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A RALLY THAT DIDN'T FALL SHORT

Golf is not, by nature, a team sport. That makes the Sunday outpouring of spirit and emotions that U.S. golfers rode to a Ryder Cup victory even more amazing than the scope of their nearly impossible comeback.

Down 10-6 and only four European points away from a third straight defeat, America's highly touted collection of golf pros looked all but beaten in the eclectic mix of formats and personalities that is the Ryder Cup.

Instead of the post-mortems U.S. golf fans might have expected on Monday, however, there were memories of a champagne-soaked celebration at the Brookline Country Club in Massachusetts -- a celebration that looked a lot more like the "Miracle on Ice" mob scenes in the Lake Placid Olympics a few years back than anything usually seen around the 19th hole.

Aside from a regrettable lapse in decorum and sportsmanship as Justin Leonard's 45-foot birdie putt all but clinched the Cup for the Americans, this was a sporting triumph as memorable as it was unlikely. On a day when most sports fans were glued to televised National Football League games, a collection of normally solitary links warriors both learned and taught a lesson in what it means to be a team.

Reputation and individual skills hadn't worked until then. The European Ryder Cup squad, mostly rookies leavened with a seasoning of veterans, had parlayed its own teamwork into a commanding lead as captain Ben Crenshaw's highly ranked U.S. group faltered individually.

But sometime on Saturday evening, the all-but-defeated U.S. squad became a team. Maybe it was Texas governor and presidential hopeful George W. Bush in the locker-room role of Knute Rockne, reading a passage penned by a defender of the Alamo; maybe it was Crenshaw's absolute refusal to rule his team out despite the odds.

Whatever the reason, emotion spilled over into Sunday and the U.S. golfers found strengths as a team that had eluded them as individuals. "We came up short because the Americans rode a great streak on the last day, simple as that," summed up European captain Mark James.

In light of those newfound team emotions, perhaps there's a partial excuse for the lapse by teammates and supporters who mobbed the previously winless Leonard, who had come from four holes down to take the lead. The lapse wasn't so much in the boisterous celebration -- both sides had been doing that on and off the course in this and other Ryder Cups -- as in the fact it carried across the green and across the lie of the putt Jose Maria Olazabal faced in an attempt to re-tie the match.

A contrite Crenshaw and Leonard offered sincere apologies after the match, and Payne Stewart reasserted sportsmanship by conceding a final long putt and his match to much-heckled Scots star Colin Montgomerie at day's end.

As unlikely as it may have seemed, Sunday brought a dazzling display of team competition on a Massachusetts golf course that was the equal of any seen in NFL's stadiums.

It was great to watch.

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