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.

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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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After Further Review: Spieth needs a break

By Golf Channel DigitalJune 25, 2018, 1:11 am

Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On Jordan Spieth's much-needed break ...

Jordan Spieth is heading for a break, and that’s probably a good thing.

Spieth just wrapped a run of six events in seven weeks that featured largely underwhelming results. A third-place finish at the Masters that stemmed from a nearly-historic final round deflects attention away from the fact that Spieth has yet to enter a final round this year less than six shots off the lead.

A return to his home state didn’t work, nor did a fight against par at Shinnecock or a title defense outside Hartford where everything went so well a year ago. His putting woes appear to have bottomed out, as Spieth finished 21st in putting at Travelers, but now the alignment issue that plagued his putting appears to have bled into other parts of his game.

So heading into another title defense next month at Carnoustie, Spieth plans to take some time off and re-evaluate. Given how fast things turned around last summer, that might prove to be just what he needs. - Will Gray


On the difference between this week and last week ...

There wasn’t a single outraged tweet, not a lone voice of descent on social media following Bubba Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, a 17-under par masterpiece that included a closing loop of 30.

Nobody declared that golf was broken, no one proclaimed the royal and ancient game a victim of technology and the age of uber athletes. The only response was appreciation for what Watson, a bomber in the truest form, was able to accomplish.

At 6,840 yards, TPC River Highlands was built for fun, not speed. Without wild weather or ill-advised hole locations and greens baked to extinction, this is what the best players in the game do, and yet no one seemed outraged. Weird. - Rex Hoggard


On the emergence of another LPGA phenom ...

Add another young star to the favorites list heading to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes outside Chicago next week.

Nasa Hataoka, the 19-year-old Japanese standout who needed her rookie season last year to acclimate to the LPGA, broke through for her first LPGA title Sunday at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

This wasn’t a surprise to LPGA followers. Hataoka won the Japan Women’s Open when she was 17, the first amateur to win a major on the Japan LPGA Tour, and she has been trending up this year.

Her tie for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open three weeks ago was her fourth consecutive top-10 finish. She won going away in Arkansas, beating a deep field that included the top nine in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She outplayed world No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn and No. 3 Lexi Thompson on Sunday. - Randall Mell

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Bubba waiting for Furyk's text about Ryder Cup

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:39 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – After winning his third PGA Tour title in the span of five months, Bubba Watson is now waiting by his phone.

Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, his third at TPC River Highlands since 2010, accompanies recent victories at both the Genesis Open and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play from earlier this year. It also moved the southpaw from No. 7 to No. 5 in the latest U.S. Ryder Cup standings, with the top eight after the PGA Championship qualifying automatically.

After serving as an assistant captain at Hazeltine despite ranking No. 7 in the world at the time, Watson made it clear that he hopes to have removed any doubt about returning to the role of player when the biennial matches head to Paris this fall.


Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos


“It still says in my phone that (U.S. captain) Jim (Furyk) hasn’t texted me yet. So I’d really like for him to say I’m going to pick you no matter what,” Watson said. “The motivation is I’ve never won a Ryder Cup, so making the Ryder Cup team and trying to win a Ryder Cup as a player would be another tournament victory to me. It would be a major championship to me just because I’ve never done it, been a part of it.”

Watson turns 40 in November, and while he reiterated that his playing career might not extend too far into the future as he looks to spend more time at home with son Caleb and daughter Dakota, he’s also hoping to make an Olympic return in Tokyo in 2020 after representing the U.S. in Rio two years ago.

“Talking about the Olympics coming up, that’s motivating me,” he said. “It was the best experience of my life to watch all the other events, and then the golf tournament got in the way. I’d love to do it again. I’d love to watch all the events and then have to play golf as well.”

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Casey comes up short (again) to Bubba at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:07 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Staked to a four-shot lead entering the final round of the Travelers Championship, Paul Casey watched his opening tee shot bounce off a wooden wall and back into the middle of the fairway, then rolled in a 21-foot birdie putt off the fringe.

At the time, it appeared to be a not-so-subtle indicator that Casey was finally going to get his hands on a trophy that has barely eluded him in the past. Instead it turned out to be the lone highlight of a miserable round that left the Englishman behind only Bubba Watson at TPC River Highlands for the second time in the last four years.

Casey shot the low round of the tournament with a third-round 62 that distanced him from the field, but that opening birdie turned out to be his only one of the day as he stalled out and ultimately finished three shots behind Watson, to whom he lost here in a playoff in 2015.

Casey’s score was 10 shots worse than Saturday, as a 2-over 72 beat only five people among the 73 others to play the final round.


Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos


“I mean, I fought as hard as I could, which I’m proud of,” Casey said. “Not many times you put me on a golf course and I only make one birdie. I don’t know. I’d be frustrated with that in last week’s event, but it is what it is.”

Casey led by as many as five after his opening birdie, but he needed to make a 28-foot par save on No. 10 simply to maintain a one-shot edge over a hard-charging Watson. The two men were tied as Casey headed to the 16th tee, but his bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 combined with a closing birdie from Watson meant the tournament was out of reach before Casey even reached the final tee.

