It’s like the 16th hole at the Waste Management Open had a lovechild with a Major. This prodigal son of forbidden golf love returns every other year to celebrate, prompting fanatics worldwide to skip work on Friday and hunker down for the weekend. I prayed to the golfing gods that this year’s Cup was deep enough into 2020 to escape COVID’s wrath, but alas, we hit snooze on Whistling Straits until 2021.
(Pro-tip: When Europe is hosting, book late-afternoon tee-times to squeeze in nine holes post-coverage.)
With no Ryder Cup to look forward to this year, I’ve been revisiting old Cups. In my lifetime, the ‘99 Miracle at Brookline is the undisputed highwater mark for team USA. We Yanks staged the largest, most-improbable Sunday comeback in the history of the event. Just hours before, during his Saturday night press conference, team captain, Ben Crenshaw, talked about fate and funny feelings to a media already crafting stories around a European victory. This Ryder Cup was a historical moment in golf and provided the backdrop for a life-defining memory of my own.
I wasn’t always obsessed with golf. For much of my youth, I was head-over-heels for baseball and the Atlanta Braves. Golf was something old men did wearing funny outfits or tuned into while taking naps. I got my first taste of golf around age 12 and was intrigued. By the time the 1999 Ryder Cup arrived, golf and baseball had bunk beds in my heart.
Fall of ‘99, I was a high school junior and a three-year starter on the varsity baseball team (humble brag). The coach knew I had a golf habit, but for years it wasn’t a problem. Golf and baseball shared the spring season, and my priority was baseball. Golf was a hobby. That year though, the stars aligned and golf switched seasons to the fall. Now, we had a little bit of a problem.
Traditionally, seniors led “voluntary” daily practices, workouts, and fall-ball tournaments until tryouts began. Coaches were barred from interacting with players until late-January, and naturally, Coach preferred I join the “voluntary” workouts instead of playing golf after school. He’d repeat an old cliché that golf would ruin a baseball swing in that same tone Ralphie heard he’d shoot his eye out with a Red Ryder BB Gun.
I made the golf team earning the No. 1 spot (humble brag two, for those keeping score). While he wasn’t thrilled, my baseball coach was understanding. He never dropped an ultimatum on me. He just passively busted my jock until the golf season ended. To keep the peace and reinforce my commitment to the team, I joined weekend baseball workouts and tournaments when there was no scheduled golf. If I wasn’t on the driving range or the course, I was shagging flies or in the batting cage.
Come late September, I was particularly pumped for the Ryder Cup. The host course, The Country Club, is the unofficial birthplace of golf in America. Tiger’s star was rising fast, and the USA vs. Europe pre-Cup smack talk was thriving. However, instead of cheering on the red, white and blue from someone’s air-conditioned living room, our baseball team was scheduled to play in a wooden-bat, round-robin tournament that weekend. It was a “showcase tournament” with college and a handful of pro scouts. I had no time to sneak in Friday coverage, for the bell rang that afternoon and we trekked two hours west to Panama City Beach, aka the Redneck Riviera.
We stacked four players to a room at the hotel and a handful of parents chaperoned. We played one game Friday night and three games Saturday. By Saturday evening, I hadn’t watched a single shot of live Cup competition. I’d sneak updates on SportsCenter or a few minutes of Golf Central, so I knew the dire straits the Americans faced. Down but not defeated, I caught Captain Crenshaw’s premonition before turning in for the night.
The Americans faced a four-point deficit heading into Sunday singles. At that point in history, no team had ever won after trailing by two or more points on Saturday night. Captain Ben looked at the press, playfully but reassuringly wagged his finger at them and said, “I’m gonna leave y’all with one thought, and then I’m gonna leave. I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this. That’s all I’m gonna tell you.”
I chalked it up to a leader staying strong for his troops in the face of certain defeat.
Sunday, top of the third inning in our second game of the day and final game of the tournament, I noticed my mother in the stands. She had arrived that morning after missing Saturday for my sister’s soccer. Still, she wasn’t watching our game. From left field, I could see she was staring down. She was either dead asleep or watching the 2-inch black and white wireless television she purchased from Radio Shack earlier that summer. It was the latter.
Due up fourth and heading into the dugout for the bottom of the third, I see Mom at the end gesturing for me to walk over. She explained the Americans had mounted a comeback, and there was a real shot Crenshaw was a direct descendant of Nostradamus. I immediately forgot about baseball or paying attention to the guy on the mound or really anything not happening on the tiny television screen I was now watching through a chain-link fence.
“COPE! You’re on deck,” came from a teammate. For the first time in my life, I considered asking for a pinch-hitter. Justin Leonard was on the 17th green with a 45-footer to secure a half in his match and the Cup for the good guys. Shirking temptation, I grabbed my bat and helmet and jogged to the on-deck circle while Leonard lined up his putt.
Mom hustled down to meet me on the other side of the fence as the American addressed his ball. Eyes on the screen and Team USA 45 feet from glory, I quietly begged my buddy in the batter’s box to work the count just a few more pitches.
Mr. Leonard drew his putter back at the exact moment I heard a thwack of the bat on the ball behind me. My face was pressed on the fence; I was oblivious to my surroundings. Another teammate was leaving the dugout for the on-deck circle when the camera zoomed in on the 17th hole while Leonard’s putt banked hard-right and disappeared.
Occasionally but rarely, an event happens that is so overwhelming your body forgets how to operate, and you just freeze. Leonard’s putt sent me there. I was standing in the on-deck circle of a high school baseball field, and the golfer in me wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to run around in circles swinging my arms in the air just like Leonard did after completing the comeback. While none of those were options at that moment, I’m convinced the adrenaline flooding my system did more than secure the cup for Team USA.
Snapped back to reality by the teammate now sharing the circle with me, I looked at my mother through the fence, smiled, and walked to the plate. I damn near had tears in my eyes thinking about the celebration beginning 1,400 miles away. I thought back to the gut-wrenching loss at Valhalla two years prior, and I completely forgot where I was or what sport I was playing. Pure American pride and golfing bliss coursing through my veins.
I’d love to say I remember the count or pitch or whether there were runners on base. But in my nirvana, all I remember was swinging, hearing the crack of the bat, and watching the ball sail over the 375-foot sign in left-center. For the first time in my life, I hit a home run with a wooden bat, and it cleared that sign with room to spare.
Crossing home plate, I was greeted by celebrating teammates. We had joked all weekend about the odds of anyone taking it deep with the lumber, and my sinewy 5’10”, 160-pound frame was not on the shortlist of finalists. Once the mob subsided back in the dugout, a senior looked at me and said, “Jeez Cope, what got into you?” I laughed, looked him dead in the eye, and trying to be way cooler than I will ever be, just said, “Fate.”
A self-taught stick with a hack brain, Bud grew up playing golf year-round in north Florida. Born-again New England, Bud learned what an “off-season” is. He now lives in Salem, MA with his wife, daughter, two cats, and dog, Miller. He is the sole Y chromosome in the house, believes we did land on the moon and strongly advocates for walk-up music on the first and eighteenth tees.
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