(Editor's note: For Golf Channel's 25th anniversary, Brandel Chamblee reveals his top 25 impactful moments over the last 25 years. Click here to listen to Chamblee's podcast with Jaime Diaz, revealing Golf Channel's official top 25 moments.)
11. The 1999 Ryder Cup
In the buildup to the Brookline Ryder Cup matches, a few players, four to be exact, asked for compensation to play on the team. U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw wouldn’t name the four players, at first, but then he did: Tiger Woods, David Duval, Phil Mickelson and Mark O’Meara. “I would like to see us receive whatever the amount is, whether it is $200,000, $300,000, $400,000, $500,000, whatever it is, and I think we should be able to keep the money and do whatever we see fit,” said Woods, who further added that the event was an exhibition. After a meeting with his likely team at the 1999 PGA Championship, Crenshaw was livid. "Whether some players like it or not, there are some people who came before them that mean a hell of a lot to this game," Crenshaw said. "It burns the hell out of me to listen to some of their viewpoints.”
Through two days of the Ryder Cup, the quartet had a combined record of 1-8-1 and the Americans were down, 10-6. No team had previously come back from a deficit of more than two points on the final day to win the Ryder Cup. On the eve of the singles matches, Ben Crenshaw was being peppered with questions about the dysfunctional drama, the deficit, his decisions and the unlikeliness of his team prevailing on Sunday, when he said, “I’m gonna leave y’all with one thought and then I’m going to leave.” Wagging his right index finger at the media, he said “I’m a big believer in fate,” pausing for a second, then wagging his left index finger for a second longer. “I have a good feeling about this, that’s all I’m going to tell ya.”
Crenshaw knew that the opposing captain, Mark James, had not played three of his rookies and that given the American’s overall strength (an average world ranking of 12, compared Europe’s 41), and the home course advantage, the score didn’t reflect the real status of the matches. Crenshaw also knew the storied history of the course. The Country Club, just outside of Boston, was where arguably the greatest upset in golf history took place, when 20- year-old amateur Francis Ouimet beat two golfing gods, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, in a playoff at the 1913 US Open. In a bid to get off to a hot start on Sunday, Crenshaw front-loaded his singles lineup. James did the opposite.
The U.S. won the first six matches by blowout margins to take a 12-10 lead and then won the eighth match to go up, 13-10. Europe rallied to make it 14-13, and having won the ’97 matches, the visitors only needed a tie to retain the cup. In the ninth match out, one of two matches still undecided, Jose Maria Olazabal had been 4 up on Justin Leonard with seven holes to play, but squandered that advantage as Leonard sank a 40-foot putt to square the match at the 15th hole. After halving the 16th, Leonard faced another 40-footer on the 17th, with the Spaniard 15 feet closer. You know what happened next. Leonard holed his and the American team lost their collective minds as pandemonium broke out. Players, caddies, and wives ran onto the green to hug Leonard. Someone allegedly stepped in Olazabal’s line. Leonard had not secured the cup for the Americans. Olazabal still had a putt to keep alive Europe’s hopes. The diverging equity was written all over Olazabal’s face. He missed. The USA won. Crenshaw then kissed the ground that had been so important to American golf. It didn’t look like any exhibition I had ever seen.
12. FedExCup Introduces Lucrative Playoff Era
Prior to 2007, PGA Tour seasons ended like a Luther Vandross song: they went on and on and on, and one wasn’t really sure when they were over. In 2006, there were 13 events after the PGA Championship, one of which, the Tour Championship, was meant to crown, among other honors, the money title. Problem was, year after year, the money title, Vardon Trophy and Player Of The Year honors were long before decided, and belonged to one man, Tiger Woods.
So the Tour’s season-ending event, continued to fall flat. It was like a Super Bowl … with a Nerf football. In order to give a more definitive ending to the season, and to solve the problem of a dominant player leaving little drama to the year-ending events, the PGA Tour created the FedExCup Playoffs. A much maligned idea – for having the audacity to reward its great athletes with a financial incentive to play more – the playoffs did just what the Tour had hoped. First, it got the best players to play more at the end of the year. Second, it created a new narrative beyond the major-centric themes of years past. And finally, with continued tweaking, it has given the golf world a bit of a cliffhanger to end the year with.
