A dozen emotionally drained and thoroughly exhilarated American golfers began going their separate ways today. But for one glorious Sunday, never have the words "team concept" been more appropriate than for the heroic effort mounted to keep the Ryder Cup on U.S. shores for the first time in four years.
The American team had come to The Country Club after a month of turmoil generated by so much talk about some players wanting to be paid for their efforts. Some were criticized as greedy millionaires more concerned about their stock portfolios than getting the Cup back from a determined European team that arrived as a unified group, eager to dispel the notion that they were overwhelming underdogs.
Over the first two days of the competition, essentially dominated by Europe, some American players were jeered from the galleries for what often appeared to be a less-than-inspired effort. They fell behind by a 6-2 margin the first day and 10-6 after Saturday.
Some fans even were cheering openly for some of the Europeans, and a Golf Channel poll taken Friday night reported 58 percent of those responding nationwide said they were pulling for the Europeans.
After an emotional team meeting Saturday night, when virtually every player on the American team bared his soul to his fellow teammates, their captains, caddies, wives and girlfriends (even Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush), they rallied Sunday for a 14 1/2 to 13 1/2 victory, arguably the greatest comeback in the history of professional golf, individual or team.
With the Europeans needing only four points in 12 Sunday singles matches to keep the Cup for a third straight two-year period, the Americans unleashed a furious rally that produced the requisite 8 1/2 points to win it back. Their stirring triumph touched off a wild celebration that began with Justin Leonard's sinking of a 45-foot putt on the 17th green to all but wrap up the deciding half-point and apparently lasted into early Monday morning.
How the Americans managed to pull this off will be the subject of speculation for months to come, with a multitude of reasons coming immediately to mind.
Many fingers were pointing toward U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw, who never lost faith in his players and told them point blank Saturday night he had a feeling something special was going to happen the next day.
"He never once said he would be proud of us no matter what happened," Davis Love III said Sunday in the middle of the 18th green, while pandemonium was breaking out all around him. "He just kept telling everybody that he believed we really had a chance, that we could still do it and that he believed in every guy on the team."
Crenshaw had said the very same thing as he left the media room before meeting his team Saturday after the matches.
"I'm going to leave you all with one thought, and I'm going to leave," he told the media. "I'm a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this. That's all I'm going to tell you."
Crenshaw stacked his Sunday lineup with his best players going off first, led by veteran Tom Lehman, one of his two captain's choices and a member of the last two losing teams. Lehman was virtually flawless tee to green and posted a dominating 3-and-2 victory over Lee Westwood.
Over a 90-minute span, there were six more American victories. One of them came from the other captain's choice, Steve Pate, like Lehman 2-1 for the week and one of many heroes on the American side. Hal Sutton, playing on the team for the first time since 1987, produced 3 1/2 points. Love, winless in Spain two years ago, had a singles win and three ties for 2 1/2 more.
The front-loading strategy paid off, and the Americans were leading 13-10 with five matches still on the course, two extremely close.
Leonard's match against two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal was not one of them. The Texan was four holes down with seven to play but suddenly found his putting stoke, and the rest, of course, is Ryder Cup history.
The Europeans had no idea what had hit them. All around the golf course, putts were rolling in the cup for the Americans, something that had not occurred often on the previous two days. Each ball in the hole also produced a booming roar from the suddenly partisan Boston crowds, and clearly a snowball effect took over.
The Europeans admitted as much afterward.
"I think right from the start, the momentum was with the States," said European captain Mark James, who resigned, as he had said he would do, win or lose, after the match. "Putts were just going in from all angles, and chips, and it seemed like we couldn't do anything to stop it. I could have rung in a bomb scare, I suppose. That might have been a good plan. We could have practiced then."
James no doubt will face some criticism back home for his decision to stay with three teams in each of the four doubles combinations as well as having seven men play all five matches. He also did not use three players--Jean Van de Velde, Andrew Coltart and Jarmo Sandelin--in doubles competition, and all three lost in singles.
Several of his iron men seven also admitted to some fatigue Sunday, including 19-year-old Spaniard Sergio Garcia, who was swamped by Jim Furyk, 4 and 3, for the 14th U.S. point. Only two, Scotland's Colin Montgomerie and Paul Lawrie, won Sunday.
"I don't think we were outmaneuvered," James said. "If you'd told the whole team we'd leave three men out and be up four points going into the singles, we'd have lied by the pool for two days and then come out. . . . It's been an honor to lead this team. They gave me everything."
Except the Ryder Cup.