2010 Ryder Cup
No one in Ryder Cup history played with more intensity than Arnold Palmer (left) and Jack Nicklaus. (Getty Images)

Palmer, Nicklaus and the history of the Ryder Cup

Of the many chapters that would be needed to chronicle the respective achievements of golfing greats Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, at least one should be devoted to their bond with the Ryder Cup.

By Paul Trow, Special to

They are two of the greatest players the sport of golf has ever known, and their careers overlapped famously in the 1960s and '70s when they represented two-thirds of Mark McCormack's brilliantly marketed "Big Three" brand, along with Gary Player.

They peaked at a time when the United States couldn't put a foot wrong -— at least when it came to squashing their transatlantic cousins in Ryder Cup matches. Their records in the biennial contest are among the best on either side. And yet, even though they played a total of 60 matches in 12 appearances between them, they only actually partnered with each other three times.

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus is a pairing that was surely made in heaven, at least at the time they were lording over their contemporaries with almost monotonous regularity. Unlike the troubled yoking of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at Oakland Hills Country Club in 2004, the two rivals seemed to enjoy their association; unfortunately, as far as the Ryder Cup was concerned, it turned out to be a fairly brief one.

They had already won the Canada Cup, known today as the World Cup, four times before their first outing together in the afternoon fourball matches on the second day of the 1971 Ryder Cup at Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis, Mo. On that occasion, they made hard work of seeing off Peter Townsend and Harry Bannerman by one hole.

Their next victims -— at Muirfield two years later —- were Maurice Bembridge and Eddie Polland, who were roundly thumped 6&5 in the morning foursomes on the first day. But Nicklaus and Palmer came down to earth with a bump in the afternoon fourballs, losing 3&1 to Bembridge and Brian Huggett, and were promptly split up for good.

2010 Ryder Cup
Arnold Palmer, here in the 1961 Ryder Cup at
Royal Lytham, finished with a 22-8-2 career
record. (Getty Images)
Both men captained the United States twice in the Ryder Cup —- Palmer in 1963, when he was also a playing member of the side, and 1975, while Nicklaus took the reins in 1983 and 1987. The records suggest that Palmer was perhaps the more successful skipper, with victories of 23-9 and 21-11 to his name, while Nicklaus scraped home 14 ½-13 ½ at PGA National in 1983 and then suffered the disappointment of presiding over America"s first home defeat at Muirfield Village, to a strong Team Europe, four years later.

Of course, by then the Ryder Cup was a different animal —- a full-blooded confrontation between two evenly matched teams, far removed from the one-sided affairs it often tended to be when the European opposition hailed only from Great Britain and Ireland.

However, listening to Palmer speak on the subject, it is clear that the same fundamental issues remain today that were uppermost in his mind during his years as Captain.

"It was vitally important to make the players realize that they were representing their country," he says. "Some of them thought they should be paid to play in the Ryder Cup, but I thought that was very distasteful, especially for an event that took place on the international stage. The important thing was maintaining good relations between the countries.

"I feel that the Ryder Cup itself is very special and I have always had a great deal of pride that I was representing my country and that to me was probably the most important thing you could do. That's why during my time as Captain I made a point of making sure my players were riled up with this same feeling.

"Being made Captain in 1963 was a huge thrill for me, especially as it was only my second Ryder Cup as a player. I was pretty nervous about the whole situation of being Captain as well as playing and having responsibility for the other players on the team. Several of them were much older than me, like Julius Boros, and the others were my own peers, like Dow Finsterwald. To have them on the team and be playing at the Atlanta Athletic Club [now known as East Lake Golf Club] where Bobby Jones spent most of his life playing golf was a tremendous honor."

Nicklaus also looks back with pride on his two tilts at captaincy. "The Ryder Cup in 1983 would be difficult to top, for me. It was staged near my home in South Florida at PGA National and it was an assemblage of great talent on both sides that was like a "Who's Who?" of golf. The U.S. had players like Watson, Crenshaw, Floyd, Kite, Stadler, Strange, Zoeller and Peete, and the Europeans had Seve [Ballesteros], Faldo, Woosie [Ian Woosnam], Sam Torrance and Bernhard Langer, to name but a few. The teams were tied 8-8 after two days and still tied after the first 10 singles matches. Coming down the stretch, I watched my players bond together to win. There was Lanny Wadkins' wedge shot to about a foot at the final hole to seal the one-point victory, and me running out to playfully kiss the divot.

