The Comeback

By Randall MellNovember 6, 2009, 2:04 am

Project 99I was there when ... American captain Ben Crenshaw leaned forward and poked his index finger in the air toward the assembled media on the eve of the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history.

“I’m going to leave you all with one thought,” Crenshaw said before exiting the media room at The Country Club at Brookline ( Mass. ). “I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this. That’s all I’m going to tell you.”

It was Saturday, Sept. 25, 1999, and Crenshaw’s final words that night hung powerfully in the air as he walked out. That’s because almost nothing else he said before that inspired any confidence that the Americans could overcome a 10-6 deficit in Sunday singles. In fact, until Crenshaw made that bold proclamation, he was rambling almost nonsensically. As articulate as Crenshaw can normally be, that’s how disconcerting the American team’s play was. Crenshaw struggled that night to make sense of how his talented cast had fallen so far behind. He struggled to explain how they were going to turn momentum around overnight.

Crenshaw’s captaincy was looking like it was going to be remembered as a disaster.

The Americans arrived at Brookline under a dark cloud anyway, and it grew darker by the day. This was the year Mark O’Meara, David Duval and Tiger Woods caused a furor suggesting players should be paid to play in the Ryder Cup, though they later insisted they only meant that players should have a say in where proceeds go. It all blew up a month earlier, at the PGA Championship, where a disgusted Crenshaw fired back at players wanting to control Ryder Cup finances.

Gentle Ben wasn’t so gentle after attending a players meeting two days before the PGA Championship at Medinah.

“I’m personally disappointed in a couple of people in that meeting,' Crenshaw said. “It burns the hell out of me to listen to some of their viewpoints. I came away empty.'

Tom Lehman, a member of that American team, was even more direct.

“I’m so sick of it, I could just barf,” Lehman said.

The furor only fueled the feeling the Americans weren’t built for team events, that they were too individualistic, too self-centered as Tour pros to meld as a unit. The Europeans arrived at Brookline having won the last two Ryder Cups and five of the last seven. They were supposed to have better chemistry, more camaraderie, and they looked like it through the first two days.

O’Meara, Duval and Woods, the players at the heart of the pay-for-play controversy, were cumulatively 1-6-1 going into Sunday singles.

The atmosphere at Brookline was supercharged all week, even before the matches began. The 33rd Ryder Cup played out on a sprawling stage. That’s what The Country Club felt like, more stage than golf course. I remember how fans jostled like groupies outside the barricade around the clubhouse waiting for courtesy cars to roll up. It looked a Hollywood style red-carpet entryway. They howled hardest when Woods and Sergio Garcia walked through.

I remember thinking that the Ryder Cup had officially evolved into more spectacle than sport. Great Britain’s Prince Andrew was there that week. So were the king and queen of Spain. American royalty was there, too. Michael Jordan attended. The Backstreet Boys walked inside the ropes following Woods in his Wednesday practice round. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler visited the hospitality suite, Celine Dione sang at the team gala. Bomb-sniffing dogs walked the grounds.

Baggs: The 1999 PGA ChampionshipCoffin: The Curious Case of David DuvalHoggard: Triumph to TragedyLerner: The Van de Velde Follies

The week felt like a strange mix of the Academy Awards, the Olympics and rowdy British soccer.

Colin Montgomerie would attest to the British soccer comparison. It was a tough week for the Scot. This was at the height of his problems in the United States, where American fans had singled him out for derision after his confrontations with spectators at the U.S. Open at Congressional two years earlier. He was known for his rabbit ears, as a player who could easily be engaged.

After the Europeans took that commanding 10-6 lead, Montgomerie didn’t help himself.

With Saturday’s play done, Montgomerie stood in the shadow of the clubhouse reveling in Europe ’s huge lead.

“Listen,” Montgomerie told reporters. “You know we’ve won, don’t you? It’s silent. Great. That’s the best thing we can do, silence the crowd by outplaying them.”

Montgomerie couldn’t silence the hecklers in his Sunday singles match with Payne Stewart. I followed them inside the ropes that day. They were the anchor match, the final match of the competition. It would be the last time I saw Stewart play. His death in a plane crash would come exactly one month later. Watching him that day remains a terrific final memory.

In a tight match, Montgomerie battled the fans as much as he did Stewart. They hounded Montgomerie with shouts of “Mrs. Doubtfire.” I remember standing to Montgomerie’s left along the ropes on the tee box at the ninth hole. It was a tough tee shot through the trees. As Montgomerie addressed his ball, a man barked, “Don’t hit it in the woods, Monty!”

