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Curran: Epic '99 Ryder Cup in Brookline was the debut of the Boston sports fan

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Tiger Woods

The U.S. Open is back in Brookline. For the first time since 1988, our national championship will be played at The Country Club.

Let’s pause one second to just note that it’s THE COUNTRY CLUB. All lesser clubs that follow can bother with naming their places after birds, trees or towns. This joint is "THE" Country Club. End of discussion.

So it’s steeped in history. Founded in 1894. Donald Ross course. One of five original clubs that comprised the USGA.

It’s best known in golf circles for the mind-boggling accomplishment of 20-year-old amateur Francis Ouimet. In 1913, Ouimet, who grew up in a house across the street from the 17th green (remember that green), won the U.S. Open. Just an unfathomable achievement that’s been commemorated in books and film.

Hole-by-hole breakdown of The Country Club through the eyes of a caddie

But while that U.S. Open and the one in 1988 (won by Curtis Strange) are reference points for this year’s event, the last time the eyes of the golf universe fell on Brookline was 1999. And the world got an eyeful.

On these genteel grounds where Brahmins and the bluebloods did roam, all hell broke loose on a Sunday in September. And by the time it was done, The Country Club was being described as a "bear pit" and a New York Times op-ed was lamenting the “rise of the golf hooligan.”

It was one of the most memorable days in golf history as a U.S. team that included Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Payne Stewart -- given no chance that Saturday night -- erased a massive deficit on the final day and overwhelmed the Europeans.


They did that with a lot of help from the 25,000 fans prowling the grounds who gave the Euros a taste of the treatment the Golden State Warriors enjoyed this past week at TD Garden.

In a way, it was kind of an introduction to everyone of what would follow in the next millennium. Boston -- the Athens of America, the Hub of the Universe -- was also home to perhaps the loudest, most boorish, partisan, devoted, full-throated fans on either side of the Atlantic.

The 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club. Your golf tournament ... FROM BAWSTIN!

“I can’t tell you how many people I heard at that time walking around -- and this is so Boston -- walking around saying, "FRANCIS OUIMET!!! FRANCIS OUIMET!!!," recalled Michael Holley, then a columnist for The Boston Globe. "And like a year earlier, we’d be "Who?" Francis Ouimet?"

The Boston sports scene at the end of the 20th century was pretty bleak.

"There was not a lot of positive stuff going on with the four teams," said another Globe columnist, Bob Ryan. "The Patriots were in the deteriorating Pete Carroll Era which got less successful each succeeding year. The Red Sox were stuck in neutral. This was the (Rick) Pitino Era. It was on its way to a real ugly ending. And I honestly don’t remember anything about the Bruins at that time."

"Fans were very cynical," said Holley. "It was just an atmosphere with professional sports where it was like, ‘When is anyone gonna win around here? Does anybody know what they’re doing? What’s going on?’"

At the time, Boston was still "a baseball town" and the self-image of long-suffering Red Sox fans was one of cranky, put-upon misery.

"The self-pity of the Red Sox saga," said Ryan. "This is the time when I was saying Boston fans are the most narcissistic in America. They don’t think anything bad ever happened to anyone else. I said, ‘Go talk to your cousin or former roommate in Cleveland. Or go talk to somebody in Chicago, a Cubs fan.

"But people here internalized everything and personalized everything. I often said that when that ball went through Buckner’s legs in 1986, people said, ‘He did that just to eff me!’"

"I couldn’t believe the self-absorption of the fans and sheer narcissism," he continued. "And the Red Sox thing was growing and growing, metastasizing, and ‘86 was so painful. It was the fourth time they’d lost a seventh game and a lot of people were having a hard time living with that."  

Boston sports fans were jonesing for big events. The 1999 All Star Game at Fenway whet everyone’s appetite for the spotlight. Home Run Derby into and over the Green Monster. Ted Williams wheeling onto the field before the game, creating a scene in which the best players in the game looked like little kids sharing a moment with their idol.


