News & Opinion

Kiawah’s Ocean Course: Site of golf’s rude awakening

U.S. team wins 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course
The U.S. team celebrates its victory after the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island Resort's Ocean Course in South Carolina.

Writer recalls his close-up view of rowdy 1991 Ryder Cup steeped in gamesmanship and boorishness that changed the game forever

It was my first Ryder Cup and the setting, the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, S.C., was normally idyllic and seemed to be perfectly suited to what I perceived as a match rooted in friendship. A number of things I once believed about golf were stood on end that weekend in September 1991.

Just before 7 a.m. on Friday, I made my way to the first tee to witness the opening shots. My media credential allowed me inside the ropes, and I stood at the back of the tee with the goal of being unnoticed. Fans were streaming toward the tee, and in a span of just a few minutes, spectators were lined at least a dozen deep down the first fairway. Murmurs became a buzz, which morphed into an impatient hum.

The first session of foursomes was about to commence, and polite applause followed the introduction of the European pair of Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. When the names of their U.S. opponents, Paul Azinger and Chip Beck, were announced, you’d have thought a Scud missile had detonated.

I had experienced the wild, top-of-the-lungs cheering at Death Valley at Clemson; the seemingly unending cacophony at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium; the constant, ear-splitting whine of Charlotte Motor Speedway; the joyful roars at Augusta National during the back nine on Sunday at the Masters.

But this was like the sudden, sharp crack of thunder from a late-day summer storm that blows in from the ocean without warning. An explosion of pent-up partisan energy that, once the fuse was lit, would not lose one ounce of intensity for the next three days.

A partisan American crowd cheers at 1991 Ryder Cup
A partisan American crowd cheers the home team during the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island Resort's Ocean Course in South Carolina.

Golf never had been this life-or-death critical in the game’s heretofore serene history. Some say the 29th edition of these biennial matches flipped a switch that eliminated civility in favor of nearly intolerable rancor between the teams and almost uncontrollable boorish behavior by the home team’s fans. And there would be no looking back.

The Ocean Course, which will play host to next week’s PGA Championship, opened in 1991, specifically for the Ryder Cup. The original venue was supposed to be PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., but the time difference was a factor for European television audiences, so the PGA of America decided on the Ocean Course, which was designed by Pete Dye and barely finished in time for the Ryder Cup. In fact, there was no clubhouse, only tents and trailers, which would be unimaginable today.

NBC, which would combine with USA Network to televise a then-record 22 hours of live coverage of the three-day match, didn’t count on what would unfold. American forces had just finished the Gulf War, and U.S. Ryder Cup captain Dave Stockton had outfitted some of his players with camo hats emblazoned with the Ryder Cup logo. Someone in the media had called these matches the “War by the Shore,” which deeply disturbed the Europeans.

I walked out with the first foursomes match, and by the time it reached the ninth hole, it already was contentious. Azinger and Ballesteros had brought some bad blood with them from the 1989 Ryder Cup at The Belfry, and it bubbled from the beginning at Kiawah. Azinger and Beck had been using balls with different compressions on each hole, depending on who was hitting the approach shot. Beck liked 90 compression, and Azinger preferred 100.

Olazabal noticed on the seventh hole and informed his partner, but nothing was said until the ninth, when captains, rules officials and the match referee were called in. Ballesteros was dangerously on the edge of using the “C” word, and Azinger, red-faced and furious, appeared ready to turn and put Ballesteros on the ground. It was ruled that because the holes had been completed before the European pair called officials, there would be no penalty, which infuriated Ballesteros. The Europeans won the match, 2 and 1.

Fred Couples at 1991 Ryder Cup Kiawah Island Ocean Course
Fred Couples compiles a 3-1-1 record in grabbing a team-co-high 3½ points for the U.S. in its 14½-13½ victory in the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.

But that would not be the last word, or even the last sound, from Ballesteros. I was on the first tee Saturday morning for the foursomes match between Ballesteros/Olazabal and Raymond Floyd and Fred Couples. While waiting for the players to be introduced, Ballesteros was making noise – literally. Not so much a cough as a throat-clearing. He did it more than once.

Floyd’s eyes lit up and widened as if someone were threatening his family. He stuck his famous right index finger, his thumb formed into a trigger, into Ballesteros’ chest.

“There will be none of that today,” he firmly told Ballesteros, which left no doubt in either player about what the consequences might be.

But the most consequential front-row seat I’ve had in golf came late Sunday afternoon at Kiawah. I was sitting just off the left edge of the 18th green as the matches concluded. Just as I arrived, Lanny Wadkins joined his teammates and significant others behind the green, having concluded his 3-and-2 victory over Mark James.

And I witnessed a sight that I would have bet never happened on a golf course: Wadkins was crying. And not just a tear or two. This was the guy who was presented with a wheelbarrow by Jack Nicklaus, the 1983 captain. Nicklaus said that Wadkins had cojones so big, he needed a wheelbarrow to carry them around.

If these matches would make a grown man cry, they were way more important than I had realized. Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer would find that harsh truth shortly. One of the most famous – or infamous – putts in golf came off Langer’s putter, the final stroke in the 1991 Ryder Cup. It was a 6-footer, left to right, with a spike mark – unable to be fixed, in those days – on the ball’s intended path.

Make it, and Langer wins and the matches would be tied 14-14, which would allow Europe to retain the cup. Miss it, and that match would be halved, giving the U.S. a 14½-13½ victory, its first since 1983.

The putt slid cruelly by on the right. Langer looked as if he’d been stabbed and Irwin as if his sentence had been commuted. The American team and thousands of fans erupted in uncontrollable joy. I just kept my eyes on Langer, who was inconsolable by his teammates, and Irwin, who was miles away from happy.

The Ocean Course, raw and wild in its debut, was a cruel mistress that weekend. Pars were precious and valuable, and birdies were like diamonds. Many a hole was won with a bogey. Nick Faldo said, “If we had to play this place with a scorecard and a pencil, we might not finish.”

During the past 30 years, most of the original harsh angles, jagged edges and just plain unfairness have been softened or eliminated. Dye’s edited creation still can be a rigid test, but never again will be the creature that induced as much fear, anger, bewilderment and the free flow of tears as it was on that September weekend in 1991.

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