Just when the United States seemed poised to reclaim the high ground in men's international golf, it rained in Spain and on a hoped-for American parade at the 32nd Ryder Cup competition. In what is widely recognized as the sport's premier team event, Europe's 12-man team, led by Colin Montgomerie, Constantino Rocca, and Bernhard Langer, won a thrill-a-rama at the Valderrama Golf Club in southern Spain Sunday, closing out three days of soggy match-play golf with a one-point victory over the favored visitors.
Seve Ballesteros, Europe's nonplaying team captain, sounded genuinely humbled by the athletic drama he'd witnessed while dashing around hole-to-hole to cheer-lead his squad of Brits, Spaniards, Swedes, and other representatives of a united Europe. "We may have won, but the real victory belongs to golf," he said.
The Ryder Cup had indeed continued its penchant for gripping theater. The Europeans, who seemed to benefit by more local knowledge of the course and a palpable esprit de corps, retained the cup by the same score (14-1/2 to 13-1/2) used to upset the Americans in Rochester, N.Y., two years ago in this biennial competition. In fact, the two sides have battled down to the wire the last six times they've met, and played to a draw in 1989.
They very nearly did this time, too, except that Colin Montgomerie dueled Scott Hoch to a draw in the last match to give the Europeans a half point and the outright numerical advantage they sought, even though already assured of a tie that would have given them the cup. Every member of the European team was credited with contributing at least one point to the winning score, either playing in a twosome in the best-ball or alternate-shot matches, individually, or both. It was on Saturday, however, that Europe's pairs lineup sank what US captain Tom Kite thought were some dynamite American twosomes such as Tiger Woods-Mark O'Meara, and Justin Leonard-Brad Faxon.
The Americans dug themselves a deep hole, losing six matches to fall behind, 9-4, a seemingly insurmountable deficit. Even so, the US squad came out determined to stage a spectacular comeback and show they were more than tigers just on paper. When the final divots settled to earth, though, three of the top Americans - Woods (Masters champion), Leonard (British Open), and Davis Love III (PGA) had contributed little to the US effort.
At one point, in a frustrating attempt that epitomized the Americans' putting struggles, Woods rolled his ball off the green into a water hazard. Still, he said he had given it his all and felt a new closeness to some of his chief American rivals. To have "11 great guys" cheering him, he said, was very special and no doubt makes him eager for the next Ryder Cup, to be played at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1999.