I saw Bernhard Langer miss the putt.

Perhaps it actually should be referred to as The Putt.

In decades of chasing golfers, point guards, quarterbacks, shortstops, racers and an astronaut or two across a couple of continents – and writing about them and their adventures and misadventures, Langer’s seven-foot catastrophe remains a standout moment for me

To be there was to witness one of sport’s most emotion-filled moments — and one of international import. It was 1991, a generation-plus ago, and the Ryder Cup matching American and European teams had arrived at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island at the edge of the continent in South Carolina. By the end of the tournament, the Cup had gone from being a vibrant international competition to a supercharged, uber-national, almost jingoistic battle. In fact, it was nicknamed The War By The Shore.

Golf gods such as Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Fred Couples and Payne Stewart roamed the seaside holes of one of America’s most beautiful courses that week, and the competition became so intense that grown men wept and professional golfers trembled. The crowds got into the fever. A local radio disc jockey obtained the phone numbers of some of the island houses where the European team members were staying and sent those phones ringing in the middle of the night, hoping to disrupt the sleep of the players and perhaps give the Americans a tiny boost.

It was that crazy

Appropriately, it all came down to the last match and the last hole on the last day. American Hale Irwin was playing Bernhard Langer, and their match went to the 18th. Langer stood over the tournament’s final putt, a left to right seven-footer. If he makes it, the Europeans retain the Cup. If he misses, the United States team wins.

As virtually all of the golf world remembers, Langer, who, by the way, finished 3-under at this year’s Masters at 63 years of age,  missed the putt by about an inch. The American team burst into a wild celebration that didn’t end until they ran fully clothed into the Atlantic surf, the climax to what had become a red, white and blue day.

To watch that drama unfold from just off the 18th green on a beautiful coastal Carolina day marked a highlight of my journalism career, a long and winding road that has included stops at the Olympics, the World Series, the Super Bowl, a spate of college football bowl games with increasingly goofy names and many of the world’s great automobile races. 

The list of encounters includes Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, Hank Aaron, Carl Lewis, Tom Glavine, Stan Smith and, in a grandly remembered link to my childhood hero, a sideline meeting with Johnny Unitas. And, not to be forgotten during a decade in which I wandered away from sports to write about news, an interview with moonman Neil Armstrong minutes after the power and fury of the launch of the first space shuttle

My first professional encounter with golfers who played the game for money occurred in the 1970s at a charity tournament in my hometown of Spartanburg, S.C. Annually, several top players would detour from the tour to play at Lan-Yair Country Club (a defunct course that now is a high school campus). It was a major event in our town – the big time stopping briefly in an area generally bypassed by the major leagues of sport, and I was one of several reporters assigned to cover the happenings

One of my targets was Dave Hill, a winning player in the 1960s and 1970s and, by reputation, one of the tour’s most acerbic members. He was known to criticize courses, other players, officials and anyone who might cross him on any particular day. Carrying this knowledge, I approached him gingerly for an interview before the round, and he agreed. We talked for a while, and I got what I needed and then told him I had often heard that he was much less agreeable. “That’s all media stuff,” he said, confirming that, in general, I was part of the enemy force.

Also at that day’s event was Doug Sanders, who often wore golf clothing bearing colors not seen in the natural world. He also was a colorful entertainer. I watched him hit balls in the practice area. A young boy, curious about these bigger-than-life people, walked toward Sanders’ golf bag. “Hey, don’t touch that, kid,” Sanders said. “We pay alimony with those things.”

Along the way, I’ve been in press boxes and media centers in most of the 50 states, traveled with international motorsports star Juan Pablo Montoya in a caravan protected by gun-carrying motorcycle escorts in his native Colombia, walked the streets of Mexico City and Montreal, dodged rocks thrown by opposing fans while interviewing a football coach post-game, snowmobiled with Richard Petty in Wyoming and listened to countless renditions of the national anthem – some memorable, others butchered. There have been difficult days, including writing about the deaths of numerous auto racers (including the great Dale Earnhardt) and covering the shock of the Atlanta Olympic bombing in 1996.

Writing about sports is not the same as enjoying them from a fan’s perspective. Reporters often arrive at sports venues hours before the start and are there hours after the finish. And tight deadlines make for fun evenings. I covered the National League playoff’s deciding game between Pittsburgh and Atlanta in October 1992. With the hour turning late and deadline approaching, I wrote a column before game’s end. Then Sid Bream changed everything, lumbering home from second base on an unlikely hit by Francisco Cabrera to win the game for Atlanta. I wrote another column in about 10 minutes. Oddly, those often turn out better than the ones you actually have time to think about.

It’s been an interesting run. And it continues to be.

Now, let’s play some golf.

Mike Hembree

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist who has covered a variety of sports for numerous publications and websites, including USA Today, Fox Sports, TV Guide and The Greenville (S.C.) News. He has written 14 books and has won numerous writing awards at the national, regional and state levels. He is a seven-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.