In 1991, the Ryder Cup reached a new level. Whether it was a higher or lower level is still up for debate 25 years later.
Even before the first tee shot, the U.S. vs. Europe matchup was billed as the War by the Shore, a bit of ballyhoo more fit for pro wrestling than civilized golf. Yet it lived up to the hype.
The first Ryder Cup to be televised live for its three-day entirety had a winning script played out on the gorgeous stage of the new Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. There were big personalities, conflict, controversy, bruised feelings, nationalism, loud galleries and a dramatic finish. It was perfect television that even bled into NBC's prime time that Saturday night in late September.
The coverage captured the enormous pressure players admitted to feeling. Every shot meant something. The best players in the world plopped balls into the water and crumbled like weekend hackers.
"I couldn't breathe," Irwin told a reporter. "I couldn't swallow. The sphincter factor was high."
By the time it was over -- and the Americans had pulled out a 14½-13½ victory to reclaim the Cup for the first time since 1983 -- the Ryder Cup had evolved. People who didn't know dormie from a dormouse suddenly cared. The Cup had been mainstreamed. This year's version takes place Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at Hazeltine in Chaska, Minnesota.
Dave Stockton, who captained the 1991 U.S. team, said the drama "punched all the right buttons" for TV viewers.
The result was heightened interest and TV ratings over the next several meetings as the Americans and Europeans -- so evenly matched -- each won two of the next four Cups.
However, many in golf don't look back fondly at the event at Kiawah Island.
American Raymond Floyd, a four-time major winner and eight-time Ryder Cup player, calls it "a blemish of sorts" on an event founded in the spirit of friendly competition.
"I was not for it," he says. "It was not in the spirit of the Ryder Cup and how it was started and what it was meant to be."
Setting the stage
In the quarter century since, books have been written and documentaries made about the War by the Shore. Former British and U.S. golf broadcaster Ben Wright once called it "the most exciting and infuriatingly antagonistic contest ever in the biennial series."
Travis Puterbaugh, World Golf Hall of Fame curator, wrote that it was a milestone in the event's transition "from a gentlemanly exhibition to a high-stakes international competition."
Bernard Gallacher, the 1991 European captain, once said it was a turning point for the Ryder Cup, "and not in a good way." He cited "hostility" and crowd involvement that affected the outcome of matches.
But what occurred that late September on and around the Ocean Course didn't just happen. There was history.
The U.S. dominated the series from 1927 through the 1970s, when it faced teams from Great Britain and then Great Britain and Ireland. In 1979, it became more competitive when golfers from all of Europe combined to take on the Americans.
In 1985 at The Belfry in England, Europe beat the U.S. for the first time, breaking a streak of 13 American victories dating to 1959. Europe won again in 1987 at Jack Nicklaus' Muirfield Village in Ohio and then tied 14-14 in '89 at The Belfry, retaining the Cup as defending champion.
So as the Americans prepared to host in 1991, there was a mix of Yankee determination and lingering irritation on both sides from 1989.
"We tied in '89, but the crowds there were very unruly and vocal, and that's where they started with the songs," says Floyd, who captained the U.S. squad that year. "It was very difficult playing for our team, and some of the players that were on that team of mine, that carried over to '91."
The Europeans also had beefs. Some weren't fond of Floyd's introduction of his 1989 team as "the 12 best players in the world." Then, during play at The Belfry, American Paul Azinger refused to let Spain's Seve Ballesteros replace a scuffed ball. Later, Ballesteros challenged a drop made by Azinger.
The foundation had been laid for a spirited week at Kiawah.
'It wasn't a war'
To this day, however, Stockton insists the 1991 Ryder Cup was not contentious -- except for Azinger vs. Ballesteros.
On the Tuesday night before the first matches on Friday, Stockton and his wife, Cathy, hosted a "low-country cookout" for both teams.
"We were having a beer, having some food, and you didn't have to be careful about what you said to anybody, because we all knew each other," he says. "No officials. Just us."
He recalls, too, that when three days of play ended, the Europeans were gentlemen.
"They were very gracious losers, probably better than we would have been," he says. He points to Wales' Ian Woosnam as an example.
"They had two buses to take us to dinner, and so we're getting on the bus, and Woosie says, 'Captain, we can all fit on one bus,'" says Stockton. "With this he picks up [American] Corey Pavin and carries him on the bus."
Adds Stockton: "It was friends. It wasn't a war."
But the night after the pretournament cookout, events began to change that perception.
