With the captivating documentary War By The Shore, core golf fans will have one less thing to bemoan about Golf Channel's neglect of the game's rich history. In yet another shining example of the Comcast/NBC merger benefiting golf fans, this artfully produced film takes full advantage of NBC's original 1991 Ryder Cup footage and intermixes the highlights with historic photos and an extensive mix of interviewees to relive one of the most thrilling events the game has ever witnessed. Beyond retelling the story of an epic match, the 51-minute Ross Greenburg produced documentary makes an open-and-shut case for this as the transcendent event in the Ryder Cup. And maybe even in golf's place in the network pecking order.
Directed and edited by George Roy from a script by Steve Stern, the first nine minutes are devoted to the Jack Nicklaus-inspired 1979 switch to a competition against a team from Continental Europe. By 1987 when the Europeans dominated at Muirfield Village and Jose Maria Olazabal broke out in a celebratory dance across Muirfield Village's 18th green, there was "bad blood" and the arrogance was viewed as an "affront" to the Americans, Paul Azinger says in the film. A 1989 tie was remembered mostly for Captain Ray Floyd's "twelve best golfers in the world" remark at the opening ceremony. Throw in a testosterone boost from the Gulf War even though the U.S. and Europe were allies, and the stage was set for the 1991 event at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course.
The early week antics recalled in the Peter Coyote-narrated film are many, from footage of the opening dinner (everyone had so much hair and Sir Nick had such lovely highlights!), the Steve Pate limo accident (didn't need to see Pate shirtless though) and even the traditionally-diplomatic President George Bush giving a pro-American taped message shown at the dinner (he refers to the bi-annual matches…nice job presidential speechwriters!). It all eventually pales compared to the on-course dramatics: Seve Ballesteros coughing-in Chip Beck's backswing, the ball compression controversy between Azinger and Seve, and even Azinger suggesting teammate Corey Pavin's ode-to-the-troops camouflage hats "crossed the line" (now we know why the two eventual Captains weren't sharing many notes in 2010!). The combination of rarely seen footage, fresh memories and a nice cross section of players and media interviewed, makes for terrific television. (Included is Curt Sampson, who has a new book on the matches. Excerpt here.)
One pleasant surprise to even this viewer--who was glued to the whole thing live and still has VHS copies of all three days--was the reminder that this was a breakthrough television event. The first Ryder Cup aired on network television, NBC's Dick Ebersol made a bold decision to stay with Saturday's Fred Couples/Payne Stewart v. Olazabal/Ballesteros match a whopping 90 minutes into American prime time. The resulting match, played in stunning late light on an Ocean Course that was firm, infinitely more fascinating and aesthetically rugged back then, set the stage for Sunday's singles while introducing a new audience to emotion-fueled golf like no one had ever seen.
For the final day, the film glosses over the decision by Pate to not play due to the car accident injury and instead focuses on the two matches everyone involved will forever remember: Mark Calcaveccia's meltdown against Colin Montgomerie and the finale between Bernhard Langer and Hale Irwin. We learn that Monty was going to concede a short putt to Calc after the "smother top" into the par-3 17th hole's lake, but then something urged him to resist and Calc missed, sending the match to the home hole. Then there was that unforgettable finish between Irwin and Langer which, while getting the full treatment, doesn't feel quite as dramatic as it did in last Tuesday's re-airing of the original telecast. Still, it's a minor quibble as the Greenburg team packed a lot of into 51 minutes of gripping and never dull Ryder Cup memories.
War By The Shore airs Tuesday, September 25th at 9 p.m. ET on Golf Channel. Here's a preview:
The USGA's 2011 Herbert Warren Wind Book Award winner