As the numbers reveal, European Ryder Cup players relish their position in history
KOHLER, WIS. – When Lee Westwood showed up in Spain to compete in his first Ryder Cup in 1997 at Valderrama, there was no learning curve required to realize that he was about to partake in one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
Westwood had discovered exactly what he would be stepping into when he was just a teen. The first golf event Westwood ever attended – first one – was the 1989 Ryder Cup at The Belfry, not far from his home in England.
“Really, the sort of best feel for professional golf I ever got was watching the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer playing at The Belfry in the Ryder Cup,” said Westwood, who this week will compete in this event for the 11th time, tying Faldo for most appearances among the European Team.
“When I did come around to playing it in 1997, it gave me a real feel for it, that this was the pinnacle of team sport, and nothing really compares to the Ryder Cup, I think. It's very difficult to make Ryder Cup teams, and very special when you do qualify for a team and get to represent Europe.”
Players from six countries will come together this week to play under the flag of Europe. Since Team Great Britain & Ireland expanded to include players from across Continental Europe in 1979, Europe has held an 11-8-1 edge in an event that had been dominated for years by the Americans. (The U.S. Team owns an all-time mark of 26-14, but Europe has won nine of the last 12.)
By world rankings alone, the U.S. Team would be a prohibitive favourite this week. Nine of the top 11 players in the world are sporting red, white and blue; Europe has one player among the top 11, that being world No. 1 Jon Rahm of Spain. This isn’t a new narrative. Europe has turned an “underdog” role into Sunday celebrations quite frequently of late, winning four of the last five Ryder Cups. Ian Poulter calls it the “secret sauce,” Europe’s penchant for continually making its team more robust, seemingly, than
the sum of its parts.
“A lot of the guys on my team, a lot of the Europeans, they seem to want to be team players,” said European Ryder Cup Captain Padraig Harrington, who played in six Ryder Cups. “Shane Lowry thought he was going to be a Gaelic football player; Sergio (Garcia) thought he was going to be a soccer player. So a lot of them have that team background that they nearly crave more so than the golf. This is their opportunity.”
To that end, Harrington and officials from the European Tour came up with an interesting way to greet the team’s 12 players this week at Whistling Straits. Each player has been given a number showing his chronological standing in making a team that only 164 players in history have made. Westwood is No. 118; Garcia, playing in his 10th Ryder Cup, is No. 120. Bernd Wiesberger, one of three rookies handed their numbers alphabetically, is No. 164.
“Everybody is buzzing,” Wiesberger said. “There is an individual aspect to this game that we have, but his week we all come together as 12. Everybody has their number, and nobody can ever take it from them.”
Europe has a row of fame in its team room showing pivotal figures from Ryder Cup history, and on Monday night Harrington played an inspirational video showing top performers through history that reaffirmed what a special accomplishment it is just to make a team. Players have their number on the front of their golf bags and on their headcovers. Even drinks at the bar are named after former Ryder Cup players.
Harrington’s message to this year’s 12 players: If you’re here, you are special. Make it count.
The first Ryder Cup was played in 1927. Aubrey Boomer, first alphabetically on the ’27 Great Britain & Ireland team, and part of the first tandem to secure a point for GB&I, is listed as No. 1. Abe Mitchell, the player/teacher from England whose sculpture sits atop the 17-inch Ryder Cup trophy, is No. 9. (He made the first team, but didn’t travel overseas because of appendicitis.)
Sir Henry Cotton is No. 12. Christy O’Connor Sr., who played on 10 Ryder Cup teams, is No. 47. Nick Faldo is No. 84, and Seve Ballesteros, the Spaniard who put fire into the European side, No. 86. To put into perspective the relatively small number of players who have represented Europe in nearly a century, Harrington informed his players that 580 people have flown into space, and 5,870 have scaled Mount Everest.
“It makes it very special for the players to know that they have a place in history that can never be taken away from them,” Harrington said. “They will always have a name on that wall.”
Harrington called the inspirational video shown to the team “a lovely way to start the
Westwood, Garcia, Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter have seen many captains try many different methods to ignite their players at Ryder Cups. Monday night’s video had an emotional impact on each one of them. Poulter has played on six Ryder Cup Teams and has been on a losing side only once. When Europe trailed at Medinah in 2012, 10-4 at one point, he was the determined one who almost single-handedly gave his team the smallest sliver of hope by finishing off his Saturday afternoon Four-Ball match with five
consecutive birdies to earn a point alongside McIlroy.
Poulter knows that as sweet as it is to win any Ryder Cup, the taste can be even sweeter when victory arrives on foreign turf. This U.S. side is stacked. Keeping the Ryder Cup this week will be a difficult task.
“You only have to look around, and all the grandstands are red (America’s color),” Poulter said Wednesday at Whistling Straits. “Everything that you look at, the fans, 98 percent are obviously going to be U.S. fans this week. It's difficult from start to finish. It's hard. It's not easy to play away from home.
“As much as we feel comfortable as a team, to know we're underdogs, we know that we have to play extra special this week to get the job done.”
Poulter is one of six Englishman on this year’s Ryder Cup Team, but he would rather think of himself as one of 12. All Europeans. All pulling together for a common cause.
“We play for each other. I think that's the best thing that you can do,” McIlroy, playing in his sixth Ryder Cup, said of representing Team Europe. (He is Ryder Cup player No. 144.)
“You play for the guys that are beside you. You play for everyone that's helping our team try to win this week. You're obviously playing for your country and your continent, and I guess your tour in some way, as well. But most of all, we play for each other.”
For nearly three decades, the European Ryder Cup Team has been one of the great
success stories across sports. It is the proverbial “Little Engine” that could. The player
who becomes Player No. 165 in Italy, two years from now? He will count himself a lucky
man. He forever will be part of something truly special.