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On This Date in Sports September 26, 1999: The Putt Heard Around the World

The United States stages a historic comeback at the Ryder Cup, winning eight matches and halving another to beat Europe 14.5 to 13.5 at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Europe needed to win four matches on the final day to get a tie, which would have retained the cup. It was the largest final-day comeback in the 70-year history of the international team golf competition.

For years, Team USA dominated play in the Ryder Cup. The tournament would match golfers from the United States against golfers from the British Isles. For 50 years, the Americans dominated, winning all but three tournaments. This led to the reworking of the Ryder Cup in 1979, as all golfers from Europe would be teamed up to go against the golfer from the USA. In 1987, Europe broke through, ending a nearly 30-year drought. Over the next decade, the Ryder Cup became much more competitive over the next decade, with the United States and Europe battling back and forth. After Team USA won the Ryder Cup in 1991 and 1993, Europe won in 1995 and 1997. This meant Europe would retain the cup with a tie as they began competition at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.

When the contest began on Friday, the Americans, led by captain Ben Crenshaw, found themselves in an early hole. Captained by Mark James, Europe dominated the Afternoon four-ball matches, winning three and halving the other as they took an early 6-2 lead. Team USA played better on Saturday but could not gain ground as the morning foursomes and afternoon four-balls were played to a stalemate.

Down 10-6, the Americans faced a daunting task entering play on Sunday. No team at the Ryder Cup had ever overcome such a deficit in the final-day singles matches. Hoping to get some early momentum, United States Captain Ben Crenshaw had his top golfers go in the first matches. Meanwhile, Mark James, looking to clinch the cup, loaded his stars in the later matches. To win, the USA needed to win eight and halve another, while Europe just needed four wins to retain the Ryder Cup with a tie.

The American Captain’s match strategy paid off. Davis Love III dominated Jean van de Velde in the first match of the day, winning 6&5, as the French golfer known for his Open Championship collapse was never in the match. In match two, Tom Lehman beat Lee Westwood 3&2, taking over the contest on the back nine. Phil Mickelson also surged on the back nine, beating Jarmo Sandelin 5&3. By now, it was becoming clear something special was happening, as the Americans had leads across the board, creating a buzz. This led the usually staid golf crowd to get caught up in a nationalist swell and turned into a more aggressive football-type crowd. American golfers cheered loudly, while European golfers were heckled and jeered.

The American charge continued, as they won the first six matches, with Hal Sutton beating Darren Clarke 4&2, David Duval beating the previously unbeaten Jesper Parnevik 5&4, and Tiger Woods beating Andrew Coltart 3&2. In this game, Team USA had its first lead of the week at 12-10. Europe finally countered as Padraig Harrington won the final hole against Mark O’Meara, as the American golfer was stuck in a sand trap. After Steve Pate upset Miguel Angel Jimenez 2&1, the Americans began to sense victory.

The European's anchor leg would be tough to overcome, as Paul Lawrie rolled over Jeff Maggert 4&3, but Sergio Garcia struggled and was defeated 4&3 by Jim Furyk. This meant all the USA needed to do was half one of the last two matches on the course. However, both matches were not going in favor of Team USA, as the closer strategy of Mark James seemed to be on the way to paying off. One of the matches had Payne Stewart rallying to even the match on the 15th by winning three straight holes against Colin Montgomerie. Stewart’s fist pump would whip the crowd into a frenzy and seemed to unnerve the Europeans even further. Meanwhile, Justin Leonard, trailing by four holes with seven to play, was making a similar rally against Jose Maria Olazabal to even the match on the 15th hole.

On the 17th hole, Justin Leonard clinched victory for the United States, winning the hole with a 40-foot birdie putt. It would be the putt heard around the world as the Americans all watching now ran onto the green with their wives to celebrate stepping over the line set up by Olazabal. Once order was restored, Olazabal needed a 25-foot put to keep the match even missed, assuring that the match would at least be halved by Leonard clinching victory. With victory assured, Payne Stewart, in a show of sportsmanship, conceded the final hole to Montgomerie. Meanwhile, Leonard lying dormie with Olazabal considered the match to be halved since the Ryder Cup was already decided.

The American celebration was roundly criticized, though it seemed to bring new intensity and renewed life to the Ryder Cup. Sadly, it would be the final time Payne Stewart played in a golf tournament as he was tragically killed in a private air crash one month later. The Europeans have flipped the script on Team USA in the two decades since, winning nearly every tournament, including a 2012 comeback that matched that dramatic day in Brookline.