Montgomerie snarled and backed off his tee shot. The heckler, a scruffy looking college-aged kid, made the mistake of positioning himself directly behind Montgomerie’s wife at the time, Eimear. She turned and gestured to the unruly offender. Montgomerie pointed his driver at the heckler and marched toward him.

“Get rid of that man,” Montgomerie demanded to nearby security. “This is a game of golf, not football.”

Crenshaw was on the tee box, and he stepped in, steering security to do as Montgomerie demanded. Two security guards grabbed the man, stuffed him onto a golf cart and drove him away. It was the second heckler hauled away from Montgomerie’s match that day. Another man was taken away at the fifth hole. Montgomerie’s father, it came out later, was so upset at the abuse his son was receiving that he left the golf course before the match was over.

On the 13th green, with Montgomerie preparing to putt, another unruly spectator stepped forward.

Payne Stewart and Colin Montgomerie
Payne Stewart concedes his singles match to Colin Montgomerie. (Getty Images)

“Hey, Monty, your zipper’s down,” he barked.

Stewart stepped into the fray, raising his arms to still the crowd.

“That’s enough,” Stewart said. “Calm down.”

This epic final round’s best and worst moment came in front of Montgomerie and Stewart. They were standing at the 17th tee when Justin Leonard rolled in the famed 45-foot birdie putt that all but clinched the historic American comeback. The putt set off the most controversial celebration in the history of the Ryder Cup. It outraged Montgomerie and the rest of the Europeans. That’s where American players and their wives rushed the green to embrace Leonard.

With Lehman hoisting Leonard in the air, Crenshaw fell to his knees and kissed the earth, as if it were hallowed ground. He would later insist that it was just that, because it’s where Francis Ouimet was immortalized for popularizing the game in the United States. It was where Ouimet holed a birdie putt in 1913 to secure his U.S. Open upset of British stars Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.

The entire scene disgusted Montgomerie and the rest of the Europeans who saw it, because Olazabal still had a 25-foot birdie putt. Olazabal still had a chance to halve the hole and keep alive Europe’s chances of holding off the American charge.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Montgomerie said.

European assistant captain Sam Torrance was more direct.

“It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Olazabal missed the putt, helping secure what would end as a 14 ½ to 13 ½ American victory. Though the Americans had completed the largest final-round comeback in the history of the Ryder Cup, Montgomerie and Stewart weren’t done. They played on to decide who would win their match.

While Montgomerie ended up getting the better of Stewart that day, I got to see the best of Stewart. At the 18th green, with their match all square, Stewart conceded a 20-foot birdie putt to Montgomerie, giving the Scot a 1-up victory. Stewart spared Montgomerie further abuse conceding their match. I’ll remember Stewart’s act of sportsmanship, but I’ll remember his uninhibited joy that day, too. Moments later, Stewart was amid a swarm of teammates dousing each other with champagne on the clubhouse veranda.

Somewhere, Crenshaw was smiling, knowing his big belief in fate had won out.

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USGA-player relationship at a breaking point?

By Will GrayJune 18, 2018, 8:00 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – For seven days each year, the American game’s preeminent governing body welcomes the best players in the world with open arms. They set up shop at one of the premier courses in the country, and line it with grandstands and white hospitality tents as far as the eye can see.

The players arrive, first at a slow trickle and then at a steady pace. And once they’ve registered and clipped their player medallions over their belts, they’re told how this year is going to be different.

How this time around, be it in a Washington gravel pit or on a time-tested piece of land on the tip of Long Island, the USGA will not repeat the mistakes of the past. That the process of identifying the best players in the world will not veer into the territory of embarrassing them.

Like a college sweetheart in search of reconciliation, the powers-that-be preach a changed attitude and a more even-handed approach. Then, inevitably, they commit the same cardinal sins they promised to avoid.

So year in and year out, the scar tissue builds. Charlie Brown keeps trying to kick the football and, for most of the players not named Brooks Koepka, he ends up on his butt in a cloud of dust and fescue.



After letting Shinnecock Hills plunge into avoidable yet all-too-familiar territory over the weekend – before being doused back to life – one thing is clear: in the eyes of many players, the USGA can’t be trusted.

