Nobody is perfect, and Europe - England in particular - has nothing to teach the United States in the matter of fan misbehaviour at major sporting events. But on the 17th green of the Country Club on Sunday, when Justin Leonard sank a 45-footer and began a dance of joy that ended with virtually the entire US team and their immediate families cavorting on the green while Jose Maria Olazabal waited to play his own putt to halve the hole, the game of golf appeared to be taking a big step into a different dimension.
The fruits of the US team's immoderate - and, most scandalously, premature - celebration may well blossom at The Belfry in two years' time, when Europe will attempt to regain the Ryder Cup. Emotions will run high.
Videos will be replayed, the sense of grievance will be cranked up, and some European golf fans may persuade themselves that any measures taken in support of their players will be retrospectively justified by the behaviour of the US team last Sunday in Brookline.
When Leonard stroked his 45- footer - the putt heard around the world, according to the Boston Globe - up the ledge towards the cup at the 17th, he was flying on the wings of a recovery that had taken him from four strokes down at the 11th to all square at the 15th. This was the ninth singles match of the day, and as the putt rolled up a ledge and across the green the US had already won eight of them, giving the team 14 points. When Leonard's ball dropped, it meant that Olazabal had to sink his own putt in order to go into the final hole at parity. If he missed, Leonard would be one stroke up with one to play, and certain to earn the half-point that would win the cup for his team, providing the climax to a extraordinary day-long crescendo.
Many of the US team were gathered behind the green, clustered around the captain, Ben Crenshaw, and his assistants, the former Ryder Cup players Bill Rogers and Bruce Lietzke, along with various caddies, wives and girlfriends.
There was Tom Lehman, a captain's pick who had been sent out at 10.30 that morning as the team's point man, patiently and methodically destroying Lee Westwood to register the first kill for the US. There was Davis Love III, whose swift destruction of poor Jean Van de Velde had given him the time to walk the preceding six holes with Leonard. There was Tiger Woods, conqueror of the admirable Andrew Coltart. There was David Duval, the silent man who finally understood what the Ryder Cup was about and used his new-found motivation as a weapon with which to obliterate Jesper Parnevik. There was Phil Mickelson, who had gained his yearned-for revenge over Jarmo Sandelin.
And there was Hal Sutton, whose dogged contribution in the early phases of the tournament was credited by the team with keeping their hopes alive.
There had been a bit of a dress rehearsal a few minutes earlier when Mark O'Meara was mobbed at the same hole after sinking a downhill six- footer while Padraig Harrington still had a putt to make. But O'Meara gave Harrington his putt, so the euphoric incursion had no significance.
When Leonard's putt dropped, the full performance took place. The American exploded with delight and raced along the green with arms raised to embrace his team colleagues, and within seconds the area was awash with with people.
Meanwhile Olazabal waited for the furore to subside, wondering how he was ever going to manage to concentrate on a putt following roughly the same line.
"It was an ugly picture to see," the Spaniard said afterwards. "It's not the kind of behaviour anyone expects. I don't want to make a whole thing out of this, but it shouldn't have happened. We're playing a match, and we're trying to show respect for each other. I understand there were a lot of emotions going on, but I don't think it was the right thing to do."
More than 300 yards back, Colin Montgomerie was watching from the 17th tee, waiting to play his drive. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he said. "I thought they'd all just walk off to the 18th tee. I couldn't believe it when the green cleared and he was left on his own to have a putt.
"Very, very difficult for everyone concerned."
Olazabal missed it, of course, his putt sliding by on the low side. And the US celebrated all over again, Crenshaw falling to the ground to kiss the turf. It didn't matter to anyone but Olazabal himself that he went on to win the 18th with a birdie three and thereby halve the match. "You try to hold on the best you can," he said. "We are all professionals, and I think I proved it on 18, even though it was too late."
Later, even in their triumph, the Americans were mostly embarrassed by what they had done. "We do know what happened," Crenshaw said. "We do apologise sincerely. There really wasn't any call for that. The celebration started spilling over and it really was not something that we need to be proud of and we've apologised."
"What happened was unfortunate," Lehman said. "There never was any ill intent on anybody's part. We were very excited. And obviously in retrospect we probably wish we all would have jumped up and down in place instead of running down the side of the green. But I'm not going to apologise for being excited."
"I'll take the blame," Leonard interjected. "I shouldn't have run off the green. I should have just calmly walked over to my team-mates, which would have been very hard to do. So if you're looking to point a finger, please point it at me. And I do apologise for that."
"I'd like to stick in my two cents' worth," Steve Pate said. "It was a little bit out of line, and we're sorry it happened, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the outcome."
No European thought it had, but that was not the point. Leonard went to some lengths to explain that he had run off the green to the side, and that he and his colleagues had not committed the cardinal sin of crossing the line of Olazabal's putt. But they had crossed their opponent's line of thought in such a way that they might have done less damage had they dug a trench between his ball and the cup.
They were showing emotion, which is what the mass media require of today's sportsmen and women. Golfers are coming under the same pressures as anyone else, and they are beginning to oblige. Tiger Woods, who pumps his fists at every small success, is worth tens of millions more than David Duval, who hides his emotions. And Woods's excessive gestures - excessive, that is, by the game's traditional standards -- are catching on. Just watch the way young Sergio celebrates.
This is what the sponsors want, because it creates an image that sells shoes and shirts. And it will change the game at the highest level, for better or worse, just as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe changed professional tennis.
When the golfers were back in the clubhouse, and the celebrations were in full swing, Ben Crenshaw took Justin Leonard aside in the locker room and told him the history of the 17th hole at the Country Club. About how Francis Ouimet, the 20-year-old local amateur, had finally caught Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, the English professionals, with a 20-foot putt on the 17th at the US Open in 1913, and how Ouimet, accompanied by a 10-year- old caddie, had sunk another putt of similar length at the same hole in the play-off to earn himself a historic victory and a parade back to the clubhouse on the shoulders of the crowd.
The emotion of the thought had Crenshaw in tears, not for the first time over the weekend. He was also thinking about his own father, who died earlier this year and who had followed him around the Country Club in 1968, when Crenshaw competed in the US junior championships as a 16-year- old. He could still see his father, he said, walking the 1st and the 18th, where the old trotting track had stood.
Great memories. The stuff of the most beautiful sporting legends. And now Crenshaw, who sent his men out in shirts bearing sepia- tinted photographs of their predecessors, has bought himself a new place in the game's history.
Sadly, however, posterity's verdict on the legacy of the 1999 Ryder Cup may involve more than just the oft-told tale of a heroic American comeback.
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