Now the Ryder Cup, with all its jingoistic emotion, was coming to town. And golf was in the prime of the Tiger Bump. The 23-year-old Woods’ captivating rise since turning pro in 1996 made golf cool.

And yet, he wasn’t even the No. 1 player in the world in 1999. That was David Duval. He was on the U.S. team, as were a still major-less Phil Mickelson, Payne Stewart, Justin Leonard and Davis Love.

Europe had 19-year-old Sergio Garcia (aka El Nino), Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and Lee Westwood. Way less decorated. And, with the exception of Montgomerie, way more likable.  

We had all the best players in the world, which Stewart helpfully pointed out, saying, "On paper, they should be caddying for us."

Along with that feeling of superiority came grumbling from U.S. players that they should be paid to play in the Ryder Cup. Duval took point on that assertion and -- while he wasn’t at all wrong -- criticism of the greedy, spoiled Americans was swift.

And it came from the Euros as well with the easily detestable Montgomerie, saying, "It's only the Americans who claim money should be involved. Not one European I have spoken to wants to be paid. We should play for flags, not money."

"The storyline had been set," said Ryan. "The Euros were the good guys. The Euros were the Kumbaya guys. The Euros were one for all and all for one and the Americans were the separate cab guys. That was the storyline before it started. Then when it gets going it’s exacerbated."

The matches began on a perfect Friday morning in September. By the end of the day, Europe was up 6-2 with the drinkin’ buddies pair of Englishmen -- Westwood and Darren Clarke -- bonking the pairing of Woods and Duval in the alternate shot match in the afternoon.

In the morning, Woods and Tom Lehman lost to Garcia and Jesper Parnevik. Woods, of course, would later marry Parnevik’s nanny, Elin Nordegren. Story for another day. Meanwhile, Mickelson gagged a key putt and Garcia spent the day air-humping and fist-pumping every time he made a shot, oblivious to the very excellent memory of Boston sports fans, our ability to hold a grudge and the maxim "What goes around comes around."

The European fans who’d come over to watch were reveling in what they were seeing.

"My editor, Don Skwar, just said, ‘Just take in the scene. Every day go to as many places, go to parties, go around Brookline, do whatever you need to do to capture the scene of the thing,’" said Holley. "So Day 1, I’m thinking, ‘OK, what’s the big deal?’

"Until I met a group of folks from the UK. They were very nice. But they were talking so much trash. And they were bragging and saying, ‘This is exactly what we thought.’ And so I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. You can’t talk about my country like this.’ My patriotic urges kicked in."


Patriotism and partisanship didn’t get sparked on Saturday. The deficit stayed at four, 10-6 by the close of play.

Woods lost for the third time in four matches. Garcia got even more obnoxious. U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw’s team was dead in the water. Still, he raised a finger Saturday night and said this as he closed his press conference: "Imma leave you all with one thought then we’ll leave. I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this, that’s all I’m gonna tell ya."


No team had ever come back from more than two points down during the final day’s 12 singles matches. The U.S. was down twice that. The tenor at The Country Club that evening?

"It most resembles the Red Sox ’04, being down 0-3 and walking out of Fenway Park having lost 19-8 and I’m writing a column saying, ‘You people happy now? You wanted the Yankees,’" recalled Ryan. "Then we all know what happened.

"Well in this case, it was total doom and gloom from Day One. We got down the first day. Things got no better on Saturday and Ben Crenshaw exuding optimism at the press conference and we’re all laughing. Stop it."

By mid-morning on Sunday, the laughing had morphed into arched eyebrows.

"I remember walking out there and seeing the big board with matches in progress and the first six matches were in red (meaning the U.S. was leading)," said Ryan. "Then I remember the reverberations of the sounds around the course. The cheering around the course. You knew something good was happening for the Americans and you started to get the feeling of, ‘Oh, this is starting to get interesting.’

"I started to get why the Ryder Cup was such a big deal," said Holley. "We started to learn as it was going along. We were getting crushed and now, here comes this comeback. And everybody got into it. That was the atmosphere. ‘You’re not gonna beat us! You’re not gonna beat us on our home turf!’ It really was not a golf crowd. It was a Patriots crowd. It was a Bruins crowd. Red Sox crowd. It was loud."