“When are they going to get it right? I just feel like they disrespect these historic golf courses,” said Scott Piercy, a runner-up at the 2016 U.S. Open who got swept away this week during a crispy third round en route to a T-45 finish. “I think they disrespect the players, I think they disrespect the game of golf. And they’re supposed to be, like, the top body in the game of golf. And they disrespect it, every aspect of it.”

Piercy, like several players in this week’s field, had a few specific gripes about how Shinnecock was set up, especially during the third round when USGA CEO Mike Davis admitted his organization lost control in a display that echoed the mistakes of 2004. But this was not an isolated case.

Players went with skepticism to Chambers Bay three years ago, only to encounter greens that were largely dirt and got compared to produce. Mismatched grass strains, they were told. Whoops.

The next year the USGA threw a dark cloud over a classic venue by allowing much of the final round at Oakmont to play without knowing the leader’s actual score as a rules fiasco reached a furious boil. Last year’s Erin Hills experiment was met with malaise.

At this point, the schism runs much deeper than a single error in setup. It threatens the core competency of the organization in the eyes of several of the players it looks to serve.

“They do what they want, and they don’t do it very well. As far as I’m concerned, there is no relationship (between players and the USGA),” said Marc Leishman. “They try and do it. They do it on purpose. They say they want to test us mentally, and they do that by doing dumb stuff.”



By and large, players who took issue with the USGA’s tactics had a simple solution: put more of the setup choices in the hands of those who oversee PGA Tour and European Tour venues on a regular basis. While some of those personnel already moonlight in USGA sweater-vests for the week, there is a strong sentiment that their collective knowledge could be more heavily relied upon.

“I know (the USGA) takes great pride in doing all this stuff they do to these golf courses, but they see it once a year,” Brandt Snedeker said. “Let those guys say, ‘Hey, we see this every week. We know what the edge is. We know where it is.’ We can’t be out there playing silly golf.”

That’s not to say that a major should masquerade as the Travelers Championship. But the U.S. Open is the only one of the four that struggles to keep setup shortfalls from becoming a dominant storyline.

It all adds up to a largely adversarial relationship, one that continues to fray after this weekend’s dramatics and which isn’t helped by the USGA’s insistence that they should rarely shoulder the blame.

“They’re not going to listen, for one. Mike Davis thinks he’s got all the answers, that’s No. 2,” said Pat Perez after a T-36 finish. “And when he is wrong, there’s no apologies. It’s just, ‘Yeah, you know, we kind of let it get out of hand.’ Well, no kidding. Look at the scores. That’s the problem. It’s so preventable. You don’t have to let it get to that point.”



But this wound festers from more than just slick greens and thick rough. There is a perception among some players that the USGA gets overly zealous in crafting complicated rules with complex decisions, a collection of amateur golfers doling out the fine print that lords over the professional game on a weekly basis – with the curious handling of whatever Phil Mickelson did on the 13th green Saturday serving as just the latest example.

The gripes over setup each year at the USGA’s biggest event, when it’s perceived that same group swoops in to take the reins for a single week before heading for the hills, simply serve as icing on the cake. And there was plenty of icing this week after players were implored to trust that the miscues of 2004 would not be repeated.

“To say that the players and the USGA have had a close relationship would be a false statement,” Snedeker said. “They keep saying all the right things, and they’re trying to do all the right things, I think. But it’s just not coming through when it matters.”

It’s worth noting that the USGA has made efforts recently to ramp up its communication with the top pros. Officials from the organization have regularly attended the Tour’s player meetings in recent months, and Snedeker believes that some strides have been made.

So, too, does Zach Johnson, who was one of the first to come out after the third round and declare that the USGA had once again lost the golf course.

“I think they’ve really started to over the last few years, last couple years in particular, tried to increase veins of communication,” Johnson said. “When you’re talking about a week that is held in the highest regards, I’m assuming within the organization and certainly within my peer group as one of the four majors and my nation’s major, communication is paramount.”



But the exact size of the credibility gap the USGA has to bridge with some top pros remains unclear. It’s likely not a sting that one good week of tournament setup can assuage, even going to one of the more straightforward options in the rotation next year at Pebble Beach.

After all, Snedeker was quick to recall that players struggled mightily to hit the par-3 17th green back in 2010, with eventual champ Graeme McDowell calling the hole “borderline unfair” ahead of the third round.

“It’s one of the greatest holes in world golf, but I don’t really know how I can hit the back left portion of the green,” McDowell said at the time. “It’s nearly impossible.”

