By John Manley
Sunday’s comeback by the United States team in the Ryder Cup at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., should give Europe’s best players plenty of incentive to finish the deed they let slip away when the two teams meet again in 2001. As for the Irish duo of Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington, they performed admirably, although they didn’t dominate their matches, certainly not when teeing off against Hal Sutton.
Clarke was paired with Lee Westwood throughout Friday and Saturday’s team matches. Their first encounter was with Jeff Maggert and Sutton in the alternate-ball format. The Europeans were two up after five holes, but that lead vanished three holes later after Sutton got fancy with his putter, making consecutive birdie putts from eight and nine feet. The teams stayed on even terms over the next five holes before the U.S. went up by two at 14. Two holes later, the U.S. had earned a point, having gone up by three with two holes to play.
Harrington went out with Spain’s Miguel Jiménez to oppose Davis Love III and Payne Stewart, with results reminiscent of Clarke’s match, but turned around. The U.S. duo had the two-hole advantage after the fifth, but that was erased when Harrington sank a nine-footer on the 10th green to even things up. The European side took a slight advantage that held until 17, when Love rolled in a 12-footer. They ended up splitting a point.
Friday afternoon saw Clarke and Westwood slay that two-headed monster of Tiger Woods and David Duval. Both teams kept it close throughout as neither ever pulled ahead by more than one. Whenever that happened, the opposition got it back on the next hole. Maybe Clarke somehow spirited Sutton’s putter away after his morning match, for he was the one scorching the greens in this best-ball format. He found the cup from 20 feet on number three and from 10 feet on 11. He then sank a clutch putt on 17 from five feet that put himself and Westwood up by one, a margin that prevailed after 18.
Harrington was not named by European captain Mark James to compete on Friday afternoon. Rather, he and Jiménez rested up for a confrontation with Woods and Steve Pate on Saturday morning. The Americans built a three-hole advantage by the time they hit the teebox on six. Three greens later, that lead was down to one, and was gone altogether after holing out on 11. But a long eagle putt by Woods on 14 restored the U.S. edge, which they held to the end.
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Clarke and Westwood spent Saturday morning roughing up Jim Furyk and Mark O’Meara. The Europeans had a three-hole lead after 16, at which point the match was conceded. The afternoon was a different story, when they faced Tom Lehman and Phil Mickelson. The latter went wild with the putter, finding the cup from 20 feet on number three and from 18 feet on the eighth. Clarke and Westwood won only one hole, with the match going to the Americans.
Head-to-head play on Sunday found Harrington up against O’Meara. The match was pretty much all Harrington’s although O’Meara wouldn’t let him shake loose. The Dubliner started well with a 20-foot birdie putt on the first green. He did likewise from six and 20 feet on four and five, respectively.
An eagle on number nine helped, as did some bad luck for O’Meara on 18. The match was square as they teed off, but O’Meara’s second shot out of a fairway bunker landed in sand just off the green. From a plugged lie, he then knocked his ball into the rough. After chipping unsuccessfully, he conceded the match to Harrington.
As for Clarke, he was burned again by Sutton, although it didn’t start out that way. Clarke chipped in from the rough, some 25 feet out, on the first hole, but Sutton came back on two with a 15-foot birdie putt. Clarke blew a two-footer on three and conceded the hole to Sutton, who only built on his advantage from there. His approach on six from just over 100 yards landed close enough to the pin for Clarke to concede the putt. Sutton was up by four after 12. Clarke got one back on 14, but Sutton won another hole on 16, thereby assuring himself the match, and a U.S. victory, 141/2 to 13 1/2.
The largely unheralded Sutton finished with the best record of the American players, winning three matches, losing one and halving another.
The Ryder cup resumes in 2001 on Irish soil, when the K Club in Kildare hosts to the best of Europe and the U.S.
Keith Nolan continues to apply upward pressure on the leaderboard. He enjoyed his best finish of the year, a tie for fifth place, in the Oregon Classic at the Shadow Hills Country Club in Eugene, Ore. Nolan was never really in the hunt for the top prize. Although he finished only four shots off the winner, Kelly Gibson, it was more a case of the leaders coming back to him at the end, than he making a late charge at them. In any event, his five-under-par 283 (73-70-71-69) was good for $10,313, and another huge shot of confidence.