Gentle Ben: Captain Crenshaw and the 1999 Ryder Cup

Have you ever had a good feeling about something?

Like many people this past weekend, I sat and watched the Ryder Cup. I’ve played golf since I was 12, so golf is a big part of my life. Watching the matches this past week took me back to the Fall of 1999. I was a senior living in a closet as a residence life advisor at Emory University. I woke up early Friday morning and watched all the golf of the Ryder Cup Friday and Saturday. Saturday night, I was disheartened; the U.S. Ryder Cup team was down 10 to 6. With the Sunday singles matches left, no team had ever come back from 2 points down, let alone 4 to win on the final day.

That Saturday night, I watched the US team captain, Ben Crenshaw, tell everyone in the press room:

“I’m gonna leave y’all with one thought and then I’m gonna leave. I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this. That’s all I’m gonna tell you”.

And he promptly got up and walked out.

If you just read the words, it would not have meant much. But, if you have ever watched that little snippet of the press conference, and watched the way Ben pointed and wagged his finger, saw his wink, and heard his tone-of-voice, you just knew, that he knew. You just knew the U.S. would win (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MspVQ0dmVVM, about 2:17 into the video)

Sunday morning, I saw my favorite player at the time, Tom Lehman, play first for the U.S., and made a putt I could not believe, running across the green and pumping his fist in the air after it sank (see his reaction about 3 minutes into the clip above). I had the same reaction in my room. And pretty much from then on, it was all over for Europe after that.

Davis Love, Phil Mickelson, Hal Sutton, Steve Pate, Jim Furyk, Tiger Woods, all won. David Duval, a pretty quiet guy, cheered on the crowd and put his fists in the air after he won, and put his hands up to his ears for the crowd to cheer louder. All these American flags went up on the leaderboard, and it looked like the European team was in shellshock. Late in the afternoon, Justin Leonard, down four through 11 holes, battled back to win 5 of the next 6 holes and on 17, hit the most improbable 48-foot putt, which gave the Americans an assurance of a victory and the biggest comeback ever (about 3:23 into the video)

What can you as a leader learn from this 1999 miraculous comeback? Ben Crenshaw had 12 individual players, who most weeks, are solely individual players playing golf for themselves. But, Ben was the perfect captain, the perfect leader for what was needed for that Ryder Cup. He got those 12 individual players to play as a team. He had a vision, and the players bought into that vision. In the team meeting Saturday night, Ben had the players talk about how important the goal to win the Ryder Cup for their team and country was for each player. The golf shirts on Sunday, these ugly red shirts with pictures of past American Ryder Cup winning teams plastered all over the shirts, were Ben’s idea, so that players would remember that they were playing to accomplish the common goal of winning the Ryder Cup back.

Ben having a good feeling about Sunday was the quintessential example of his vision – he voiced his vision to the world, and deep down, you could see and hear that he believed in it, and got his players to believe in it as well. On the 17th green at The Country Club at Brookline, after Justin Leonard holed the putt and Jose Maria Olazabal missed his to ensure the US of winning the Ryder Cup, Ben got on his hands and knees and kissed the green. Much to the dismay of my residents, I started yelling and screaming, it was unbelievable.

Ben’s vision played out on that Sunday, the U.S. won. He asked his team to believe, and they did. After the victory, Ben said, barely holding it together (about 3:36 into the video) “I never stopped believing. I never stopped believing in these guys, I’m not kidding you, they are the greatest guys I’ve ever seen in my life”

As a leader, you must have a vision, speak it, trust it, be passionate about it, communicate it, and live it. Don’t hide your vision, because if you have a good feeling about something, those who look to you for leadership will feed off of your confidence and your vision, and just imagine what can happen.

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About Bill Gentry

William (Bill) is currently a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and also an adjunct assistant professor at several colleges and universities. In applying his research into practice, Bill’s current focus is on helping leaders who are managing for the first time in their life. His research interests are in multisource (360) research, survey development and analysis, leadership and leadership development across cultures, leader character and integrity, mentoring, managerial derailment, multilevel measurement, and in the area of organizational politics and political skill in the workplace. He received a BA from Emory University and an MS and PhD in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of Georgia. Follow Bill on Twitter: Lead_Better
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One Response to Gentle Ben: Captain Crenshaw and the 1999 Ryder Cup

  1. Ben’s ‘call out’ on Saturday night on the US comeback is one of the greatest ever. I think of it often. He just had a gut feel his group would do it. I would have loved to have been a fly on the while on Saturday night listening to his speech to the team.
    The Ryder in general has been a great example of how talented individuals (the US) can lose to a united team (Europe).

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