Casey explained that a “bad night of sleep” led to some neck pain that affected his warm-up session but didn’t impact the actual round.

“Just frustrating I didn’t have more,” he said. “Didn’t have a comfortable swing to go out there and do something with.”

Casey won earlier this year at the Valspar Championship to end a PGA Tour victory drought that dated back to 2009, but after being denied a second victory in short succession when he appeared to have one hand on the trophy, he hopes to turn frustration into further success before turning the page to 2019.

“I’m probably even more fired up than I was post-Tampa to get another victory. This is only going to be more fuel,” Casey said. “I’ve got 12 events or something the rest of the year. So ask me again in November, and if I don’t have another victory, then I will be disappointed. This is merely kind of posturing for what could be a very good climax.”

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Bubba thrives in his comfort zone

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:02 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – The 1:20 p.m. pairing Sunday at TPC River Highlands spanned the spectrum on the PGA Tour. In one corner stood science. Bryson DeChambeau, whose quantitative approach to golf seemingly knows no bounds, was looking to add another victory after winning a playoff earlier this month at Jack’s Place.

On the other side was art.

Bubba Watson doesn’t float golf balls in Epsom salt to identify minor imperfections. He doesn’t break out a compass to find the slightest errors in the Tour-supplied pin sheet. Even when he texts caddie Ted Scott, he prefers to use voice text rather than rely on his admittedly sub-optimal spelling.

But strolling along one of his favorite landscapes, Bubba the artist came out on top. Again.

Watson is in the midst of a resurgent season, one that already included a third victory at one of his favorite haunts in Riviera Country Club. It featured a decisive run through the bracket at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and a return to the leaderboards at Augusta National where he fell short of a third green jacket.

It only makes sense, then, that he’d build upon that burgeoning momentum at the Travelers Championship, where he earned his first PGA Tour victory in 2010 and Sunday joined Billy Casper as the tournament’s only three-time champ with a final-round 63 to catch and pass Paul Casey.

This is a place where Watson can bomb drives by feel and carve short irons at will, and one where he officially put his stamp on the best season to date on Tour.

“His hand-eye coordination is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen,” DeChambeau said. “You’ve got me who was just struggling off the tee, and he’s just swiping shots down there. It was cool to watch. I wish I could do that. I probably could do that, but I just don’t feel like I’d be as consistent as he is.”


Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos


Consistency wasn’t an apt descriptor a year ago, as Watson went from two-time major champ to completely off the radar. His world ranking, which began last year at No. 10 and is now back up to No. 13 after he became the first three-time winner this season, fell as far as 117th before his win at Riviera in February.

Watson attributes much of the turnaround to a change in health. Never really one to tip the scales, he lost 25 pounds in a three-month span last year while battling an undisclosed health concern. After putting some of the weight back on, he’s now able to focus more of his time and energy on fine-tuning one of the Tour’s most distinctive approaches.

“Anytime any of these guys kind of get comfortable with just being them, and golf is secondary in a sense, it helps them reach their potential,” said Scott. “I think the hype and the pressure can sometimes put things out of sort. And right now he’s just very comfortable with who he is as a person, and I think in his life. It helps him relax on the golf course.”

What Watson doesn’t prefer to mention is the equipment change he made that serves as a not-so-subtle line of demarcation. The southpaw turned heads at the end of 2016 when he agreed to play a colored Volvik ball on Tour during the 2017 season, only to watch his results fall off a cliff. A return to the Titleist ball he previously used has coincided with some of the best results of his 12-year career.

“I don’t think it has had any (role) in my success,” Watson said. “My clubs weren’t going the distance that I used to. I couldn’t shape it the way I want to. Luckily for me, I know the problem, and the problem was with health and not all these other things.”

But regardless of the true source of his turnaround, Watson is back to doing what he does best. That includes carving up the handful of venues that most fit his unique eye, be they lined by thick kikuyu rough outside Los Angeles or dotted with menacing water hazards outside Hartford.

The artistic touch was on full display with his final swing of the day. Facing exactly 71 yards to a pin tucked barely over the edge of a yawning bunker on No. 18, Watson laid the face open on his 63-degree wedge and hit a cut shot that spun and checked to inside 3 feet.

“Teddy put his arm around me, like, ‘That was an amazing shot,’” Watson said. “He’s seen a lot of shots, he’s been out here for many years. So for him to realize it, and other players to text me and realize it, it was special.”

While it seemed at the time like a shot that gave Watson a glimmer of hope in his pursuit of Casey, it ultimately turned out to be the final highlight of a three-shot victory. It’s the type of shot that few, if any, of his peers can visualize, let alone execute with such exact precision with the tournament hanging in the balance.

It’s the type of shot that separates Watson – the quirky left-hander with the pink driver who openly talks about his struggles with on-course focus and abhors few things more than trying to hit a straight shot – from even the best in the game when things are firing on all cylinders.

“The skills have always been there, as you know. But he’s just more relaxed now,” Scott said. “And when these guys, obviously when they enjoy it, they can play at their best and not get too stressed.”