The grounds of The Country Club aren’t sprawling. And with the adjacent homes and rock outcroppings all around the course, spectators are limited in where they can gather. So we were thronging.

Ben Crenshaw
Getty Images
Boston fans at The Country Club swarm around Ben Crenshaw after a dramatic U.S. victory at the 1999 Ryder Cup.

"The crowd is what stands out to me," said Holley. "The size of the crowd. The growing volume of the crowd throughout the day. And I remember just walking the course and hearing people give updates of what we needed. I know it sounds corny but it really was a unifying experience to have people from all over the crowd talking about what we needed to knock off Europe.


"It was witnessing a comeback but it’s golf so it doesn’t happen in five minutes," said Holley. "It was over the course of a couple hours this avalanche building and building until it got to that point and we saw the shot."

The "shot" would be Justin Leonard’s putt on the 17th hole which would clinch the Cup for the Americans. We’ll get to that in a moment. But the entire comeback was infused by the Boston crowd which only needed a little something to get excited about in order for the wick to be lit.

Once the scoreboard began to be painted red, we kinda lost our minds.

"It was the most disgraceful and disgusting day in the history of professional golf," European vice-captain Sam Torrance would later write in his autobiography. "The spectators behaved like animals and some of the American players, most notably Tom Lehman, acted like madmen."

"The persistent baying of the spectators was awful," complained legendary British golfer Michael Bonallack. "Every time we missed a putt there was prolonged baying, and huge roars of approval when their team did something. It was intimidating for our players and it was dreadful just being among the crowd, hearing them yell things like 'Get in the trees' when we hit a shot. It was noisier and far worse than being at a soccer match."

Andrew Coltart, a Scottish golfer locked in a singles match with Woods, thought he got hosed by the volunteers on a tee shot.

It was dreadful just being among the crowd, hearing them yell things like 'Get in the trees' when we hit a shot. It was noisier and far worse than being at a soccer match.

British golfer Michael Bonallack on the 1999 Ryder Cup crowd

"I pulled it left over the hill at the ninth," he explained. "The crowd couldn’t go down the left, they could go halfway down the right and then cross over, so there were marshals on the hill and they were telling us the ball had gone careering on into the trees 40 yards ahead.

"I know how far I don’t hit it but you are following these people’s instructions who have volunteered to be neutral. And when the five minutes was up it just so happened that an American cameraman was standing on it or happened to stand on it. It was only a couple of yards off the fairway. So I had to go back to the tee." 

"The Bear Pit." That’s what Bonallack called Brookline that day. European captain Mark James would later use that name for his book.

There were some hilariously Boston anecdotes from the day. British journalist Michael Aitken shared these two:

"I was standing adjacent to the first tee at The Country Club as (Paul) Lawrie prepared to hit the opening shot. The American referee approached the Scots (Lawrie was with Montgomerie) and told them he was Scotch. ‘That’s a drink, Scotch,’ barked Monty. Obviously nervous and desperate to get the ball into play, Lawrie was again blindsided when the man produced pictures of his grandchildren. Eventually, the champion golfer blocked the official -- and his drive.


Finnish golfer Jarmo Sandelin couldn’t find his ball marker on the third green. As he fumbled in his pockets, a fan yelled, "Jahhhhhhmo… need a coin?"

Sandelin nodded.

"A cascade of coins from the crowd then descended upon him," wrote Aitken. "As Jim 'Bones' McKay, caddie for Mickelson at the time, told The Boston Globe, ‘I’m telling you, it was raining coins.’ Mickelson two-putted for his par and Sandelin missed his putt." 

The lightning rod for the vitriol, though, was Monty. Why? Mainly, because he was rabbit-eared and reacted to everything he heard with glares and finger points. Then, when he delivered great play -- as he often did -- he’d stare into the crowd. But also because he looked a little like Mrs. Doubtfire and he was an easy target.

