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  • Writer's pictureIan Hyde-Lay

What If?

Mercifully, it finally ends.

The Ryder Cup is a biennial Men’s golf competition between USA and Europe. The recently completed 43rd edition sees the host Americans, on a mission from start to finish, pulverize the visitors by a record 19-9 score on their way to regaining the trophy.

Played at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, the event is totally one sided and lacking theater. TV networks and other media look for anything to spark viewer interest and deflect attention from the beatdown taking place.

And so, inevitably, they trot out highlight packages and articles of famous matches and notable moments from previous Cups.

One traces back over 50 years, to the final match of the 1969 competition. Earlier that year, in July, Tony Jacklin upsets the form chart, at long odds winning the British Open and claiming the coveted Claret Jug. The victory bolsters the spirits of a then Great Britain team for the ensuing Ryder Cup, even though the USA powerhouse remains a heavy favourite.

The surprisingly competitive nature of the contest leads to shredded nerves and, at times, fraying tempers. Late in the afternoon, after nearly three full days of play, the score is tied. Only the anchor match remains on the Royal Birkdale course. Jacklin vs the great American, Jack Nicklaus.

On the final hole, with the contest all square, both reach the 18th green in regulation. Jacklin leaves his birdie putt an agonizing two and a half feet short. In contrast, Nicklaus’ ball burns the edge of the hole, but then carries on some five feet past. Not surprisingly, the greatest player in the world never looks like missing the comebacker to record a par four.

And then it happens. It is a wonderful display of sportsmanship, an act set to be remembered forever as “The Concession”. With amazing foresight and sense of occasion, Nicklaus picks up Jacklin’s ball marker. The pair walk off the green arm in arm. The match itself and the Cup finish in a tie, the classy gesture leaving a lasting memory and setting a positive tone for the future of the event.

Alas, with every passing year, the Ryder Cup becomes increasingly contentious.

Starting in 1979, the inclusion of outstanding players from all across the continent bolsters significantly the strength of a now fully European team. The matches, traditionally the domain of the Americans, become anything but. Europe, from 1985 onwards, begins to take the upper hand in the series.

As a result, with stakes raised and the profile of the Cup enhanced, each meeting between the teams takes on increased significance. Ever heightening pressure and the necessity to win at all costs dominate proceedings.

Take, for example, the infamous “Battle of Brookline”.

This 33rd edition of the Ryder Cup takes place in September 1999, at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Continuing their fine form from victories in 1995 and 1997, the Europeans boss the opening two days of play, grabbing a 10-6 lead. The USA requires a record comeback in the singles matches to win back the trophy.

Remarkably, the Americans do duly claim 8.5 of the 12 points on offer, to regain the Cup by a score of 14.5 to 13.5.

The day is choc a bloc with intrigue and drama. Brilliant shots, astonishing putts and a sensational comeback balance allegations of cheating and serious breaches of golfing etiquette. Raucous heckling, relentless verbal abuse, even spitting, by certain fans surrounding the tees and lining the fairways, are other accusations.

Events reach a crescendo in the penultimate pairing of the day. The strong USA rally takes them into the lead at 14-12. An additional half point will clinch the Cup.

Justin Leonard (USA) and Jose Maria Olazabal (Europe) reach the 17th green. Both have birdie putts. Momentum is clearly with the Texan, as he recovers from four holes down to square proceedings.

With tension mounting, Leonard then sinks yet another unlikely 45’ birdie putt. The ball, travelling at some speed, rattles into the hole. A number of American players and support staff, their wives, NBC camera personnel, and the gathering crowd explode in joy. Whipped to a frenzy, they swarm the green in a serious breach of golfing etiquette, running amok.

Forgotten in the delirium is that Olazabal still has a chance to halve the hole with his own birdie putt. Eventually, after several long and awkward minutes, order is restored. But the Spaniard’s attempt is slightly off-line, guaranteeing the USA the half point it needs.

Along with the other purported unsavoury incidents, the raucous invasion of the green, before Olazabal’s putt can be attempted, generates huge press. The Washington Post wades in, deeming the American team “act like jackasses”. The Los Angeles Times goes even further, slating the hosts for “violating every principle of proper golf decorum and decent manners.” For the legendary broadcaster Alistair Cooke, it is “a date that will live in infamy.”

And to think it all could have been so different.

What if Leonard or the USA captain Ben Crenshaw, had, in the wake of the unruly stampede of the 17th green, sportingly conceded the putt facing Olazabal. Such a decision would have taken considerable courage, not been at all popular, with the necessary half point so desperately craved by the Americans not secure. The two players would move on to the 18th hole level, with everything to play for. Both teams with an opportunity to claim victory.

Still, in the end, and as the years creep by, is the 1999 Cup result really that important? Given the importance attached to winning, many would say it is.

Yet, I am not so sure. For me, the 1999 Ryder Cup will be remembered for little more than a spirited comeback, a long putt and ill-discipline. Instead, what if it had been the scene of an unparalleled act of fair play. Another concession for the ages. With Jack Nicklaus smiling and Justin Leonard securing himself a place forever in a sporting pantheon of all time greats.

Indeed. What if?

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