If the matter were a comparison between the careers of Jack Nicklaus and Justin Leonard, the outcome would be lopsided. But as Bobby Thomson can attest, a single, epic play never fades, providing the defining snapshot of an event for the ages. The respective heroes of the 1986 Masters and the 1999 Ryder Cup, Nicklaus and Leonard were at the center of two of the most dramatic, unpredictable days in golf history, at two of the sport’s most venerable addresses. The final-nine action at Augusta National Golf Club in 1986 was so tension-filled that even today, it is possible to watch replays and still not be sure that Nicklaus winds up with his sixth green jacket.
Similarly, the drama and pressure during the singles matches at The Country Club built to such a crescendo that the impromptu American reaction to Leonard’s improbable putt on the 17th green was as explosive as the opening of a bottle of
—gallons of which were poured in the ensuing celebration. Champagne
Both heroes’ turns were unlikely. In 1986, Nicklaus was 46, six years removed from his previous major win. But he somehow overtook Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman with a turn-back-the-clock back-nine 30 that seemed the result of a Mephistophelean deal.
Leonard’s prospects looked bleak after the first two days of the 1999 Ryder Cup. He played so poorly that commentator Johnny Miller suggested that he go home and watch on TV. Not that his teammates were faring much better. Going into the final day, the
U.S.trailed Europeby four points—a chasm of a margin.
came back, as did Leonard, from a four-down deficit, in his next-to-last singles match against Jose Maria Olazabal. As the long day was winding down and the Matches were tied, no script could have set the scene better: After being diffused throughout The Country Club all day, the focus of the entire Ryder Cup arrived on the 17th green and Leonard’s 40-foot birdie attempt. U.S.
This denouement is what gives the 1999 Ryder Cup a sliver of an advantage over the 1986 Masters, where even after taking the lead on the 17th hole, Nicklaus had to play the final hole, then wait for Norman to birdie the 17th then bogey the 18th before he could claim the title.
Other elements, like the great players swept away by the occasion and captain Ben Crenshaw’s rambling yet prescient Saturday-night soliloquy—“I have a good feeling about this”—give the Cup another nod.
The only negative is the Americans’ celebration—rushing the green ahead of Olazabal’s own birdie attempt. But no matter which side of that argument you fall on, there is no debating the drama, significance and legacy of Leonard’s putt.