13. Fuzzy Zoeller’s Racist Remarks at the 1997 Masters
As Tiger Woods was putting the finishing touches on a 12-shot win at the 1997 Masters, the 1979 champion, Fuzzy Zoeller, was holding court out behind the antebellum clubhouse. One of the members of the media asked him what he thought about Tiger’s performance, to which Zoeller said: “He’s doing quite well, pretty impressive. The little boy is driving it well, he’s putting it well, he’s doing everything well it takes to win … so, you know what you guys do, when he gets in here, pat him on the back and say congratulations … enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it?” And with that he snapped his fingers and walked off, and then stopped, and turned around and added, “Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”
It is hard to watch the tape, not just because of the racial insensitivity and stupidity of the words, but because it destroyed the reputation of a man who had no hint of bigotry or prejudice in his background. Zoeller apologized on Monday and said that he was only speaking in jest and that he meant no harm. The mere word “racism” conjures up brutal images of our country’s past, of policemen bashing the heads of minority protesters, firehoses pumping out thousands of gallons of water at body-dropping speed, but bigotry also lives in less blatant ways. A vote for racial segregation worked its invidious intents. And words, even when they are said to be in jest, perpetuate racial stereotypes and hurt just as much as a water hose.
Zoeller may not have meant harm – he was and is a jocular man – but given the irrevocable fact that golf had belatedly, and only reluctantly, addressed its Caucasian-only clause in 1961, and that Woods had just become the first African-American to win a major, nobody in the media and the marketing world was in a forgiving mood. Zoeller did eventually make amends with Woods, and coincidentally, they were grouped together the next year at the Masters. Playing alongside Colin Montgomerie during the second round and after a tension filled first five holes, the whole group hit it stiff at the par-3 sixth. Walking off the tee, Tiger broke the ice by saying, “Let’s all walk off the green with 2s.” Cayce Kerr, who was caddying for Fuzzy, said it was a world class move by Tiger, and then everyone made their putts. And they moved on, and slowly, too, did the golf world.
14. Michelle Wie Playing in a PGA Tour Event
When Michell Wie was 12, she won the Hawaiian State Open Women’s division by 13 shots, When she was 13, she become the youngest person to make a cut on the LPGA tour and eventually finished ninth in the Kraft Nabisco. Later that year, she became the youngest winner in the history of the USGA Women’s Public Links Championship. Given that Annika Sorenstam had played in a PGA Tour event in 2003, the idea of a woman playing in a men’s professional event somehow seemed less shocking, but a child, who also happened to be female, well that was nothing short of preposterous.
So when the 2004 Hawaiian Open invited her to play it piqued the curiosity of not just the golf world, but the entire sports world. Gender aside, Wie was about to become the youngest person to ever play in a PGA Tour event. She played a practice round with Ernie Els, who was still at the height of his powers and would win The Open that year, and performed brilliantly. Els was effusive in praise about her potential. Although Wie didn’t make the cut, she shot rounds of 72-68 and beat 47 players. She tied or beat seven major champions. The golf world had not seen a teenager like her, since, well, Tiger Woods.
15. Annika Sorenstam Shoots 59
Prior to the 2001 Standard Register Ping, the lowest score ever shot on the LPGA tour was 61, by three women – Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak and Annika Sorenstam. The week before, Sorenstam had successfully defended her title in Tucson. It was at that event in 2000, where Sorenstam officially qualified for the Hall of Fame, which coincided with a loss of focus as Webb overtook her atop the money list. In response, Sorenstam started a five-day-a-week weight lifting and balance program that began to add yards to her drives.
At the start of the 2001 season, Annika was not only stronger than she had ever been, she was better than she had ever been. Which was evident during the second round of 2001 Standard Register. Starting on the back nine of the par-72 golf course, playing alongside Meg Mallon, and her sister, Charlotta Sorenstam, who also happened to be the defending champion, Annika birdied the first eight holes, parred the 18th and then reeled off four more birdies in a row after the turn. She parred her 14th, 15th and 16th holes and, needing one more birdie, she hit the par-5 17th in two. She two-putted from 20 feet. At the 18th, she had 10 feet for a 58 but missed and tapped in for the lowest score, by two shots, in the history of women’s golf.
Sorenstam would go on to win that week, and eight tournaments in total for 2001, to which Webb said she would, “eat her hat” if she duplicated that mark the following year. She didn’t. Sorenstam won record-tying 11 times in 2002, matching the great Mickey Wright, either one of which could be considered the greatest female player of all time.