'We understood that there are more important things in this world than golf and the Ryder Cup'

The Scoop

After the antics at Brookline in 1999, the Ryder Cup was threatening to boil over into acrimony. But Curtis Strange, in the shadow of tragedy, helped save the event, as Steve Carroll reports

“Tom Lehman calls himself a man of God. His behaviour today was disgusting.”

Sam Torrance’s verbal volley, with the memory of the Americans leaping all over the 17th green at Brookline still fresh, seemed the nadir for the Ryder Cup.

The European vice-captain’s blast, in the wake of the melee that followed Justin Leonard’s bomb that effectively returned the trophy into the hands of the USA, culminated a fractious, ill-tempered clash in 1999 that was seeped in rancour.

The baiting had started even before the first ball was struck. “Let’s face it, we’ve got the 12 best players in the world,” snarled Jeff Maggert in a pre-match press conference.

Even Payne Stewart got involved. “On paper, they should be caddying for us,” he said of the Europeans.

The ill-feeling boiled over into the matches, the levels of abuse some players faced reaching disgraceful levels.

Then Leonard and company, overcome in the emotion of overturning a 10-6 deficit going into the singles, delivered what was the final insult for many on this side of the pond.

Samuel Ryder’s ethos of promoting fairness and international competition appeared to be in tatters.

“Our goal was to bring back civility and sportsmanship and once in a while in the Ryder Cup you have to do that,” remembered Curtis Strange, the man tasked with restoring order as the American captain at The Belfry.

curtis strange

His adversary was Torrance, the man who had been at the heart of the maelstrom in Massachusetts, who was also keen to foster a different spirit.

Strange added: “I really think we did a good job of that. The people at The Belfry were fantastic and Sam was on board with all of our goals for that week.

“If nothing else, we achieved that.”

But perhaps the defining turn had nothing to do with golf at all.

Little more than two and a half weeks before the two teams were set to do battle in Warwickshire came the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

With the scope of the tragedy hard to fathom, the upcoming match became completely insignificant.

The tournament was postponed for a year.

When it did take place, shortly after the first anniversary of the atrocity, the mood was palpably different.

The animosity was gone. There was no longer any desire to treat it as anything more than it was – a sporting contest.

“Everybody had to back off,” said Strange of the impact of 9/11 on the event.

“You get keyed up to go – especially me and my wife – but you have to remember why we had to delay, because we had this attack on the world.

“So everybody understood that this was the best decision made. We understood that there are more important things in this world than golf and the Ryder Cup.

“The Ryder Cup, on September 11, was the last thing we were thinking about. I was in Colorado. I drove all the way back across the country because there were no airlines flying.

“You had a lot of time to think, to get on the phone and talk to all the players and be a small part of the decision to move this back a year.

“So there was a lot of moving parts to make that happen. It was the right decision, by far. We pushed it back a year and it took on a different meaning.

“It was not more patriotic but there was more togetherness – between both Sam and I and the teams and everybody. The way it was handled and the week at The Belfry was fantastic.”

Traditions might have been restored but Strange did not return Stateside with the Ryder Cup.

In a tense singles, after the teams were locked at 8-8 following the first two days, Europe dominated the front half of the order. Paul McGinley holed the winning putt and Torrance hoisted the famous trophy aloft.

But the result did not dim the experience for Strange.

“It was the greatest week I’ve ever had in my life outside of playing the game, getting married and having kids.

“I love it. Win, lose or draw, the Ryder Cup is a grand week.

“You are one-on-one your entire life, you are an individual. Now, all of a sudden, for one week, you get to root for a team. I loved it.”

Strange on… the captaincy

I still have three or four of the team call me captain and I love that. So I sensed that we did the right thing.

All I can do is try and put these 12 players in a position to do the best they can. We’re away from home and [it’s] to try and make them as comfortable as we can at The Belfry.

It was the greatest week of my life outside of getting married and having kids. It was fantastic.

As far as the golf (was concerned), they did what they were supposed to do. They played hard. They came together as a team and we did everything but win. I can’t control that. We had great fun.

Strange on… 2018

Who the hell do you think I am going to say wins!

The teams are shaping up to be great. Don’t we want the two teams to have the 12 best players they can possibly have, with no controversy on picks? Let’s get the 12 on 12 and go play golf. That’s what we want and that’s what we look like we are going to get.

It’s good competition and the Ryder Cup is so much fun for me to be involved in and also it’s the same reason the viewers like it. It’s okay to let your emotions run freely at the Ryder Cup.

Ordinarily, you try to keep them inside. We think we play better when we keep our emotions in check. Not at the Ryder Cup. It’s okay to high-five your partner.

I love it just like everybody does.

More from the Ryder Cup

Curtis Strange was speaking at the 118th US Open as a golf testimonee for Rolex, which has been a partner of the USGA since 1980

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