Watson Has His Theories

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So just who is to blame for that impromptu Ryder Cup celebration by the U.S. players Sunday that made the European team hotter than afternoon tea?

Is it Justin Leonard, who made the crucial putt?

Is it Ben Crenshaw, who was the captain of the player who made the crucial putt?

Is it the U.S. fans, who were heckling everybody who wasn't wearing the same colorful shirt as the captain and the player who made the crucial putt?

Nice guesses, all, but let's go for something different. Former U.S. captain Tom Watson managed to come up with two interesting, new candidates: the European players themselves . . . and Johnny Miller, who was working for NBC.

"The crowd was incited by the European team," Watson said Tuesday. "The European players really slowed down the play. And Crenshaw even said in match play, there is no rule against that.

"But it was a tactic they admitted using. And the European players really managed to slow play down."

Watson said the slow play eventually got to everyone, including the fans, who singled out Colin Montgomerie as a target for verbal abuse.

Watson also said that Miller, NBC's golf analyst, made a critical on-air mistake that led to the celebration by many U.S. players to the left and in front of the 17th green, where Leonard's improbable 45-foot birdie putt all but clinched the Ryder Cup.

The celebration became an issue because it occurred before Jose Maria Olazabal had a chance to make his birdie putt from 30 feet to halve the hole with Leonard. After order was restored, Olazabal missed his putt and the U.S. thus clinched the Ryder Cup.

The U.S. staged the greatest last-day comeback in Ryder Cup history and defeated Europe, 14 1/2-13 1/2, winning the Cup for the first time in six years.

According to Watson, Miller said before Leonard's putt, that if Leonard made it, the U.S. would win the Cup.

Watson said many U.S. players and officials were monitoring Miller's commentary through headsets.

"As blunt as he was, he blew it," Watson said. "He said, 'If he makes this putt, the U.S. team wins.' What he meant to say was 'most likely will win.' "

Miller doesn't remember saying it that way.

"I said, 'This putt here could help clinch it,' " he said Tuesday. "I don't know. I think he took it out of context.

"For someone to even say what he said, well, doesn't sound like a guy from Stanford."

A replay of the videotape of the play-by-play on the 17th hole shows that the guy from BYU was right and the guy from Stanford was wrong.

Here's what Miller actually said: "If Leonard can somehow win this hole, the matches are over."

But Miller second-guessed himself about his comments on Saturday when he suggested Leonard was playing so poorly, he should not have replaced Jeff Maggert as Hal Sutton's four-ball partner. In fact, Miller said Leonard should have stayed at home and watched the matches on television.

"I probably shouldn't have said it," Miller said. "It just popped out. Bogey. Maybe double bogey. But the idea still was OK."

Miller's commentary angered, then inspired Leonard, Davis Love III and Jim Furyk, but Miller brushed aside criticism that he should avoid confrontations.

"I think they were looking for some motivation," Miller said. "I've been bulletin-board material."

Miller also disagreed with the notion that many members of the U.S. party were listening to him on the course while the matches were being played.

"They weren't tuned in to me," he said. "I can't think they were listening to what Johnny Miller was saying. I mean, do you think they cheered louder because they heard me through the headset?"

Watson served as captain at the 1993 Ryder Cup at the Belfry in England, the last time the U.S. team won. He made his comments during a Tuesday conference call after taping a match against Hale Irwin for "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf."

He also made it clear that he believes the entire celebration incident was overblown.

"The running on the green, no big deal," Watson said. "I equate it with Hank Aaron breaking the home run record and those two guys come out of the stands--they got caught up in the emotion. That was the same way our players felt."

Irwin, who played in five Ryder Cups, said he thinks there were too many people inside the ropes and that might have contributed to the incident.

"But the [celebration] was overdone," Irwin said. "That's not in keeping with the way the game should be played."

If you believe the British newspapers, the U.S. celebration has become an international disgrace. According to the AP, some British papers have quoted European captain Mark James as saying, "A lot of players will not be bothered competing in America again."

There was also a report in a British newspaper that said James recounted an incident in which a fan spat at his wife, Jane.

Martin Johnson of the Daily Telegraph took special umbrage at the Ryder Cup experience.

"The behavior of the American team, and not just on the 17th green, might have been juvenile, but it certainly wasn't surprising," Johnson wrote. "This is a country which is so insular that most Americans still believe that the Second World War was won by John Wayne."

Some European papers reported--erroneously--that U.S. supporters ran across Olazabal's line.

Michael Bonallack, the secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Scotland, was reported to have likened the atmosphere at the Country Club to a "bear pit."

Whatever it was, Watson expects something equal to it in 2001, when Europe hosts the Ryder Cup at the Belfry, in Sutton Coldfield, England.

"I think we're going to see a backlash at the Belfry in two years and we'd better be ready for it," he said.

Crenshaw returned home to Austin, Texas, late Monday afternoon and watched the Ryder Cup videotape. He said he thinks the celebration controversy won't be around much longer.

"We're getting blasted over there," Crenshaw said Tuesday. "I think it'll all blow over.

"Gosh, I hope that their players and everyone knows how sincere our apology is. Of course, we got caught up in the moment. We just lost it temporarily."

We'll see who finds it in 2001 at the Belfry.

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