was absolutely frothing at the mouth, raging.”

3DN at the time of the incident, the all-Spanish pairing won five of the next eight holes to win 2&1.

The bad feeling didn’t end there. 

Ballesteros was heard coughing in Saturday’s foursomes match with Fred Couples and Ray Floyd, which the latter felt was deliberate. Floyd approached Seve and gave him a stern warning to stop, and that two could play at that game.

Europe lost the session 3-1, including the infamous Faldo/Gilford pairing where Europe fell 7&6, but Seve and Ollie secured the point for Europe to keep the tie alive, down 7.5-4.5 before drawing level 8-8 going into Sunday, where things would really reach a head.

Steve Pate, who’d been involved in a car accident on the Wednesday, suffering bruising to his ribs, sat out of Friday’s play. He played the final session on the Saturday, losing 2&1.

After the draw came out for Sunday which pitted Pate against Ballesteros, captain Dave Stockton announced that Pate was unfit to play, meaning Europe had to stand a man down which each team taking half a point.

European captain Bernard Gallacher felt it was another example of gamesmanship from the Americans.

Played in a howling coastal wind, matches were tight with holes often won with par. The exception was Mark Calcavecchia’s match with Colin Montgomerie. Calcavecchia was 5UP thru 9 and cruising to victory.

At dormie 4, Calcavecchia needed to halve just one of the final four holes. He’d lose 15 and 16 before disaster struck on 17.

With the left-to-right wind pushing numerous balls in the water, Montgomerie had it all on just to find the green to keep the match alive. He failed, missing well left into the water.

As long as Calcavecchia could keep his ball dry, he was virtually assured victory. 

His shot was even worse than his Montgomerie’s. The ball never left the ground, diving into the water, miles short of the green.

Still, Calcavecchia was left with a two-foot double-bogey putt to halve the hole and win the match. So close to the hole that Montgomerie admitted he was about to concede the putt before reconsidering.

That, too, missed.

Monty would also win the 18th hole to secure half a point for Europe. Calcavecchia was, as expected, utterly distraught.

Calc walked off the course onto the beach, inconsolable and in floods of tears. Hyperventilating, the American was even supplied with oxygen. The pressure of the Ryder Cup – this Ryder Cup – had all but broken him.

The remaining singles rumbled on. Azinger edged out Olazabal 2UP, while Ballesteros beat Wayne Levi 3&2.

Down to the final match, where perhaps came the greatest of all the controversies.

On more than one occasion throughout the week, American balls were appearing in fairways having seemingly being destined for the rough. On the 17th hole on Sunday, a fan threw a ball onto the green after Hale Irwin’s tee shot, with Irwin eventually playing from where his actual ball landed.

Then on the 18th, having pulled his drive way left towards the sand dunes, he was miraculously left with a 3-wood from the edge of the fairway.

Failing to get up and down left Langer with two putts from around 45 feet to win the Ryder Cup. His first putt ran six feet by.

His second putt was missed low, and the USA regained the Ryder Cup.

Ballesteros claimed of the putt that he wouldn’t have made it, nor Jack Nicklaus himself. An impossible putt in an impossible situation.

Langer admitted it was the first time he’d ever cried over golf. Ballesteros, too, was emotional, as were much of the losing side.

What had previously been an event played in a more genteel environment had turned into golfing warfare. Rowdy, partisan crowds had claimed the Ryder Cup; the environment had turned hostile and antagonistic.

But despite all the talk of gamesmanship, as well as the controversy and the hostility, only one thing really mattered by the end: the United States, after eight long years, had reclaimed the Ryder Cup.

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