Walter Hagen (center left) was the dominant figure in the Ryder Cup's early history, both as a player and a captain. (Getty Images)

Ryder Cup history always in the making

The Ryder Cup has grown into one of sport's premier team events. Paul Trow charts the transatlantic contest's journey from a seed merchant's dream to one of golf's mightiest oaks.

By Paul Trow, Special to

In 1981, The Washington Post devoted barely 100 words to previewing the Ryder Cup. Nowadays, these biennial matches between the leading golfers of Europe and America are almost on a par with the World Cup and the Olympic Games in terms of global viewing figures.

Media coverage of the next encounter begins almost before the previous one has ended, some venues are decided more than a decade in advance, and books are rushed out in time for Christmas.

The original engagement, the brainchild of James Hartnett, the circulation manager for Golf Illustrated, was held at Gleneagles in 1921 when the home team won 9-3. At Wentworth five years later, Great Britain & Ireland’s margin of victory was even more emphatic: 13 1/2 - 11/2.

During the second unofficial match, 68-year-old St. Albans seed merchant Samuel Ryder watched his coach Abe Mitchell defeat Jim Barnes (9&8) and Walter Hagen (8&7), and then asked why the event did not take place more often.

He was told the Professional Golfers’ Association of GB&I would be delighted to make it a regular occurrence. So in 1927, Ryder commissioned a solid gold trophy from Mappin & Webb, two teams were selected and everything was in place for the first official Ryder Cup -- at Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts.

The Americans, spearheaded by Hagen and Gene Sarazen, held the upper hand from the start. The format was four 36-hole foursomes followed by eight 36-hole singles, and the home side strolled to a 9 1/2 -2 1/2 victory.

But the seeds of competition had been sown and in the 1929 match at Moortown, near Leeds in the north of England, a hard-fought series of foursomes left the Americans with a one-point lead before the final day. However, three crunching home wins in the first four singles, including a 10&8 drubbing of Hagen by George Duncan, set up a 7-5 GB&I victory.

Duncan described regaining the trophy as “the happiest day of my life.” Despite his disappointment, Hagen insisted: “To lose in a game is not a national calamity. Besides, one country cannot always expect to win. If that were to happen, interest in golf would evaporate.”

Early American Dominance
Despite a 6 1/2 - 5 1/2 win by GB&I at Southport & Ainsdale in northwest England in 1933, interest did wane and was virtually non-existent by 1957 when, after a run of seven defeats, a home side led by the ebullient Welshman Dai Rees stormed to a memorable victory at Lindrick. After opening up a two-point lead in the foursomes, the Americans managed just one singles win -- by Fred Hawkins over Peter Alliss. Overjoyed by the 7 1/2 - 4 1/2 victory, Rees said: “This is the greatest shot in the arm British golf ever had.”

The 1981 U.S. team (Getty Images)
Unfortunately for British golf, the next 28 years yielded just one halved match and, more harmfully, saw interest in the Ryder Cup slip to an all-time low. Indeed, 1969 at Royal Birkdale was the only bright spot in nearly three decades of gloom. Against one of the strongest-ever American Teams, it was due to a moment of supreme sportsmanship that GB&I secured a half -- only the fourth time in 18 matches they had not lost.

After the first round of singles, the home side actually led 13-11 with reigning British Open Champion Tony Jacklin inflicting a 4&3 defeat on Jack Nicklaus. The pair were also drawn against each other in the afternoon singles and events conspired to leave matters tied at 15 1/2 - 15 1/2 by the time they reached the 17th tee. With a miraculous eagle on that hole, Jacklin leveled the score.

Then, after Nicklaus had holed from six feet for par on the last green, Jacklin faced a 2 1/2-footer for the half that would earn his team a tie. At that point, Nicklaus conceded the putt with the immortal words: “I don’t think you’d have missed that putt, Tony, but in these circumstances I’d never give you the opportunity.”

The 70s & 80s: Nicklaus’ suggestion is enacted; Team Europe emerges as a contender 

Although 1969 was the first time since 1957 that the Americans failed to win the Cup outright, it did not prove to be a watershed moment in GB&I’s fortunes.

