The 1991 Ryder Cup: Eye of the Storm

There is no doubt in my mind that the “War by the Shore,” as the 1991 Ryder Cup Matches on the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, will forever be known, was the most exciting and infuriatingly antagonistic contest ever in the biennial series, certainly within the LINKS era.

The hostile nature became immediately apparent in the very first foursome on day one when longtime adversaries Seve Ballesteros and Paul Azinger traded accusations of cheating and bad sportsmanship.

At the end of a very long first day, the U.S. led 41⁄2–31⁄2. Those scores were reversed on the second day, so the teams were tied going into the tumultuous final day of 12 singles matches.

1991 Ryder
Ocean Course (Photography by L.C. Lambrecht)

Nick Faldo and David Feherty gave the Europeans a perfect start, winning the first two points. But the American squad, which included Payne Stewart, Fred Couples and Mark O’Meara, had gained a one-point lead by the time the final pairing of Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer came up the 18th fairway all square.

It was fitting that two of the toughest competitors on either side of the Atlantic would carry the hopes of their teams and supporters as they came down to the wire under the most intense pressure I had ever witnessed. Langer needed to win the hole for a 14–14 tie that would allow the Euros to retain the cup after their win at the Belfry two years earlier.

Langer’s approach wound up 30 feet from the hole, while Irwin missed the green then hit a poor chip 20 feet short of the pin. Langer’s bold first putt ran six feet past, while Irwin’s came up two feet short. Langer conceded the putt, setting the stage for his Cup-deciding putt.

With the surrounding dunes packed to capacity, Langer addressed the slippery left-to-right putt with his left-hand-low grip. Poor Bernhard had battled the yips more successfully than any top player in the history of the game, going from the depths of despair to the top-ranked putter on the European Tour. He made a good stroke but the ball slid over the right edge. I find it difficult to believe that any golfer, even Tiger Woods, could have holed the putt under the circumstances.

At the time Langer missed the putt I was drinking in the clubhouse with Feherty’s lovely parents, all of us hardly bearing to watch. And then within but a few minutes, Irwin was summoning me to the door of the tiny clubhouse. “Bring me a tumbler of Dewar’s please,” Hale begged. He gulped it down in one fell swoop and said: “I hope I never have to go through that kind of pressure again!”

Minutes later Langer entered by another door, tears streaming down his face. I tried vainly to console him. “The European team, not just you, lost the Cup,” I said. But it meant nothing to dear Bernhard, as tough and decent a golfer as has ever lived.

Never before or since has the Ryder Cup hinged on the final putt on the final hole in the final match.