I Was There: 1999 Ryder Cup

It was one of the most unforgettable of all Ryder Cups, but some of its memories are less than golden

Justin Leonard at the 1999 Ryder Cup (photo by Craig Jones/Allsport via Getty Images)

Boston, Mess

While every Ryder Cup has been freighted with misadventure, the 33rd match between the USA and Europe at Brookline was weighed down by the excess baggage of controversy and chicanery more damagingly than any other tournament I’ve covered.

Before the blackjacking of events in Boston, the 1999 season was a compelling time to be a golf correspondent in Scotland. Apart from the enduring advantages enjoyed by a writer at the Home of Golf, the professional game was also in rude domestic health: Paul Lawrie had won the Open at Carnoustie, Colin Montgomerie was ranked third in the world, and the European team included a third Scot, Andrew Coltart, who was picked ahead of Bernhard Langer.

So, it came to pass I was standing adjacent to the first tee at The Country Club as Lawrie prepared to hit the opening shot. The American referee approached the Scots and told them he was Scotch. “That’s a drink, Scotch,” barked Monty. Obviously nervous and desperate to get the ball into play, Lawrie was again blindsided when the man produced pictures of his grandchildren. Eventually, the champion golfer blocked the official—and his drive. The journey into what the R&A’s Michael Bonallack would describe as the “bear pit” began.

The Scots going four under par in Friday morning foursomes ensured the home galleries were almost as subdued as the pairing of David Duval and Phil Mickelson, who barely spoke. In the afternoon, the atmosphere was again standard fare for the Ryder Cup, partisan rather than disrespectful, and Europe forged ahead.

The ship sailed into much stormier waters over the weekend. A strength as well as weakness of the event is how it appeals to an audience drawn from beyond golf. While the positive raises the profile of the sport, the negative attracts belligerent non-golfers who don’t know how to behave. When Monty told his caddie on Saturday morning to work out the yardage from the middle of the 13th fairway, it was so he could march alone into the rough, play the shot out of the long grass, then bolt. In the face of such weaponized abuse, he didn’t feel safe.

1999 Ryder Cup
Tiger Woods celebrates during the 33rd Ryder Cup match (Photo by Harry How/Allsport via Getty Images)

Even though the home side trailed 10–6 going into the singles, an American comeback was inevitable. The USA had more strength in depth and the unused Europeans —Coltart, Jarmo Sandelin, and Jean Van de Velde—were rolled into the Sunday line-up blinking like troops from the trenches. I walked with Coltart against Tiger Woods before writing up the saga of Andrew’s lost ball. Professionals rarely lose balls and almost never when there are only 24 competitors. Two down, the Scot was sent by marshals to search some 20 yards from where his ball finished. When the five minutes was up, Coltart trudged back to the 9th tee. Ricci Roberts, his caddie, confessed later he saw another marshal raise his foot from the embedded Titleist.

I’ve never forgotten how the Americans played some wonderful golf to win that day. Most were under par. The revival, however, sparked idiocy rather than celebration. Monty’s dad, James, was so upset by the treatment dished out to his son by the feverish crowds that he fled the course. Alistair Cooke, in a poignant Letter from America broadcast for the BBC, lamented the birth of the golf hooligan.

The invasion of the green after Justin Leonard holed a tram-liner against Jose Maria Olazabal, when the match wasn’t over, has mercifully slipped from my mind’s eye, unlike the sight of the forlorn Spaniard tossing his driver into a trash can on the walk back to the clubhouse. It no sooner hit the black bag than a passing local hauled the club out and fled with the prize. That was the vignette Brookline deserved.

 

What do you remember about the 1999 Ryder Cup? Let us know in the comment section.

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