Surely this time next year, Davis will explain how the USGA has expanded its arsenal in the last decade, and that subsequent changes to the 17th green structure will make it more playable. His organization will then push the course to the brink, like a climber who insists on scaling Mount Everest without oxygen, and they’ll tell 156 players that this time, finally, the desired balance between difficult and fair has been achieved.

Whether they’ll be believed remains to be seen.

@bubbawatson on Instagram

Bubba gets inked by Brooks, meets Tebow

By Grill Room TeamJune 18, 2018, 5:40 pm

Bubba Watson missed the cut at Shinnecock Hills following rounds of 77-74, but that didn't stop him from enjoying his weekend.

Watson played alongside Jason Day and eventual champion Brooks Koepka in Rounds 1 and 2, and somehow this body ink slipped by us on Thursday.

Got autographed by defending @usopengolf Champ @bkoepka!! #NeverShoweringAgain

A post shared by Bubba Watson (@bubbawatson) on

And while we're sure Bubba would have rather been in contention over the weekend, we're also sure that taking your son to meet the second most famous minor-league baseball player who ever lived was a lot more fun than getting your teeth kicked in by Shinnecock Hills over the weekend, as just about everyone not named Brooks Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood did.

Already in Hartford, Watson will be going for his third Travelers Championship trophy this week, following wins in 2010 and 2015.

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Phil rubs fan's Donald Duck hat seven times, signs it

By Nick MentaJune 18, 2018, 3:09 pm

There is a case to be made that what Phil Mickelson did on Saturday made a mockery of a major championship and was worthy of derision.

There is also a case to be made that the USGA's setup of Shinnecock Hills made a mockery of a major championship and was worthy of derision.

Whatever you think about what Mickelson did on Saturday - and how he attempted to justify it after the fact without even a hint of remorse - watch this video.

The next time you hear someone say, "If anybody else had putted a moving ball on purpose and not apologized for it, it would get a different reaction," you can point to this video and say, "Yeah, here's why."

Here's what happened once a still-strident Mickelson was done rubbing Donald Duck hats on Sunday, per Ryan Lavner:

If you’re wondering whether Mickelson would be defiant or contrite on Sunday, we don’t know the answer. He declined to stop and speak with the media, deciding instead to sign autographs for more than a half hour and then offering a few short answers before ducking into player hospitality.

“The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’” he said. “I don’t know.”

The 2024 Ryder Cup at Bethpage is going to be a three-ring circus, and Mickelson, a likely choice to captain the U.S. team, will be the ringmaster.

Separately, shoutout to 2017 Latin Am champ Toto Gana, who does a terrific Donald Duck (skip to end).

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Ryder Cup race: Mickelson out, Simpson in

By Will GrayJune 18, 2018, 2:34 pm

There's a new man at the top of the U.S. Ryder Cup race following the U.S. Open, and there's also a familiar name now on the outside looking in.

Brooks Koepka's successful title defense vaulted him to the top of the American points race, up four spots and ensuring he'll be on the team Jim Furyk takes to Paris in September. Dustin Johnson's third-place finish moved him past Patrick Reed at No. 2, while Webb Simpson entered the top eight after a a tie for 10th.

While Bryson DeChambeau remained at No. 9, Phil Mickelson dropped two spots to No. 10. Tony Finau, who finished alone in fifth, went from 16th to 13th, while Tiger Woods fell two spots to No. 37.

Here's a look at the latest U.S. standings, with the top eight after the PGA Championship qualifying automatically:

1. Brooks Koepka

2. Dustin Johnson

3. Patrick Reed

4. Justin Thomas

5. Jordan Spieth

6. Rickie Fowler

7. Bubba Watson

8. Webb Simpson

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9. Bryson DeChambeau

10. Phil Mickelson

11. Matt Kuchar

12. Brian Harman

On the European side, England's Tommy Fleetwood took a big stride toward securing his first Ryder Cup appearance with a runner-up finish that included a Sunday 63 while countryman Matthew Fitzpatrick snuck into a qualifying spot after tying for 12th.

Here's a look at the updated Euro standings, with the top four from both points lists joining four picks from captain Thomas Bjorn at Le Golf National:

European Points

1. Tyrrell Hatton

2. Justin Rose

3. Tommy Fleetwood

4. Francesco Molinari

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5. Thorbjorn Olesen

6. Ross Fisher

World Points

1. Jon Rahm

2. Rory McIlroy

3. Alex Noren

4. Matthew Fitzpatrick

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5. Ian Poulter

6. Rafael Cabrera-Bello