Last week was the 20th anniversary of the then record-setting comeback by the U.S. Ryder Cup team. No team had ever come back from a 4-point deficit on Sunday to win, that is until that beautiful day in Brookline, Massachusetts. As you read this piece, you’ll discover that this event means a lot to me, and that it was filled with so many historical moments. The 99’event lit a new fire in the Ryder Cup, and perhaps set the tone for the 21st century, as the Europeans won 7 of the next 9 cups. This event, especially that Sunday performance, impacted me greatly. But there were a lot of negatives from the event as well, particularly the way the U.S. celebrated the winning putt and how poorly the Euro team was treated by the galleries all week. Raucous and passionate is an understatement. Colin Montgomerie’s father had to be removed from the crowd because he was being heckled so badly.
I can’t continue on without mentioning those dreadful shirts the U.S. team wore on Sunday. They were designed by Captain Ben Crenshaw’s wife and featured photographs of past victorious U.S teams collaged all over them. They were maroon in color and downright hideous. Had the U.S. lost we definitely could have blamed those shirts, but since they came back and won, we have to credit something else. Something magical. Something out of a movie. Captain Crenshaw sat down at the press conference after Saturday’s play, with his team down 10-6. No team had ever come back from more than a 2-point deficit going into Sunday singles matches. But gentle Ben wasn’t worried. He had a plan. He had a feeling. Cool as the other side of the pillow, but motivating like a world-class coach, he spoke the words that have been played in highlight reels since: “I’m gonna leave ya with one thing. I’m a big believer in fate, and I got a good feeling about this. That’s all I’m gonna tell ya.” Whether they’ll admit it or not, half the room burst into internal laughter, and the other half wanted him committed to the closest mental health facility. But he did have a plan. He frontloaded his lineup with his best players because he knew they needed the gallery to get loud early and they would need a quick start before it was too late. Well European captain Mark James back loaded his lineup and had to play two rookies that sat out both Friday’s and Saturday’s play. The tide turned early and the momentum began to snowball in favor of the Americans.
The U.S. won the day’s first six matches to take the lead. Two more wins by Jim Furyk over an undefeated rookie in Sergio Garcia, and Steve Pate over Miguel Angel Jimenez, made it 14-12 in favor of the Americans. They needed 14.5 points to win the cup, so a tie in any of the remaining matches would give them a half point and wrap it up. They didn’t have to wait long. On the 17th hole Justin Leonard and Jose Maria Olazabal stood on the green all square in their match. Leonard holed an uphill 45-footer for birdie and the place went bananas. An explosion of high fives, hugs, and screams ensued that could have been heard in Boston. One problem; Olazabal still had a 20-footer to tie and players, caddies, wives, cameramen, and fans ran through his line to mob Leonard when his putt fell. With no surprise Jose missed and the gallery went nuts again. Justin Leonard being 1-up with one hole to play just secured at least a half point for the U.S. and they won the Ryder Cup.
One of the remaining matches on the course was Colin Montgomerie and Payne Stewart. With the cup already decided, this match had now been reduced to a battle of pride or an exhibition. I mentioned earlier how brutal the gallery had been to Colin all week, and on this crazy Sunday it was tenfold. They stood all square on the final hole, and in a gesture of good will, Stewart conceded the hole and the match to Monty and lost 1 down. Payne picked up Monty’s ball marker off the green and handed it to him. The crowd went joyfully nuts as they embraced with a hug. A classy moment from one of the game’s classiest ambassadors. Maybe he just wanted to get off the course and hurry to celebrate with his team? Whatever the reason, we all wish that good faith had followed Payne once the Ryder Cup was over. Just a few weeks later we sadly lost Payne Stewart in a plane crash. Conceding that match to Montgomerie, and fist-pumping his way around The Country Club at Brookline are our last images and memories of him.
