Sunday, September 26, 2010

September 26, 1999: The Battle at Brookline

BROOKLINE, Mass. - It was not an easy putt for Justin Leonard - 50 feet away, a big break, hard to read the slope through the late afternoon shadows, and so on. But then, nothing about that week had been easy for the Americans.

Entering the final day of the 1999 Ryder Cup, the United States was in a seemingly insurmountable hole. Trailing 10-6, the heavily favored Americans had put themselves in a position where even one loss in the singles competition on Sunday would lead to defeat. In fact, the Europeans were in such an advantageous position that they could have won the Ryder Cup without winning a match on Sunday; a half in eight of the 12 matches would be enough to clinch.

So it was on to the singles, where most golf analysts acknowledged that the Americans had the edge, but a 6-point deficit was probably far too much to overcome. It would take 12 players playing near perfect golf for them to take home the championship.

Sunday began, and the scoreboard started filling up with American flags. At first, it seemed like they had just gotten off to a hot start in the front nine, and it seemed like somebody would blow their lead. But then the matches started going final. Davis Love III won 6 and 5, Tom Lehman won 3 and 2, Phil Mickelson won 5 and 3. They weren't just victories, they were routs. Hal Sutton won in another rout, 4 and 2, and suddenly, the competition was tied. David Duval put the Americans ahead with a 5 and 4 win. The turnaround was shocking, and it wasn't even done. After Tiger Woods and Steve Pate won, the Americans had improbably won the first seven singles matches of the day.

The Europeans showed some mettle, winning two of the next three, but the Americans had 14 points when Leonard lined up his putt on the 17th green. If he could win this hole from José Maria Olazabal, the worst he could do was halve the match, which would give the Americans the 14.5 points they needed to win the Cup. But he was faced with a long, nearly impossible putt on 17.

Which is why he celebrated the way he did when the putt dropped. Throwing both arms in the air, he ran off the green in celebration, chased by his exuberant teammates, who mobbed him in celebration. The problem was, though, that Olazabal still had a putt to try, a putt that if he made it would keep the match tied going into 18. The Americans had celebrated before the Cup had been clinched. It was fortunate, then, that Olazabal missed, officially giving the Cup back to America.

While the Americans celebrated, the Europeans steamed, some calling the display the worst act of sportsmanship they had ever seen. The European press continued the charge, calling the celebration a "disgrace" and a "horror show" in large, front-page headlines. The biggest problem may have come with the fact that the Americans danced right in the line of Olazabal's putt, but for his part, he never claimed their celebration had anything to do with his miss.

Steaming, the Europeans got the best revenge they could, winning the next three Cups, including two that were among the biggest routs in the competition's history. Despite the European response, Leonard's putt has remained as one of the defining moments in the event's history.

Skip ahead to 4:18 for Leonard's putt

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