The 1970s witnessed victory after crushing victory for the might of American golf. Had Nicklaus not written to Lord Derby, then president of the British and Irish PGA, suggesting the inclusion of top European players in the GB&I Team, the Ryder Cup might have ceased to exist. Even Nicklaus could not have foreseen the revival this move was to trigger.

Yet the change did not yield immediate results. The 1981 match, at Walton Heath, resulted in the most overwhelming U.S. victory on British soil. Indeed, in perhaps the strongest Ryder Cup lineup ever assembled, Bruce Lietzke was the only American on his team who never won a major.

In retrospect, the 1983 match at PGA National Golf Club in Florida signaled the long-awaited turning point. Europe still lost – 14 1/2 - 13 1/2 -- but they showed a marked difference in attitude. This was largely inspired by two people -- Captain Jacklin and Seve Ballesteros who, having sat out 1981 due to a standoff with the European Tour, became the on-course lieutenant.

Jacklin assured everyone that 1983 was no one-off. “One thing is for certain, these matches are going to be as close as this from now on. There will be no more American walkovers,” he promised. The abiding image from 1985 is of Sam Torrance standing on The Belfry’s 18th green, arms aloft and tears running down his cheeks. Once again, Ballesteros was the inspiration, bolstering his teammates’ confidence and guiding fellow Spaniard Manuel Pinero to three victories out of four. After winning the last four holes to halve his singles match with Kite, the American observed: “He hit shots I never even dream about.”

There was little in it prior to the singles, traditionally the Americans’ domain, but five matches were still on the course when Torrance holed the putt which came to symbolize the moment the Ryder Cup reinvented itself.

The 1987 match at Muirfield Village, the course that Jack Nicklaus built, was billed on the western side of the Atlantic as a return to the norm. No visiting team had won in America, and it was widely assumed that with Nicklaus as Captain on his own course, and a strong U.S. side under his command, there would be no repeat of 1985. Jacklin had learned the art of steering his men to victory. Four points to the good after day one and five up after day two, Europe required just four out of a possible 12 to win for the second successive time.

However, with only one point from the first seven matches, the tension was mounting and much hinged on Eamonn Darcy’s match against Ben Crenshaw. What made it worse for Darcy, other than the pressure of trying to win the Ryder Cup and redeem his own appalling personal record in the event, was that his opponent was using his wedge on the greens because he had broken his putter on the sixth hole. Darcy somehow managed to ignore all these factors and clinched the vital point by holing a downhill six-footer on the last green.

Ballesteros then secured Europe’s first triumph on American soil to reinforce his Captain’s view that he was “the best golfer in the world.”

The 90s: The War on the Shore; Faldo steals one
Europe retained the trophy with a 14-14 tie at The Belfry in 1989 but two years later saw the balance of power shift back Stateside with “the War on the Shore” at the Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course on Kiawah Island in South Carolina.

By the time the contest reached the singles, the match was tied and the atmosphere was electric. Despite the partisan crowd, the outcome was only decided by the last match on the last green. In an image as memorable as that of Torrance in 1985, Bernhard Langer stood, back arched and staring heavenward, after missing a 6-foot putt that would have halved the entire contest and retained the trophy for Europe. In 1993 at The Belfry, Team Europe was a point to the good going into the singles only to surrender a couple of tight but crucial points en route to losing 15-13. The icing on the cake for the Americans was the resolute half earned by Paul Azinger against Nick Faldo after the Englishman had aced the 14th. At Oak Hill in 1995, Bernhard Gallacher led Europe again, desperate for a victory after two defeats.

Ultimately, it came down to the brilliance of Faldo under extreme pressure. Down 9-7 after the second day, Europe’s chances did not look good. Tom Lehman, one of America’s top players, said: “I thought it was going to be one of those 17-11 routs.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. Against the odds, Europe closed the gap to one point and all appeared to depend on the singles between Faldo and Curtis Strange, a Captain’s pick and U.S. Open Champion at Oak Hill in 1989. 