So how did this performance and event affect me? How did it inspire me? I have thought about this blog entry for a week now. Struggling with how I would put pen to paper, or in this case, type to screen. My closest friends and family know somewhat of my journey during this time in my life. In 1999 I was a junior in high school. I was popular, had an enormous group of friends, and was a decent enough student and golfer. But over the last year I had been dealing with something new in my life. And not dealing with it very well. I started to experience panic attacks, high anxiety, and depression. And with that came a lot of missed school and missed social situations. I was having the time of my life and suddenly was avoiding my friends and putting my life on the backburner. I didn’t even want to leave the house. This is a serious condition that hundreds of thousands of adults deal with every day, but as a teenager I was completely lost and confused. With missing school came missing matches and tournaments as a member of the golf team, and that depressed me even more. Golf was my passion, my love, my outlet and one of the few things I felt I excelled at. And that too was taken away from me. The truth is, I took myself away from it.
I always found comfort in watching golf with my grandfather at his house. We have witnessed some incredible moments together and he is the one who started me playing around the age of 10. We watched that entire Ryder Cup Sunday together with incredible excitement and emotion. Afterwards he asked if I wanted to go play nine. I so badly did, but what if I saw someone I knew there? Because chances are I would. What would I tell them about where I’ve been? But I had a new feeling in me. A new motivation. A feeling of positivity I hadn’t felt in months. I obliged and we went to one of the local courses I grew up playing for an evening nine holes. Something we have done many times growing up. I’m glad I did because I played well shooting even par, and realizing that my fears and negative thoughts were just that; thoughts. Nothing terrible happened and I survived.
On the way home from the course I looked at my grandpa and told him I was going to try to go to school the next day. He and my parents were of course thrilled, but nobody knew how difficult that was going to be for me. I was so far behind but had to take it one step at a time. That Ryder Cup and the U.S. performance filled me with exuberance and hope. I couldn’t let the best days of my life pass me by while I hid in my bedroom. In order to do great things you have to overcome. Nothing that is worth something comes easy.
I have grown a lot as a person in dealing with my issues. I’m a better man for it. A better friend, a better husband, a better son, a better worker, a better teacher, and a better player. Mental health is much more mainstream now than it was even in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. It is often misunderstood but can be as debilitating as a fatal disease. And unfortunately it often is. Luckily there are now more celebrity and pro athlete advocates bringing mental illness to the forefront. Golf has been good to me and I try to be good to it. The least I can do is be there for a colleague, family member, or friend that is dealing with something and let them know they’re not alone. Life can be difficult but doesn’t always have to be a drag. Surround yourself with good people and good energy. Eat good food, drink good wine, and of course play more golf. We all die in the end, but don’t forget to live.
(Author’s note)If you’re too young or if your memory is vague, go on Youtube and watch 1999 Ryder Cup highlights. You’ll have goosebumps for days. Even though the 2012 European team ended up coming back from the same deficit, the 99’ version is one of the greatest moments in all of sports. What’s even more weird to think about, it was only Tiger’s 2nd Ryder Cup team and Phil’s 3rd.
Shriners Hospital Picks
I’m getting better as the weeks go as 2 of my 3 picks in last week’s Safeway Open contended. Phil Mickelson is down 40 lbs and looks fantastic, but it didn’t transfer to his game as he shot even par for the first two rounds and missed the cut. Collin Morikawa tied for 10th and Brandt Snedeker tied for 17th.
We head to to the Las Vegas strip for the Shriners Hospitals For Children Open.
Winner: Charles Howell III Chuckie 3 Sticks is a check casher extraordinaire and always seems to play well in the fall. Finished T4 last week in Napa.
Will Contend: Bryson DeChambeau Defending champ and top-15 finish last week. Will be in the mix with a chance to win heading into the weekend.
Sleeper: Scottie Scheffler: Vegas is a birdie fest and Scheffler ranks 2nd on tour in birdie average and 2nd in greens in regulation. Go low young man.
Enjoy the game and each other,
Written by Seth Zipay, Head Golf Professional
Published by Craig Walton