As Justin Leonard walked off the 10th tee in tears today after making a bogey on the previous hole, his friend and American Ryder Cup teammate, Davis Love III, came up to him in the fairway and tried to encourage him to keep fighting against Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal, even if he was three holes back against the Masters champion.
Though he would drop another stroke at the 10th, Leonard would halve the 11th with his fifth bogey of the round, leaving him four holes back with seven to play. But when he won the 12th with a par, Love said, "I went over to his father and told him, 'He's gonna win this thing, I can feel it.' The look in Justin's eye was there. I've seen it before, and what he just did is the most incredible thing I have ever seen."
What Leonard and his American teammates did today in the Boston suburbs in front of 30,000 mostly partisan fans will not soon be forgotten by anyone who witnessed their stirring 14 1/2 to 13 1/2 victory.
On the verge of suffering an embarrassing loss for the third straight time to the underdog Europeans, the Americans fought back for the greatest comeback in the history of the event.
And Leonard, the gritty 27-year-old Texan who has won three of his four professional victories by rallying from five back on the last day, was the most unlikely hero on a day that had many on the U.S. side.
Leonard won four straight holes to tie the match at the 15th. Then, with his team needing only a tie in one of three matches left on the course, he finished off the most remarkable rally in Cup history with a 45-foot birdie putt to clinch the half-point for the U.S. victory.
Needing a flying start and many victories early in the day to wrest the Cup back after two straight losses to the Europeans, the United States team couldn't have scripted a better ending. They won seven straight matches before the Europeans stemmed the tide, an eighth when Jim Furyk beat 19-year-old Spaniard Sergio Garcia, and ultimately prevailed on Leonard's stunning halve with Olazabal.
Over the first two days, the United States sank few key putts. Today, as European captain Mark James lamented, "Stuff was flowing into the hole from all angles. . . . They came out screeching. It was quite remarkable."
Leonard had struggled in the practice rounds, a trend that continued through his first two days of doubles competition when he lost one match and tied two others, mostly because his playing partners were carrying him.
But he always has had a reputation as a streaky putter, and Olazabal and his fellow Europeans merely became his latest victims. Leonard made a tough 15-footer for a birdie at the 14th hole, then made a 35-footer to get the match even at the 15th. He and Olazabal halved the 16th with pars, and Leonard then went bombs away again at the 17th, obliterating all European hopes of pulling it out.
"I was trying to make it, but I was also trying to get it close," Leonard said. "That was probably my first goal. It was a putt we'd all seen in practice; everyone knew it went right. I just think the ball was destined to go in."
When it did, the six-deep crowd beyond the ropes went apoplectic, and so did many of Leonard's teammates. Leonard raised his arms and ran off the green, where players, caddies, wives and girlfriends rushed to hug and high-five him. Many of them also dashed onto the green, even though Olazabal still had a chance to tie Leonard's birdie with a 30-footer of his own.
If Olazabal could make the putt, the match would go to the 18th, and the Europeans would still have been alive. Olazabal was clearly perturbed by the celebration, and when calm was restored, he barely missed his attempt. Leonard was 1 up with one to play, and though Olazabal birdied the 18th to Leonard's par, a tie in the match produced the precious half-point that determined the final outcome.
Olazabal and several of his teammates were extremely critical of the Americans' premature celebration at the 17th, and U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw later apologized for what he described as "not something we need to be proud of, and I'm terribly sorry."
What the Americans could be terribly proud of was their comeback from a 10-6 deficit at the start of the day. Crenshaw had stacked his lineup with many of his best players early in the hope of getting some momentum--as well as the obviously partisan American crowd--going in the right direction.
"It happened like a dream," Crenshaw said. "It was like a force was pulling us. . . . Damned if we didn't pull it off. Unbelievable."
It began with leadoff man and captain's choice Tom Lehman, who didn't miss a green or fairway in dusting off England's Lee Westwood. He had a 4-up lead through 13 holes. Lehman did not have the honor of posting the Americans' first point, but all his teammates said they looked at the scoreboard and saw him piling up holes and took great inspiration from it.
Love clearly was moved. He provided the first U.S. win of the day with a 6-and-5 domination of France's Jean Van de Velde. And then, over the next 90 minutes, wins were posted by Lehman, Phil Mickelson, Hal Sutton, David Duval, Tiger Woods and Steve Pate, the other captain's choice and a major hero this week with two wins.
That left the Americans with a 13-10 lead. And with Furyk 4 up on Garcia after a dozen holes for what appeared to be a 14th point, much of the focus zoomed in on Mark O'Meara's match against Irishman Padraig Harrington. Those two went to the 18th all square, but O'Meara lost, 1 up, when he duck-hooked his drive into an ugly lie, then was well short of the green in two and lost the hole and the match with a bogey.
Furyk then got the 14th point with a 4-and-3 win over Garcia, the Spaniard's first loss of the week, and all the attention shifted to Leonard-Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie's match against Payne Stewart, just behind.
Leonard's putt made the Stewart-Montgomerie match moot, and touched off a second wild celebration, on The Country Club's 18th green.
Champagne flowed, fans flooded the putting surface, and the U.S. players eventually beat a hasty retreat to the balcony of the clubhouse, where they sprayed more bubbly over each other and the crowd below.
They celebrated not far from where the U.S. players and their entourage had met the previous night in an emotional session everyone said had left them with spirits soaring and convinced that they still had a chance to win, despite the overwhelming odds.
"We talked about it last night," Leonard said. "Not thinking about the final outcome, but playing each hole, each shot one at a time. Even when I was 2 down going up 14, I felt like I was in the driver's seat. . . . I'm still having a hard time believing this has happened. You just never know."
THE U.S. RALLY
SUNDAY'S SINGLES RESULTS
U.S. victories (8)
Lehman def. Westwood, 3 and 2
Sutton def. Clarke, 4 and 2
Mickelson def. Sandelin, 4 and 3
Love def. Van de Velde, 6 and 5
Woods def. Coltart, 3 and 2
Duval def. Parnevik, 5 and 4
Pate def. Jimenez, 2 and 1
Furyk def. Garcia, 4 and 3
Europe victories (3)
Harrington def. O'Meara, 1 up
Montgomerie def. Stewart, 1 up
Lawrie def. Maggert, 4 and 3
Halved match (1)
Olazabal halved with Leonard