War By The Shore: The 1991 Ryder Cup

Updated: September 26, 2012

The 2012 Ryder Cup gets under way this Friday at Medinah Country Club, and both the European and American teams are locked and loaded.  Given the amount of talented players taking part in this edition of the biennial competition, we are likely in for a thrilling set of matches.

With the anticipation for the Ryder Cup gearing up with each passing day, the Golf Channel paid tribute to the famous 1991 Matches that were held on The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.  Shrewdly named “the War on the Shore” by the propaganda driven American media, last night’s documentary provided a behind scenes look at the Ryder Cup that is largely credited for turning this event into a must-watch for even casual sports fans. 

The Ryder Cup has long been one of my favorite events to watch, as I love the team concept, memorable pairings, different formats of play, and gamesmanship.  I was first turned onto the event during the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, the scene of one of the greatest and most controversial set of matches ever played.  I remember Sergio Garcia skipping around and pumping his fists like a madman (and annoying me and numerous other homers in the process), and the European team as a whole playing with an amazing degree of confidence that led to a dismantling of the United States team for the better part of two days.  When U.S. Captain Ben Crenshaw made his bold prediction for the singles matches and his team delivered by steamrolling the Euros, I was hooked.  

There was a fair amount of antagonism and tension on display during the 1999 matches, but the “War By The Shore” set a standard that still hasn’t been eclipsed.  While most golf fans are aware of how these matches ended with Bernhard Langer missing a six-foot putt that would’ve won the Cup for Europe, all of the lesser known facts and tidbits of information offered in this comprehensive documentary are what made it fascinating to watch.      

Build up:  The bitterness between the two sides had been building for a few years leading up to the event, with the Europeans engaging in a cute celebratory dance after winning the 1987 Ryder Cup on U.S soil and captain Raymond Floyd introducing his 1989 team as “the 12 greatest players in the world”.  The Euros felt slighted right off the bat in 1991, as the PGA of America showed a pair of videos at the ceremonial opening dinner that were reportedly pro-U.S.  Throw in the patriotic feelings of the spectators and a few American players rocking camouflage hats and you had a scene that was a virtual powder keg.  The tension on the first tee box of the opening match was described as palpable, borderline uncomfortable right from the start.      

Euros playing with stacked deck:  Both teams had legendary players, but the European squad at the time of this event had some of the best players of the world.  The documentary mentioned that the Euros had four out of the top five players in the world on their team in 1991 – Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Jose Marie Olazabal, and Seve Ballesteros.  Not to mention Langer and Colin Montgomerie, two of the more celebrated Ryder Cup players ever.  It was also interesting to see that David Feherty was on the European team, as he is such a media presence that most have largely forgotten his time as an active competitor.  They ran into a gritty American team, comprised of gritty veterans like Raymond Floyd and young players like Fred Couples.

Azinger vs. Seve:  Seve Ballesteros was the heart and soul of the European team and served as an inspiration for an entire generation of European golfers.  He was a precursor to Sergio and all of the excessive exuberance we have seen from the European side in the last decade plus, and he possessed a unique ability to needle the American team with his various mannerisms and on the course ploys.  One player on the American side who would have none of it was Zinger, and the comments attributed to him by Chip Beck when discussing the opening match of the 1991 Ryder Cup are the funniest of the documentary.  Azinger wanted to go after Seve for coughing during Beck’s backswing, and when the U.S. team made a bonehead play and accidently switched balls mid-match, Zinger he got in Seve’s grill and asked him “are you calling me a cheater?”.  Few Americans before or after have ever played with the type of fire that Zinger displayed in the Ryder Cup, and the current U.S. team could use a few guys with spikes like him to better match the passion displayed by the European team.       

Brutality of The Ocean Course:  Anyone who saw Rory Mcllroy turn Pete Dye’s creation into his personal playground at the 2012 PGA Championship might’ve got the false impression that this course was a walk in the park.  Looking back at the footage of the 1991 Ryder Cup makes you realize just how easy the players got off this summer, as with the exception of Friday the conditions during this year’s event were relatively tame.  The course during the 1991 Ryder Cup was accurately described as a torture chamber, and between the strong winds coming off the ocean and the elevated greens the players were simply trying to survive.  You had the best players in the world struggling to put the ball in play on the par-3 17th hole, with the Americans especially making numerous deposits into the water due to the winds whipping off the coast.  What a test.    

Final day madness:  Sunday’s singles matches were packed full of drama, captivating an entire new demographic of viewers with the back and forth action.  The self-destruction of Mark Calcavecchia was difficult to watch; he became physically ill after the match and was so distraught that he was seen wandering the beach.  The sheer mass of people surrounding the deciding match between Hale Irwin and Langer was something to behold, with 20,000 to 30,000 people lurking over these two as they hit their shots.  With all that had transpired leading up to the event and during the event, it was fitting that this Ryder Cup went right down to the wire.   

Johnny Miller called the 1991 Ryder Cup the greatest golf event he has ever seen, the impacts of which still resonate to this day.  It essentially put the Ryder Cup on the map, and thanks in part to NBC the coverage of the matches are now shown in their entirely.  Viewers got sucked in to the drama on Kiawah Island during that memorable three day stretch, as fans on both sides of the ocean were feeding off of the emotions of their favorite players and hanging onto every shot.  We have been fortunate enough to see a few hotly contested Ryder Cups since 1991, including the 2010 matches at Celtic Manor decided by Graeme McDowell and Hunter Mahan.  This Sunday afternoon, another set of players will have the opportunity to stave off the pressure and decide this fantastic event.         

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