• On Wednesday, as the U.S. team drove to Charleston for the pre-Cup gala, three of the team limos were involved in a collision. Steve Pate suffered bruised ribs and was treated by a local hospital and released. Pate was held out of Friday's play, put into one Saturday four-ball match (with Pavin, losing 2 and 1 to Langer and Colin Montgomerie) and then held out of singles play Sunday.
"The Europeans felt like there were some shenanigans going on when I was sitting Pate when I could have played him," says Stockton. "He seriously couldn't play."
As a result, per Ryder Cup rules, one European player (it turned out to be David Gilford) also had to sit out the singles matches, and each team was awarded a half-point.
• At the gala, a highlight video of the European team was shown, lasting about five minutes. The American video ran about 20 minutes. Stockton cringed.
"I'm thinking to myself, 'I've worked really hard not to give any locker room agenda to put on the wall about this, that or the other thing, and it could all come crashing down just because of this,'" he says.
• A few of the U.S. players wore camouflage hats on Day 1 as a nod to the military in the Gulf War that year. The opening ceremony, too, featured a military flyover, Marine honor guard and a drill team from The Citadel. Some of the Europeans reportedly were rankled by the martial tone.
Sports Illustrated's John Garrity, who covered the ceremony, wrote that the Europeans "looked like Soviet dissidents forced to witness a Mayday parade of weaponry in Red Square."
Stockton said it wasn't meant to offend.
"It was the Gulf War years and there was a lot of American pride, and I wanted to feed on the American pride," he says. "And I wanted people to be proud of America and what we stand for. Some of the people took it the wrong way."
• During the matches, fans of both teams were loud and enthusiastic. Some European fans sang soccer-style songs. Americans chanted "U-S-A! U-S-A!" Langer told a reporter it was like being a soccer player on the road, with fans cheering his bad shots.
Stockton recalls the atmosphere as "electric" and said most fans behaved. Any tension that did build up outside the ropes he attributes to the "War by the Shore thing."
• Then came some gamesmanship. Azinger and Ballesteros had a reprise of their run-in from '89. In a Day 1 foursomes match in which Azinger and Chip Beck faced Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, the Europeans challenged the Americans for changing balls (to use varied compressions on different holes), a no-no.
Stockton said he had no intention of matching Azinger against Ballesteros, but that's the way the Friday draw turned out, for both the morning and afternoon matches.
"I'm like, 'Oh, boy, here we go,'" says Stockton, recalling his reaction when he saw the draws. "Both sides like to agitate a little bit."
The Americans, meanwhile, took umbrage with Ballesteros' coughing in the middle of their swings. Floyd says the rivalry that week "got spicy" and recalls his own incident with Ballesteros.
"I pulled him up [confronted him] from kind of clearing his throat in the backswing when Freddy [Couples] was playing," says Floyd.
Down to the final shot
The golf itself was mesmerizing, on the canvas of the Ocean Course, a Pete Dye design where danger was everywhere.
The U.S. took a 4½-3½ lead on Day 1. On Day 2, the Americans won three of the first four matches to build a 7½-4½ lead. But Europe rallied in the afternoon to make it 8-8 going into the final day. To win the Cup, and with Pate's match getting halved without being played, the Americans would have to earn 6 of 11 available points in singles.
David Feherty and Nick Faldo won the first two pairings for the Europeans, but Mark Calcavecchia took a big lead in the third match against Montgomerie. As Calcavecchia was marching to what looked like a sure win for the Americans -- he was up five holes at one point -- Pavin, Azinger, Beck, Couples and Lanny Wadkins began play, each en route to wins for the U.S.
Calcavecchia eventually collapsed on the back nine, and Montgomerie halved the match. Calcavecchia was devastated, but Stockton believes he was a key to the win, having given his team energy and hope with his strong start.
The final match of the day was a duel between Irwin and Langer. With about 25,000 fans crowding around the last fairway and green, the two teed off at No. 18 all square. Langer needed to win the hole for Europe to retain the Cup. Irwin needed only to tie. After Irwin bogeyed, Langer had a 6-foot par putt for the win -- and missed.
As the German stood in anguish, American fans roared and swarmed the green. Team USA later threw Stockton into the surf and posed for triumphant photos on the shore. Stockton says the poster he has of that weekend may be his favorite golf memento.
It all had been great theater. The general public now knew what everyone in golf had known: The Ryder Cup was the sport's most dramatic, gut-wrenching event.
"Ryder Cup was the most pressure I ever performed under," says Floyd. "It was the most intense competition, and I won four majors. Teeing off on that first hole of a Ryder Cup was the same thing as trying to hole a 6-footer at the last hole to win a major."
Adds Stockton of that memorable week: "It all came together. It changed the dynamics of the Ryder Cup, the competition of it and what people thought of it."