As the USPGA Championship returns this week to Kiawah Island, this year also marks the 30th anniversary of the infamous ‘War on the Shore’ Ryder Cup that took place there in 1991.
It was an antagonistic encounter played in a hostile atmosphere that was a precursor to bad-tempered Ryder Cups to come, with allegations and counter-allegations of strategic ball-switching, deliberate off-putting coughing and faking injury.
Among its many memorable moments was a dramatic collapse by a former Open champion that could have cost the Americans the Ryder Cup and a gut-wrenching last putt on the last hole of the last match that did cost the Europeans the Ryder Cup.
The score was neatly poised at 8-8 going into the final day of singles matches on Sunday. The match between USA’s Steve Pate and David Gilford had been halved as Pate was unable to play due to injury, leaving 11 points up for grabs. USA would need six to regain the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1983.
They started poorly in the opening two matches, but in the third match, Mark Calcavecchia, the 1989 Open champion, had opened up a massive lead against tournament debutant Colin Montgomerie. He was cruising at 5-up after the front nine, and it looked like USA’s charge towards victory had begun.
Until Calcavecchia’s game started to unravel.
4-up with four holes to play, he somehow contrived to lose all four to halve the match. He was distraught, inconsolable and utterly convinced that his inexplicable capitulation would cost USA the Ryder Cup.
As the contest reached its climax, his worst fear appeared to be coming true.
His half-point gift had given Europe a vital lifeline. It meant they could still retain the Ryder Cup if they won the final match. The overall score was 14-13 to USA. A draw would be sufficient for Europe to keep hold of the trophy as defending champions.
A scintillating Ryder Cup was going to come down to the final hole of the final match between Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it better.
The final match was a mini-drama of its own. Langer had been two shots down with four holes to play, but had won the 15th and then bravely saved the Ryder Cup on the 17th with a nerveless four foot putt to win the hole and keep the match alive. Now he needed to win the final hole and Europe would retain the Ryder Cup; if the match was drawn, USA would win.
Lady luck seemed to be favouring Team USA as Irwin’s tee shot flew well left into the crowd but somehow bounced off someone and ended fortuitously on the fairway. It didn’t help him as his second landed on the slope to the right of the green, and his third stuck. Langer, too, had been off the green, and his third shot sped six feet past the hole.
The jittery members of the two teams could barely look as the tension reached almost unbearable levels.
Irwin had an improbable 20-footer for his par. Make it and USA would win the Ryder Cup. Irwin putted and, unsurprisingly, missed. A cacophony of despairing groans rang out from the partisan crowd enveloping the green.
Irwin had left an 18-incher for bogey. Langer, far too generously given the moment, conceded the putt.
It was Bernhard Langer’s turn to putt for the Ryder Cup. Six foot to immortality. Or ignominy. Which way would the ball swing?
Langer chose to hit the ball straight, apparently to avoid a spike mark on his line. It was a bad decision. The putt had a break and the ball veered right by a whisker. The match was halved and USA had won 14½ to 13½.
In that fraction of a turn, disaster had turned to triumph for the Americans and unexpected reprieve to woe for Europe. It was now Langer who was devastated and Calcavecchia could breathe a sigh of relief.
Such were the vicissitudes of fortune that determined the most extraordinary of Ryder Cups at Kiawah Island. If the current PGA Championship is half as eventful, golf fans will be in for a treat this Sunday.