One down with two to play, Faldo scrambled a winning par at the 17th. But at the titanic, par-4 18th, he faced a third shot of 93 yards to the flag with Strange in thick rough after two shots but odds-on to make five. Faldo, knowing he had to get down in two to keep Europe’s hopes alive, produced a beautifully judged pitch to four feet and a heroic putt to win the point with “the greatest scrambling par of my life.” Irishman Philip Walton’s subsequent victory over Jay Haas meant that Europe had regained the trophy.

Seve’s homecoming: An American comeback
In recognition of Ballesteros’s enormous contribution, the 1997 Ryder Cup was staged at Valderrama in his native Spain. Tiger Woods debuted, but after some incredible play Europe took a five-point lead into the singles and eventually secured a 14 ½ - 13 1/2 victory. The 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club near Boston is remembered for one historic putt and one massive comeback.

Olazabal and Leonard in 1999 (Getty Images)
Europe led 10-6 going into the last day, but prophetic words by Captain Crenshaw roused the Americans. Six straight singles wins had the visitors on the run and it all came to an abrupt end when Justin Leonard triggered a mass invasion of the 17th green by holing a monster putt against Jose Maria Olazabal.

The new millennium: 9/11 cancellation; Europe dominates; Valhalla vindication
A fortnight before the 2001 match at The Belfry, the 9/11 atrocities took place and the match was postponed for 12 months. When September 2002 arrived, a gripping but chivalrous struggle unfolded between two well-matched sides, setting a benchmark for excellence of performance and conduct which the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup would do well to emulate.

The sides were level after two days and the Americans, with Woods in the vanguard, were favorites to prevail in the singles. But while U.S. Captain Strange had loaded his heavy artillery into the bottom half of the final-day draw, his counterpart Torrance had done the opposite.

Colin Montgomerie was the cutting edge and by the time he had carved up Scott Hoch 5&4 Europe was on its way to a famous victory. Langer, Padraig Harrington and Thomas Bjorn all followed suit while modest Welshman Phillip Price gave world No.2 Phil Mickelson a beating he will never forget. But it was left to unsung Irishman Paul McGinley to apply the coup de grace by holing from 12 feet on the home green to wrest the trophy from America’s grasp. 

Woods, a forlorn figure at the rear of the field, was powerless to influence the outcome. And so it was deja vu for Torrance as he again celebrated with tears and champagne on The Belfry’s 18th green.

Europe retained the trophy in 2004 at Oakland Hills in Michigan and extended their winning run to three victories two years later at The K Club, an Arnold Palmer design just outside Dublin. At the former, Europe, inspired by their master strategist Captain Langer, romped to an extraordinary 18 ½ - 9 1/2 success -- their biggest margin of victory. American skipper Hal Sutton’s ploy of pairing Woods with Mickelson did not pan out for the U.S. and, appropriately, the winning putt was converted by Montgomerie, who could well have won five majors had he played down the stretch with the conviction and confidence he always displayed at the Ryder Cup.

Events at The K Club were equally one-sided and produced precisely the same result, with Ian Woosnam lifting the trophy on this occasion on behalf of the home team in soggy Ireland. But two years ago, in a plot shift worthy of a Raymond Chandler potboiler, the U.S. phoenix rose from the ashes at Valhalla, just outside Louisville, Kentucky. The catalyst for this latest dramatic swing of the pendulum was undoubtedly the way in which U.S. skipper Azinger outwitted his old foe, Faldo. Deprived of the services of world No.1 Woods through injury, the cornerstone of Azinger’s strategy was to drill his Dirty Dozen into three units of four -- and the outcome was an emphatic, though largely unexpected, 16 ½ - 11 1/2 victory.

It remains to be seen whether this timely revival from Uncle Sam proves to be an isolated achievement or the platform for further success at Celtic Manor, but expectations are soaring as the clock counts down towards the 38th staging of this increasingly fascinating sporting event.

Truth is, though, the Ryder Cup these days is still frighteningly close to call. It has duly become a landmark on the sporting calendar and the quality of its last three decades in particular would surely have made Samuel Ryder proud.

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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