"The focal point was Colin Montgomerie," said Ryan. "This was the peak of Monty’s American fame and people were getting introduced to him and his whole persona. He was the bete noire. He was the punching bag. And people did not exactly conduct themselves with dignity with the way they were treating Colin Montgomerie."

Montgomerie and Stewart were the last match on the course. They were right behind the match of Leonard and Olazabal.

By the time those two reached the 17th green -- right across from Francis Ouimet’s house -- all Leonard had to do was halve his match to ensure the U.S. would retain the cup. If Leonard won 17, the Cup was almost assuredly staying here. Almost.

Leonard drained a 45-foot putt. A mob scene on the green followed, oblivious to the fact Olazabal still could make his long birdie, tie the hole and send the match to be determined on 18.

But the Americans’ catharsis at that moment -- believing they’d dodged a humiliating defeat and all the criticism that would follow while coming from behind in unprecedented fashion -- spilled out too soon.

All day long, the crowd behavior and players like Duval and Lehman goading them on was bad enough.

But for the entire American team -- players, coaches and spouses -- to dance on the green like they were at a wedding and the DJ just put on "Shout"? Too much.

This was how the Los Angeles Times framed it the next day.

Americans may remember it as one of the great moments in golf, but the U.S. victory over Europe on Sunday in the Ryder Cup was portrayed Monday on this side of the Atlantic as an orgy of jingoism and poor sportsmanship.

"Joy of Ugly Victory Brings Out the Ugly American," said the Guardian, one of Britain’s most sober newspapers. The tabloid Daily Mirror declared the "United Slobs of America" the winners of the three-day competition in Brookline, Mass.


"Let us be painfully honest about it," columnist Matthew Norman wrote in the London Evening Standard. "Yes, they are repulsive people, charmless, rude, cocky, mercenary, humorless, ugly, full of nauseatingly fake religiosity, and as odious in victory as they are unsporting in defeat.

"The only good thing to be said in favor of the American golfers, in fact, is that if nothing else, they are better than the Europeans."

"Golf is a very prim and proper sport," said Ryan, who watched the proceedings on 17 alongside Michael Jordan who was cruising the grounds in an NBC golf cart. "Golf has more etiquette stuff than anyone else and it takes itself very seriously. ... I just laugh at all that nonsense. Certainly, the American reaction didn’t follow protocol. Of course not. But I mean come on. That’s a bit of a hyperbolic reaction."

Ryan’s stance on what happened can best be summed up this way: Sorry, not sorry.  

"We did not expect the Americans to have the Sunday afternoon that they had," he explained. "And the whole dynamics of it all, I rate it as one of the five best days I’ve ever had covering sports. It was so much fun to write, so much fun to be a part of. I look back with great fondness on that day."

Boston should too. Because if that Ryder Cup were at Torrey Pines in San Diego or Whistling Straits in Wisconsin or anywhere other than Boston, Mass., things would probably not have turned out the way they did.

"A Boston sports fan can empower you," said Holley. "And a Boston sports fan can kind of delude you. You think you’re capable of anything. And that may not be the case. But that’s what happens in Boston. A lot of times for us we’ve seen it since 2001. That home crowd has got your back and then it turns out in your favor.

"The Red Sox at home have done some amazing things," he added. "The Patriots at home have done some amazing things and so I think that crowd had that same element, that same hopefulness. ‘You can do it! Who cares about these guys!’ They make you think the opposition is a bunch of JAGs."

Few sports journalists are as well-traveled and prolific as Ryan. Now or ever. He’s a legend.

"I’m serious: That was one of my all-time favorite days," he said. "I rank it in my top five. And it just came out of nowhere. I was sharing the doom and gloom with everyone else and we were getting our ass kicked. Everything was going to script. The Euros were doing it right. We were doing it wrong. And then everything got completely flipped.

"It was a great day to be a writer, it was a great day to be a sportscaster, it was a great day to be a Boston sports fan, an American sports fan."


The 2022 U.S. Open won’t be anything like that Ryder Cup. Nothing could be. But before the trophy’s hoisted on Sunday, it’s a pretty good bet that the crowd will be a factor. Somehow. Same as it ever was.


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