U.S. stuns Europe in Ryder Cup; Emotions run high as unprecedented rally produces 14 1/2-13 1/2 win; 4-point deficit overcome; Down 4 holes, Leonard halves on 50-foot putt

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BROOKLINE, Mass. -- Everywhere you looked yesterday at The Country Club, there was a collective defiance among the members of the U.S. team in the 33rd Ryder Cup. From jut-jawed Hal Sutton's pumping fist as he walked down the first fairway to Payne Stewart's blazing blue eyes as he walked up to the 18th green more than five hours later, the Americans never blinked.

Certainly, Justin Leonard didn't.

Faced with a four-hole deficit after 10 holes of his singles match with reigning Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, Leonard made one long putt after another.

The final one, a 50-foot birdie up a ridge on the 17th green, clinched what turned out to be the last half-point in his team's 14 1/2-13 1/2 victory that proved dramatic in its outcome and historic in the Americans' huge comeback.

By winning their first six matches and seven of their first eight, all but one of them decisively, the Americans completed the biggest final-day comeback in the event's 72-year history.

No team had ever overturned more than a two-point deficit going into the singles competition. The U.S. team had trailed by four points, 10-6, meaning that the European team had to win only four matches to clinch a tie and take home the trophy for a record third straight time.

"We had to see something forceful the first four or five matches to go out in a good fashion to breed a chain reaction for the rest of the team," said U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw. "We had to get support in the air from the people here. And it happened like a dream. It was like a force was pulling us together."

Crenshaw thought it might have been a higher force from the golfing gods, one in particular. Given the setting, he figured that the legendary Francis Ouimet might have had something to do with it.

It was here 86 years ago that Ouimet, a 20-year-old amateur and former caddie whose family's house still stands across the street from the club, beat Englishmen Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff to win the U.S. Open.

"The Country Club has always been good to Americans," Crenshaw said of a club that also hosted the 1988 Open, when Curtis Strange beat Nick Faldo.

"We all know about Francis Ouimet. That's a little bit spooky. The 17th hole is where Francis Ouimet made two 20-foot putts, the first to get into a playoff and the second to win. If you don't believe in fate. I could feel it last night, but I couldn't describe it. Darned if we didn't pull it off."

The putt by Leonard set off a wild celebration among some of the American players, as well as their caddies and wives, who rushed the green.

Tom Lehman lifted Leonard in the air, much to the disgust as well as distraction of Olazabal, who still had to putt. Leonard helped clear the green, if not the air, and the celebration continued when Olazabal's 25-footer narrowly missed. Crenshaw kissed the green three times.

The image of the U.S. players going onto the green left more of a sour taste with the Europeans than the defeat itself.

"If you have seen it on TV, or just watched it, I think that kind of behavior is not the one anybody expects, especially when you're playing a match and you know that the whole match is going to go down [to that putt]," said Olazabal, who would birdie the par-4 18th to halve the match.

"I think it was very sad to see. I think we all want to congratulate the American team. We are not trying to find any excuse. Next time I think it will be to the benefit of the game of golf if we manage to behave just a little better, every one of us."

Said European captain Mark James: "I don't think Ben was responsible for that behavior, so I wouldn't expect an apology from Ben."

Crenshaw, who has carved a reputation as a firm believer in the game's traditions, was clearly embarrassed by the outburst.

"It really was not something that we need to be proud of and we've apologized," he said. "And for that, we're truly sorry."

If anything, the decision by James to keep three of his seven Ryder Cup rookies out of the competition until yesterday had more of an effect on the outcome. Not only did all three lose rather convincingly, but some of his players who had performed magically over the first two days and four matches seemed to tire.

"The [U.S.] momentum was definitely building," said Jesper Parnevik of Sweden, who lost six of the first eight holes in a 5-and-4 defeat by David Duval.

Said Duval, who as a result of his fast start and the roaring fans became more animated than usual: "It made a big difference. When I got to the 11th hole, everybody was at least three up."

It was there that Hal Sutton later found Leonard, who was trailing Olazabal by four holes.

"I went up to Justin on the 11th tee and told him, 'You can do it. I've seen it,' "' said Sutton, who had dispatched Darren Clarke of Northen Ireland, 4-and-2.

The Europeans also had seen Leonard come from five strokes behind down the stretch to beat Parnevik in the 1997 British Open at Royal Troon. Yesterday's performance was in stark contrast to the Ryder Cup two years ago at Valderrama, when Leonard won the first four holes of his match with Thomas Bjorn of Denmark and ended up halving the match in a 14 1/2-13 1/2 defeat.

This time, Olazabal wobbled a little, making bogeys on the par-4 12th and 13th holes to get Leonard back in the match. The 27-year-old Texan then made a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-5 14th and a 30-footer on the par-4 15th to draw even.

After each player made par on the par-3 16th, it came down to the 17th hole. Leonard knew nothing about Ouimet's history there. Crenshaw told him later.

All he was thinking about was the putt.

"I didn't know if I could make it," said Leonard, whose approach on the 370-yard hole reached the top ridge, landed three feet from the cup and spun back down. "Let's say I wasn't trying to make it, but I was trying to get the ball close. That was my first goal. I think the ball was destined to go in."

By the time Leonard reached the 18th green, the cheers had turned into a roar. As Stewart came up a few minutes later, the fans rushed down the fairway, waving American flags. Stewart didn't want the beleaguered Montgomerie to be heckled any more than he had been, so he gave him the putt and the match. The champagne shower began.

It continued on the terrace of the clubhouse, where Steve Pate emptied his golf bag and tossed hats to the crowd below. Lehman took off his shirt and threw it in the air. Crenshaw came out with his wife, Julie, and waved to the crowd like his friend, Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush, might do.

Unlike at the Alamo, of which Bush often speaks, this time the Americans would win.

"I think that Ben had a lot of faith in all of us," said Leonard.

It was more than faith that fueled this historic comeback. It was also more than talent.

It was defiance, and it could be felt everywhere yesterday.

Results

Tom Lehman (United States) def. Lee Westwood (Europe), 3 and 2.

Hal Sutton (United States) def. Darren Clarke (Europe), 4 and 2.

Phil Mickelson (United States) def. Jarmo Sandelin (Europe), 5 and 3.

Davis Love (United States) def. Jean Van de Velde (Europe), 6 and 5.

Tiger Woods (United States) def. Andrew Coltart (Europe), 3 and 2.

David Duval (United States) def. Jesper Parnevik (Europe), 5 and 4.

Padraig Harrington (Europe) def. Mark O'Meara (United States, 1-up.

Steve Pate (United States) def. Miguel Angel Jimenez (Europe), 2 and 1.

Jose Maria Olazabal (Europe) halved with Justin Leonard (United States).

Colin Montgomerie (Europe) def. Payne Stewart (United States), 1-up.

Jim Furyk (United States) def. Sergio Garcia (Europe), 4 and 3.

Paul Lawrie (Europe) def. Jeff Maggert (United States), 4 and 3.

United States 14 1/2, Europe 13 1/2

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