"And then, of course, being able to host a Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village Golf Club in 1987 was satisfying on many levels. Not only was I able to captain at my home club in Ohio, but it was the first time the event was financially a success. I like to think we helped pave the way for the modern-day Ryder Cup, and we are proud of that."

Financial success or not, the Ryder Cup was always a blast, even for the old timers. "The contestants, by their very identity, are going to make it memorable. Every single one of my Ryder Cups was memorable, and I loved them all," Palmer says, adding mischievously, "I particularly remember Brian Barnes beating Jack Nicklaus twice in one day (in morning and afternoon singles) when I was Captain at Laurel Valley in 1975. That was a quite remarkable outcome. Unique, really, considering Jack's standing in the game at the time. Despite that, we still won, so you could say we dodged the bullet."

2010 Ryder Cup
When Jack Nicklaus (right) conceded a short
putt to Tony Jacklin on the 18th green at
Royal Birkdale in 1969, it became one of
the greatest examples of sportsmanship
in history. (Getty Images)
Not surprisingly, Nicklaus has fonder memories of the 1969 contest, which ended as a 16-16 tie thanks to his exceptional act of sportsmanship in conceding Tony Jacklin's short putt on the 18th green at Royal Birkdale. "I think I would be hard-pressed to pick just one personal experience from my years of competing in the Ryder Cup," he admits. "I was fortunate to play on six teams; however, because of the way the rules were at the time, I was not eligible for the Ryder Cup until almost four years into my professional career. So when I made the team for the first time in 1969, there was a great sense of pride in playing for my country.

"Any time you have the privilege and honor of representing your country, it is enormously special. That's why I think having golf in the Olympics is so significant. For me, it was a wonderful personal experience each and every time. As for some highlights, I think the final-day match with Tony Jacklin, who was a national hero in Great Britain at the time, would be among them.

"Off the course, I think a highlight would be my meeting with Lord Derby [then the president of the British and Irish PGA] in 1977, where we discussed the need to include all of Europe in the matches to create a competitive balance. Without the inclusion of the European players, I think the U.S. would still be dominating and the Ryder Cup wouldn't have gained the worldwide stature it enjoys today."

Palmer agrees that that conversation, which was followed up by a formal letter from Nicklaus to Lord Derby, marked a watershed in the Ryder Cup's fortunes.

"The fact that they made it a European team has changed the competition radically, not just in the extension of the number of players who can be eligible. It's certainly made it a lot more competitive and also more difficult to predict who's going to win. It's also created a lot more excitement when it comes to team selection—for example, who's going to get the Captain's wild cards? Also, nowadays the Captains have up to four assistants whereas in my day as Captain you had no one. That, in itself, makes everything more complicated."

Nicklaus, however, feels too much mystique now surrounds the subject of captaincy. "There has been too much emphasis placed on the role and importance of the Captain. It is a great honor to be named Captain, but I believe the Ryder Cup is about the players, the respective organizations, and the overriding goodwill. The Captain is an honorary position, awarded to players for their past success, in recognition of your accomplishments in the game of golf."

Both men acknowledge, though, that there is an art to being a successful Captain, especially when it comes to deciding which players to pair with each other.

"One of the things you're always looking for as Captain is adaptability, and players who genuinely get along with one another," Palmer says. "I felt they were more likely to play well together as partners and to cooperate with each other. To be honest, I think that part of it is obvious. You know instinctively if two guys are going to be compatible. But you have to figure this out quickly, early on during the week of the matches."

"There are a few options to consider, such as personalities," Nicklaus agrees. "Who do the guys want to play with; also is there an opportunity to play guys with someone they have never played with before in competition."

