When two-time U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart and six-time European money leader Colin Montgomerie reached the 18th green at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., on Sunday, their Ryder Cup match had come down to one last tricky little putt for Montgomerie.
If the Scot made it, he'd win. But if Montgomerie missed the nerve tester, Stewart would get a gratifying tie against Europe's top star. As a final twist, a Monty miss would make the U.S. team's final margin of victory in the Cup a more decisive 15-13, not just 14 1/2-13 1/2, the smallest margin possible.
"Pick it up," Stewart told Montgomery, conceding the putt and ensuring his own defeat.
That moment of sportsmanship exemplified the best in golf. Unfortunately, it glittered in stark contrast to much else that transpired during one of the most exciting days the game has ever known.
"I don't know if Montgomerie has a bull's-eye on his back or what," Stewart said afterward, "but he doesn't deserve what he went through out there. It's not fair. . . . There were numerous instances of heckling and a couple of people were removed. . . . That's not what this sport is about.
"As he was getting ready to putt, I said to my caddie, 'He doesn't deserve to have to make this putt. I'm not going to make him do it. I'm not going to put him through that [if he misses]."
If this anecdote appeals to your values, then you either are a golf fan or might want to become one. However, if all this talk of honor and respect stumps you; if you think Stewart was a chump; if you'd love to see Monty lip his putt so you could yell "fat choker" at him one more time, then stay the hell away from golf. Oh, sorry. Wrong choice of words. Please refrain from attending golf events in the future. The World Wrestling Federation has lovely seats available.
Since the Ryder Cup ended, much has been made of the alleged unsportsmanlike conduct of the U.S. team on the 17th green after Justin Leonard sank the 45-foot putt that, as it turned out, decided the Cup.
While the Americans carried on "like a bunch of nuts," in Leonard's word, Jose Maria Olazabal was waiting to hit a 30-foot putt to tie the hole. Sure, it was a tough putt--uphill with a left-to-right break. But every hacker has made some just as tough. And Olazabal has probably sunk a thousand of the sort.
"That kind of behavior is not anything a golfer expects. It was sad to see . . . an ugly picture," Olazabal said. "We [Europeans] show emotion, yes. But most of the time we behave like we should. We try to show respect."
Olazabal may have been smarting after squandering a 4-up lead to Leonard with seven holes to play. But he also was correct.
"The celebration spilled over. We do apologize sincerely," U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw said. "We're truly sorry."
"In retrospect, we probably all wish we had jumped up and down in place," said Tom Lehman, who, if it was an NHL scrum, would have been penalized for being the first man off the bench. "But I'm not going to apologize for being excited. People have short memories. There have been a lot of celebrations in the Ryder Cup. . . . At Valderrama [Spain, in 1997], their fans were pretty interesting, too."
If you want to be picky, what about Sergio Garcia and Jesper Parnevik making like Yogi Berra and Don Larsen on Friday and Saturday? Some Americans had shots left to play on those holes.
In the end, the American celebration will be remembered as just another piquant bit of Ryder Cup lore, a thorn under the saddle for Europe until 2001. The U.S. team fumed for years about Seve Ballesteros's gamesmanship. Even in this Cup, the Europeans stalled to upset the quicker Americans.
"On Saturday, the U.S. players teed off on No. 11 before we ever got there," Lee Westwood fumed. "That's the worst thing I ever saw on a golf course." Lee, if you played any slower the greenskeeper would prune you.
The only major sportsmanship issue in this Cup was the disgraceful treatment of Montgomerie, Jarmo Sandelin and others. If you shout in someone's back swing, it's like throwing a rock at a hitter in a big league batter's box. In golf, heckling isn't a form of cheering. It's a form of cheating.
We got the Cup back. But there's tarnish on it.
"Some of the things they said to Monty were just disgusting," Paul Lawrie said. "These people shouldn't be allowed to go to golf tournaments."
"I live over here [in America]. I had friends in the crowd who told me they were embarrassed at the heckling, especially at Monty," Parnevik said. "It should never be personal, not in golf."
The rationale that European crowds have sometimes been rude isn't good enough. Sportsmanship has always been golf's crown jewel. This is the sport where every player is his own referee. You're on your honor to call penalties on yourself--even ones that nobody else sees. The first words on the tee are, "It's your honor." How many sports do we wish our children want to learn because we know it will teach so many positive lessons? We don't want to be the country that's known for trashing such a legacy.
For decades, American golfers have met the highest standards. For the most part, so did American crowds, until last weekend. As Olazabal prepared for his final putt on the 18th hole--the Cup already decided--a fan yelled out, "It's the Boston Massacre." If he'd gloated a minute earlier or later, it would've been okay. However, he did it as Olazabal prepared to putt. In golf, that's all the difference in the world.
As golf becomes extremely popular, we all have a lot to learn. Let's not dumb this piece of our culture down to the lowest common denominator, too. More American pros, as Stewart has done, owe it to the sport to make clear that they are mortified by what happened to Montgomerie. It steals from their victory. The media needs to draw clear distinctions on what is and isn't considered sporting in a game that's not ashamed to try to hold itself to a high standard. Even fans might say a civil word to keep each other in line.
Let the Europeans have the last word. After the rough go they had here, they deserve it. "We are not trying to find an excuse. We congratulate America," Olazabal said. "But, next time, it would be better for golf if we manage to behave just a little better, every one of us."