Producing successful pairings is one of the reasons that seven of the players at Celtic Manor will be Captain"s picks —- four Americans and three Europeans. But neither Palmer nor Nicklaus gives the current system an unqualified thumbs-up. "I suppose it's an advantage, but it's also a potential liability," Palmer says. "You've got guys that are anxious to be on the team and those that have a less enthusiastic attitude. And you, as Captain, are the person who's responsible for pulling all these people together and getting them up for the match. You've got to work out who will perform best in a given situation, but that's never easy to predict."

"Obviously, to have a better team, you want the players currently playing the best," Nicklaus says. "At the same time, you feel badly for the guys who have played two years to qualify for the top 12 who don't get to play. This can work both ways. It can become a two-edged sword."

Two players who would certainly receive a pick from both former Captains are the men who hold the U.S. and European Team records, respectively, for most points won in Ryder Cup history —- Billy Casper (23 ½) and Nick Faldo (25).

"Casper and Faldo were both outstanding players. Casper was very competitive and a very hard guy to keep at bay," says Palmer. "Nick, I imagine, was very much the same. They were very competitive and were always very focused on beating the player they were playing against."

"I always thought that Peter Alliss was a very good Ryder Cup player. He was very competitive and always did a good job at a time when the GB & Ireland team wasn't that strong. Corey Pavin was also a very aggressive player, one who'd never give up. And as for Colin Montgomerie, well his Ryder Cup record speaks for itself."

"Nick's record and association with the Ryder Cup is well known," Nicklaus says, "but I think Casper is one of the most underrated players in history. Not by me, though. When I looked up at a leader board, I might have been looking for Palmer or Player or Trevino, but I was also looking for Casper. If you needed someone to perform under pressure, and get it up-and-down for you, Billy Casper was the man. Simply put, both players were hard to beat. They both obviously embraced the Ryder Cup experience and enjoyed playing in the matches. That passion, combined with competitiveness, manifested itself in impressive Ryder Cup records.

"But there are a number of wonderful players who have a great record and history with the Ryder Cup, and there are some, such as Seve, who are almost synonymous with the matches and who helped elevate the Ryder Cup to what it is today."

Apart from the players, both Palmer and Nicklaus recognize the importance of the role the host course can play in delivering an exciting and entertaining match. The Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor in Wales has been built specifically for this Ryder Cup, but Palmer has a word of warning for the American team.

"I've been to Celtic Manor but I don't know the course very well. However, I can see that the weather is going to be a major factor. It's likely to rain and be cold, and I expect the course to play very long. I just hope the American players give themselves enough time to acquaint themselves with the conditions.

"Also, you need to have a lot of par-5s on a Ryder Cup course to give the guys something to think about. Sometimes they have to lay up and other times they have to take the risk and go for the green in two. That's why you need to have some experience of the course you're playing."

"Hopefully, a Ryder Cup venue is a stern test of golf that forces players to use every club in their bag," says Nicklaus. "But hopefully, a Ryder Cup course doesn't favor one type of game, but instead requires a balance between power, accuracy and shot-making. A Ryder Cup venue should also have ample room and viewing for galleries. And while you would hope the venue has a strong finishing hole, it's ideal if the course has a strong group of finishing holes, as many matches can and will be decided around holes 15 and 16."

Ultimately, though, the Ryder Cup is an event like no other in sport—competitive but courteous, a melting pot for diverse personalities and talents, a beacon of human fellowship.

"Aside from simply having the honor to play for my country, I think the overall highlight for me was being able to play with so many great players, who I competed against the rest of the time, as teammates," reflects Nicklaus. "The camaraderie and lasting friendships that were developed is something I will always cherish.

"The Ryder Cup is a goodwill event and when played in the right spirit it is a wonderful global showcase for the game."

This story appears courtesy of the 2010 Official Ryder Cup Guide. Click here to view the online version or click here to purchase your own copy for $5.95. The 2010 Official Ryder Cup Guide is also available at all Barnes and Noble bookstores.

©2003-2012 The PGA of America / Ryder Cup limited / Turner Sports Interactive. All rights reserved.
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